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History Of Exploration


Gang plank at the RRS Discovery polar exploration ship, Dundee

Exploration is usually thought of in terms of brave people setting out on ships, hacking their way through jungles, climbing over mountains, crossing deserts or trudging over snowy wastes. But the exploring that people have done in their minds as they sat quietly at home was the starting point. For long distance exploration to begin, a mental picture of the world was required, along with a way of orientating yourself in that world. By the fifth century BC Greek scholars realised that the earth was a globe, as opposed to a flat disc floating on water. Aristotle used lunar eclipses to demonstrate this idea. During a lunar eclipse the shape of the earth, interposed between moon and sun, is shown as a round shadow on the moon. The Greeks were even able to work out a rough idea of the circumference for this round earth. Erastosthenes (276? - 195BC) had been told by a traveller that at noon on 21st June each year, there were no shadows being cast on the ground at Syene, modern Aswan. Erastosthenes lived in the more northerly city of Alexandria. On 21st June he measured the length of a shadow cast by an obelisk in Alexandria, working out from its length that the sun was seven degrees, fourteen minutes from being directly overhead. This is one fiftieth of a full circle of 360 degrees, which meant that the circumference of the earth was fifty times the distance between Alexandria and Syene. Unfortunately there was no way of measuring that distance accurately, which made Erastosthenes final measurement around 15% too high. Even so, in his mind Erastosthenes went travelling around the globe, and found a rough figure for its size. The next step was to find a way of orientating yourself on this globe. Hipparchus of Nicea (165 - 127BC) came up with lines of longitude and latitude that were superimposed on the mental picture of a globe. With the help of these lines, the plotting of coordinates was possible. Ptolemy then brought the work of Erastosthenes and Hipparchus together in his famous book Geography, formalising the world as a globe, on which lines of latitude and longitude could be laid. Through journeys in the minds of clever Greeks, the scene was now set for global exploration (see The Discoverers by Daniel Bootstin).


Bosham Quay - many crusading expeditions set off, and returned, here

But exploration would be a long time coming. From around 300AD - 1300AD, the collapse of Europe's ancient civilisations, and the rise of Christianity put an end to any scientific view of earth. Greek maps had been hampered by a shortage of facts, not by the nature of their outlook. In Medieval Europe, a fundamentalist religious outlook meant that maps were simple reflections of Biblical dogma. To the left hand side of maps there would generally be a garden of Eden. The threatening lands of Gog and Magog, mentioned by Ezekeil, were generally placed in the extreme north, at the top of maps. Cosmas of Alexandria, a wealthy merchant and enthusiastic Christian, produced his Topographia Christiana, which turned out to be an influential denial of a spherical earth. His earth was flat, like a box, twice as long east to west as it was north to south, simply because scripture said that the tabernacle of God should be two cubits long and one wide. The earth, therefore, had to be to the same dimensions. Ironically, however, early exploration was actually encouraged by the illusions of Christian geography. Having somewhere in the east which was supposedly a paradise was a powerful motivation to try and get there. Initially it was in the form of pilgrimage that western European travellers were lured into travelling east. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, his wife Helena set the trend early on when she travelled to Jerusalem in 327AD and turned archeologist, supposedly finding nails from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Helena was then followed by a constant stream of pilgrims, until the end of the eleventh century when pilgrimage turned to crusade. Urban II, pope in 1088, saw the chance to heal division in his own church by turning on an external enemy. He called for crusaders to head east and save the Holy Land from Islam. Jerusalem was a holy place for both Christianity and Islam, and was the ideal symbol to fight over. Crusades continued intermittently for two hundred years.


Eventually the crusading impulse subsided, and was replaced by a desire to spread the word through missionary journeys. As before, the natural way for western missionaries to go was overland and eastwards. Although trade was taking place with Asian merchants, through ports in the eastern Mediterranean, Islamic Turks prevented any eastward exploration. It was virtually impossible for anyone from western Europe to penetrate this Medieval iron curtain. But then for a relatively brief interlude the iron curtain was lifted. This happened between 1250 and 1350, and was the result of expansion of the Mongol empire. This huge empire, twice the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent, was created by the central Asian Mongol people under a succession of famous khans. Genghis Khan conquered Peking in 1214, and when Kublai Khan took the Mongol throne in 1259 his empire stretched from China to the Danube. While the Mongols were effective and ruthless soldiers, a perhaps more important factor in their ability to build an empire was their tolerance. Islam, like Christianity, was not good at accepting any religion except its own, but the Mongols were vague and easy going in religious matters, and did not "care about any dogma enough to persecute people in its name" (see The Discoverers by Daniel Bootstin P128). With the Mongols in charge, routes were opened up to the east. The most famous pioneer taking this new opportunity for travel was a merchant from Venice, named Marco Polo. With his father and uncle both being experienced traders, Marco was only seventeen when he entered the family business and set off on a journey into the east. His journey was to last twenty four years, and reach beyond Mongolia into China. Reaching the court of Kublai Khan, Marco was made an ambassador for the khan, and travelled widely in this capacity, only returning to Venice in 1295. We know about Marco Polo's exploits because in 1298 he was taken prisoner following a sea battle between Venice and Genoa. In captivity Polo reminisced about his journeys to a fellow inmate, a writer of romances named Rusticello, who wrote them down. The resulting book made Marco Polo famous.


The compass rose at Sagres, Portugal. This image is copyright free

But Marco Polo's journeys were made in a brief window of opportunity which soon closed. Routes to the east were firmly shut down once again with the fall of the Mongol Empire around 1350. With landward exploration blocked by the return of Islam's iron curtain, Europeans turned to sea exploration. Or at least some of Europe did. England at this time was occupied with its internal politics and wars in France. England's only connection with the great age of European exploration was a family link. Phillippa, grand daughter of Edward III, was married off to John I of Portugal. Their son Henry was to become a central figure in Europe's exploration efforts. Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, was a serious, single minded man who set his sights on exploration early. He was not an explorer himself, but created a base of operations in Portugal. He built his headquarters at Sagres on Cape St Vincent in south west Portugal, Europe's western most point. This was a research and development centre for exploration science. Work was done on the best kind of ship for exploration, and on all the sciences of navigation required to support a voyage. From this fifteenth century Cape Canaveral, Henry sent out voyages which like the Apollo spacecraft of the twentieth century, made their way into the unknown through planned and incremental voyages, building on experience. These journeys extended little by little southwards, down the African coastline. A major barrier to progress was the traditional sailing limit of Cape Bajador in west Africa - a place surrounded by all kinds of seafaring suspicions which created a psychological rather than physical limit. Between 1424 and 1434 Prince Henry sent out fifteen expeditions to try to go beyond the cape, and all came back with excuses as to why they could progress no further. Finally in 1434 Gil Earnes was the first to go past the dreaded cape, opening the way for voyages to reach ever further south. Prince Henry died at Sagres in 1460, but Portuguese exploration continued. Bartholomew Dias led an expedition which reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and by 1498 Vasco da Gama had gone round the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean and reached India. A direct trade route between western Europe and the east had now been opened, exploited with ruthless efficiency by the Portuguese. Dominance over this route made Portugal the most powerful country in the world.


Portugal's great rival Spain had to respond, and with Portugal now dominating routes to the east, the Spanish were forced to explore west. This divide between the Portuguese in the east and Spanish in the west was formalised by Pope Alexander VI, who in the interests of peace between Europe's superpowers, divided the world between them. The Spanish could explore and claim lands west of a line 330 miles west of the Cape Verde Island. Portugal had the same rights east of this line. With westward exploration as their only option, the Spanish decided to support a voyage which an ambitious young seaman named Christopher Columbus had been hawking around the courts of western Europe. He believed the best way to challenge Portugal's eastern monopoly was to sail west around the globe to Asia. Columbus grossly underestimated the distance to Asia by this route, and many authorities of the time considered his plan unworkable. But Spain had no other hope of opening up a route to Asia, so in 1492 Columbus was provided with funding by the Spanish government and set sail with three ships, heading west across the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing through good weather, Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean on 12th October 1492. Columbus made three more voyages across the Atlantic in the next twelve years, believing all the time that he had found his way to Asia. Columbus was then followed by many other explorers, including Amerigo Vespucci, who came to lend his name to what would become America. Then came the great culmination of westward exploration. A disgruntled Portuguese captain named Ferdinand Magellan, who had switched his services to Spain, left Spain with a fleet of four ships on September 20th 1519. By October 1520 his ships were making their way through a maze of islands at the southern tip of South America into the Pacific. From there an agonising three month journey took Magellan across the Pacific. Although Magellan himself was killed by natives in the Philippines, eighteen of the original crew, and one of the original four ships survived to round the Cape of Good Hope and finally make it back to Seville on September 8th 1522, ending the first circumnavigation of the world.



A replica of Francis Drake's ship Golden Hind at the Pool of London

Apart from the tenuous link of Edward III being the great grandfather of Henry the Navigator, England had no role in all these exploits. This only began to change when Lord Admiral John Dudley lured to England a Spanish maritime expert. In 1547 Dudley bribed Sebastian Cabot, the most respected navigator in Spain, to come to England, where he spent the last ten years of his life training young navigators in Bristol. From these small beginnings England began to climb towards maritime power, and a major role in world exploration. Francis Drake, who fought Spanish ships on the competitive trans-Atlantic routes to the Caribbean, resented the fact that the Pacific was blocked to England, westwards by Spain and eastwards by Portugal. He set out to change this, completing a circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. Nevertheless it was still other countries that were making the most important discoveries. In 1642 Abel Tasman, one of the greatest of many Dutch sailor explorers, was commissioned by Anton van Diemen, governor general of the Dutch East Indies to go exploring for a continent thought to lie in the Southern Ocean. During this voyage Tasman found and circumnavigated Australia. It wasn't until the following century that England moved into a leading position in overseas exploration. One of the crucial factors which allowed England to do this was an advance in navigation science. Sagres was no longer the world leader in this field. Instead the focus switched to England, and the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Here astronomers were trying to to work out a way to accurately plot longitude, that is positions east and west, while at sea and far from land. Unlike the calculation of latitude, positions north to south, which could be achieved relatively easily by measuring the height of the sun above the horizon, calculating longitude was very difficult. Eventually it was a clock able to keep time as sea which solved the problem. Captain James Cook carried one of these new sea clocks on the second of his three epic voyages of exploration in the southern hemisphere between 1772 and 1775.


Ceiling painting at the Polar Research Institute, Cambridge - which shows the various exploratory trips made to the continent

From the end of Cook's last voyage in 1779, exploration was more a matter of filling in the gaps than venturing into the complete unknown. There was some famous exploration of Africa, most famously by David Livingstone. These epic journeys did map large uncharted areas, but perhaps they were ultimately more interesting as a reflection of contemporary concerns about religion and science rather than for what they actually found. The last great voyage in the original tradition of earth exploration came with Norwegian and British efforts in the early twentieth century to get to the South Pole. The eventual outcome of the race to the South Pole was victory in 1912 for an expedition led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. A group of five men led by the Royal Navy's Captain Robert Falcon Scott arrived at the pole about a month after Amundsen, and died on the way back to their base on Antarctica's coast. In many ways this was the end of exploration of the earth. Aircraft soon made the longest distance into journeys that anyone could take. Satellites could track every inch of the earth's surface. As well as marking the end of exploration in the old sense, Captain's Scott's expedition also marked the decline of Britain as the world's great naval and exploring power. That mantle was to pass to the United States, where from its own Sagres at Cape Canaveral, exploration of space began. In this new field of discovery many of the patterns of exploration from earlier ages were repeated. Exploration has always been tied up with money and politics. When Sagres was the centre of the exploring world, Spain sent out explorers as part of its long running struggle against Portugal, just as the space race was an aspect of competition between the United States and Russia through the mid twentieth century. Political battles were also fought retrospectively in exploration, making claims for priority in discovery to support later territorial claims and colonisation. The history of Australian exploration is a good example. The Aborigines were the first discoverers of Australia, followed by the Dutch, and possibly even the Portuguese. But later British settlers stressed Cook's visit in 1770, at the expense of earlier explorers (see Captain Cook by Vanessa Collingridge for example). A similar thing happened in the space race. The Russians launched the first satellite, got the first man into space, and landed the first space craft on the moon, with Luna 2, in 1959. But the United States landed the first man on the moon in 1969, and this event has eclipsed earlier Russian successes in the mythology of moon landings. The United States has had its political payback from space exploration. America got a man to the moon first, hoisted the Stars and Stripes, and became the world's dominant power at the expense of Russia. Today, however, people are looking for economic payback from space exploration, and don't seem to be finding much. Perhaps we are currently in the position of Henry the Navigator sending expeditions down the coast of Africa. At first Henry also had people complaining that it was all a waste of money. But as soon as trade began to develop in pepper, gold dust, ivory, and unfortunately slavery, criticism quickly disappeared. Eventually Portugal would become the world's most powerful country because of exploration. Spain then challenged Portugal, once again with its own exploration effort. Then in its turn Britain became the world's dominant power, and the world's dominant exploring power. Exploration is sometimes seen as an expensive luxury: in fact exploration is an economic and political necessity.



Apollo 4 before the launch of the first Saturn V test flight, November 1967. This image is by NASA and is copyright free

Looking to the future, it seems clear that history indicates how essential it is that space exploration continues. We actually have a good example of what happens when people give up on exploration and turn inwards. The fifteenth century saw a short period of ambitious Chinese exploration towards the west. While the Portuguese were inching their way down the west African coast in little caravels, the Chinese were exploring around Africa from the other direction. The Chinese at this time had incredible naval technology, with their largest ships having nine masts. They did, however, have a strange inward looking philosophy underpinning their exploration. Unlike the Portuguese who were out to make money, the Chinese were determined to demonstrate that their country, as the greatest civilisation in the world, needed nothing from anybody else. So rather than seeking trade, they sought to give expensive gifts to the people of places their ships reached. No doubt this was nice for people who were visited by the Chinese, particularly as Portuguese captains like Vasco da Gama, would turn up in a place, capture a few fishermen, execute them, and send the body parts ashore to demonstrate that he was the new boss in the area. But the Chinese effort, spectacular though it was could not be sustained. China simply lost too much money, and withdrew into its own borders (see JJL Duyvendak's China's Discovery of Africa for example). This decision to retreat and look inwards dictated the difficult economic fortunes of China for centuries afterwards. Today it is vital that a similar attitude is not taken about the future of space exploration.