Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lost Explorers

I picked up Lost Explorers by Ed Wright in New Zealand last spring, and read it at the beach during our vacation. It is the perfect book to read with the crashing of waves in the background, since Wright brings to life the men who dared to sail into unknown seas with nothing but a compass, a few charts, an astrolabe and the stars. Lost Explorers contains accounts of the explorations we all learned about in school plus many more.

The courage and determination of the explorers is truly mind-boggling, as well as the ruthlessness and obsession to which some of them fell prey. Henry Hudson was so obsessed with finding a Northwest Passage that he did not make the necessary preparations for a winter in the wilderness. His men turned on him and set him adrift in a boat and he was never seen again. I knew part of the story because of Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle but did not have the names, dates and details.

The adventures of Ferdinand Magellan, whose crew were the first men to circumnavigate the globe, is one of the most fascinating accounts of any voyage ever. My grandmother always told us that we are descended from the conquistadors who made it to the Philippines with Magellan. He was a Portuguese commanding a Spanish expedition, quite a feat in itself. Some of the men kept wanting to turn back and would mutiny when Magellan insisted on going forward. He kept control just by sheer force of his personality. When they were seeking the strait at the bottom of South America as a way across to the Pacific Ocean, many of the sailors began to believe the strait did not really exist. Magellan claimed he had seen a chart which proved the strait was there although he had actually only heard of it through word of mouth. After they finally found "The Strait of Magellan" it took them a week to navigate their way through the narrow and perilous passage. When Magellan first glimpsed the Pacific he wept and gave thanks to God. However, he had no concept of how vast an ocean it was and did not bring enough supplies. The men were reduced to eating rats, many dying of starvation and scurvy, before reaching the Philippines. Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines, after antagonizing one of the chieftains. What was left of his crew made it back to Spain without him, being the first men to sail around the world. Why there has never been a famous movie about Magellan's voyage I do not know.

The passion and drive of the great explorers is a recurring thread in the stories. No matter what their century or era, they were determined to go where no one from their homeland had ever gone before. As was often the case, especially with the Spanish explorers, they would set off with a certain purpose in mind but then would get distracted along the way, change their course, and go off in search of a fabled city of gold or a mythological kingdom. Many explorers were quite successful and returned home with fame and wealth, but after a few years they would become restless and set out again on another adventure. Such was the case with both Ponce de Leon and Captain Cook.

It is also startling how many explorers were cannibalized by indigenous peoples. Du Fresne met such a bitter end in New Zealand. After making friends with a Maori tribe and feasting with them for several days, they suddenly turned on Du Fresne and ate him, because he had broken one of their secret taboos. The superstition of the unadulterated pagan world is something which could never be ignored for a moment. Some of the more prudent explorers were the Jesuits. Fr. Marquette showed admirable discretion when dealing with the various native American tribes, learning their languages, befriending those who were amicable and avoiding those who gave hints of hostility. I am left full of admiration for his brilliance, courage and faith.

So many explorers sailed into the blue and were never seen again. To this day, no one knows the exact fate of La Pérouse, sent by Louis XVI to explore the Pacific. Explorers well knew when they left home that they might never return. They went anyway, discovering new lands, opening new trade routes, sometimes with material gain and sometimes not, always at great cost. Share

1 comment:

Julygirl said...

There was no such thing as 'mission control' in Houston to advise them along the way.