FC83: The later voyages of exploration (c.1550-1900)



The progress of the past 150 years still left many questions to answer and myths to dispel concerning the world map.  Subsequent explorations concerned four main issues and followed four lines of development:

  1. Finding a practical northwest passage around North America to Asia;

  2. Finding a practical northeast passage around Scandinavia to Asia;

  3. Determining if North America and Asia were connected or separate, which would determine if any north-west or north-east passages, if they existed, could get through to Asia; and

  4. Looking for a great southern continent to counterbalance the weight of the Northern Hemisphere.

The English largely led the search for a northwest passage.  In 1576, Martin Frobisher, while exploring arctic regions, found an inlet, making him believe he had found the way to Asia and that the Eskimos were Mongols.  Further explorations followed.  Hopes especially soared in the early 1600's when Henry Hudson found a deep inlet, known ever since as Hudson's Bay.  Because of this bay's size and the fact that no one had any idea of North America's size, people believed they had found the way to Asia.  However, the North-west Passage was never found, unless one counts voyages by modern nuclear submarines under the Arctic Ocean's icecap.

At the same time, Europeans were trying to find a northeast passage north of Scandinavia to Asia.  The English explorer, Richard Chancellor, reached the Russian port of Archangel, but got no further.  He did claim to have "discovered" Russia and established relations between it and England.  However, it would not be until the early 1700's that the czar Peter I would make Russia an integral part of European affairs.  Subsequent attempts by Dutch explorers met with similar failures in finding the North-east Passage.  Finally, in 1878, the Swedish explorer, A.E. Nordenskjold, found the Northeast Passage along the rim of the Arctic Ocean and then down the Bering Straits to Asia.  Even today, Russian icebreakers ply the route to keep it open for trade and shipping.

The usefulness of the North-east Passage depended on whether North America and Asia are connected.  If they were, any northwest or northeast passages would be cut off from entering the Pacific.  The answer to this hinged on determining the size of North America, which most people then vastly underestimated.  Therefore, a number of expeditions explored the northwest coast of North America to find a passage between it and Asia.  The key expedition was led by a Russian, Vitus Bering, who found the passage (the Bering Strait) in 1725.  He also claimed Alaska, which Russia held until its sale to the United States in 1867.

For whatever reasons, many people did not believe Bering had found this passage; so more expeditions were launched to this region.  Spain and England both explored North America's northwest coast in order to claim lands for the growing fur trade as well as search for the strait of water separating Asia from the New World.  Conflicting claims between the two countries were resolved in 1790, with Britain getting everything from Oregon to Alaska.  In the meantime, England's most famous explorer, Captain James Cook, confirmed Bering's discovery.  By 1800, the coastal map of North America was pretty much in place.

Expeditions in the South Pacific centered on finding the great southern continent.  At first, the Dutch led the way in the 1600's in discovering Australia (literally "Southland"), New Zealand (named after a province of the Netherlands), and Tasmania (named after the Dutch captain, Abel Tasman).  Since the Dutch had not circumnavigated Australia, many believed it was the great southern continent.  In 1768, the English Captain Cook disproved this by circumnavigating it and New Zealand.  On his next voyage, he sailed further south to find out if there was a great southern continent, but rough icy waters forced him to turn back.  (On his third voyage, which confirmed the existence of the Bering Strait, Cook met his death in Hawaii when trying to recover hostages taken by the natives.)  It was not until 1820 that the explorer, Nathaniel Palmer, finally discovered the long sought great southern continent, which we call Antarctica.


By 1800, most continental coastlines had been mapped.  The following century was mainly one of exploring and settling continental interiors.  Two things helped this process, both of them products of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.  First of all, the railroad made possible the movement and supplying of large numbers of settlers in continental interiors.  This was especially decisive in the development of the interior of North America.  Second, germ theory and the development of vaccines for various tropical diseases meant that Europeans could now explore and conquer tropical regions.  This particularly affected Africa, known until then to Europeans as the "Dark Continent" since its interior had been so impenetrable.