In 1274, Italian explorers Marco and Niccolo Polo set out on a 24 year journey in which they traveled the famous Silk Road from Italy, through brutal deserts and towering mountains to eastern China. They traveled over 4,000 miles in all. Marco and Niccolo were among the very first Europeans to explore the fabled empire of China. In China, Marco Polo even worked for ruler Kublai Khan.
Polo detailed his experiences and findings in China by writing a book. Polo described materials and inventions never before seen in Europe. Paper money, a printing press, porcelain, gunpowder and coal were among the products he wrote about. He also described the vast wealth of Kublai Khan, as well as the geography of northern and southern China. European rulers were very interested in the products Polo described and his account inspired a generation of explorers. However, trading for them along the Silk Road was dangerous, expensive and impractical. European rulers began to wonder if there was a sea route to the east to get the products they wanted at a reasonable price.
Fountain of Youth
After the west Indies were discovered by Columbus, some Spanish explorers began searching for legendary places and things. As governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon heard stories of a magical fountain. According to the stories, anyone who drank from this fountain would remain young forever. De Leon spent five years trying to find the island of Bimini, where the fountain was said to be. Although he never found Bimini, his travels resulted in the discovery of Florida and the first European settlement in the new world – St. Augustine.
Seven Cities of Cibola
Shortly after Spain invaded and conquered Mexico, stories began to surface of seven cities in northern Mexico. According to legend, the beautiful cities were filled with unimaginable riches. The people of the cities were said to use silver and gold to fashion regular objects. The Spanish government sent several expeditions to investigate. Although most came back empty-handed, one led by Marcos de Niza claimed that in deed the cities did exist, and that they were more grande than any cities in Mexico.
When Francisco Vazquez de Coronado brought an army of 300 to find the cities, all he saw were some poor Zuni pueblos. Coronado sent search parties to Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico but still never found the cities of Cibola. Nevertheless, his searches resulted in the discovery of the Grand Canyon as well as the acquisition of all lands he explored for Spain.
One of the goals of most explorers in the New World was to spread the Christian faith and to eradicate the “pagans” and “idols” worshipped by indigenous peoples of the Pacific islands. Kings, queens, and explorers alike believed it was their divine duty to convert indigenous people to Christianity in order to save their souls. In deed some explorers, such as Ferdinand Magellan, believed they were an instrument of God in this endeavor. Many native peoples, in awe of the magnitude and power of Spanish fleets, or, told that conversion would make their armies undefeatable, more willingly converted and watched as large crosses were erected on the highest point of the their island. Men, women, and children were baptized and swore allegiance to Jesus Christ and the monarch currently in power. Others were forcibly converted to Christianity, and those who resisted were killed or had their villages burned down. Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines by Mactan warriors in 1521 after burning a village to the ground when they refused to convert.
As Europeans became aware of the “New World” to the west, many still remained determined to find a shortcut to Asia. This led to the fabled search for the Northwest Passage – a potential shortcut through the newly found continent of North America to Asia.
With new ship technology that enabled better navigation, searches for the Northwest Passage dominated exploration in the 1500’s and 1600’s. Voyages led by French explorers Jacques Cartier and Giovanni da Verrazano proved that there was not a water passage through the new continent. English explorers such as Henry Hudson and William Baffin searched for the Northwest Passage by trying to sail north of North America, but were met by forbidding arctic climate, snowstorms and icebergs. In deed, North America’s northern tier was no shortcut to Asia, though a Northwest Passage to Asia through North America of some sort does exist. In 1969, the U.S.S. Manhattan, an iceberg-breaking ship, was the first ever to reach Asia by traveling the Northwest Passage. Today, global warming has made the Northwest Passage an ice-free possibility. Today, ownership of the future Northwest Passage has been the subject of international territory disputes.
The Search for the Northwest Passage
Spices and the Spice Islands
European rulers wanted to find a sea route to the Indies (primarily the archipelago known as the Spice Islands) so they could acquire spices, silks, and other products common in the East Indies at a low price. Spices were most important and very expensive in Europe, particularly after the terrestrial trading routes in eastern Europe and Asia were eliminated. Spices were used to preserve meat, mask the bad taste of spoiled food, and to make themselves smell better. Ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper were among the spices most coveted.
Getting to the Spice Islands, now known as Indonesia, would inspire the greatest explorers in world history to embark on treacherous sea voyages that would take years to complete. Portugal was the first country to successfully send an explorer to the East Indies. Vasco da Gama accomplished this feet by sailing around Africa and through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India. Christopher Columbus thought he could reach the Indies by sailing west from Spain. His beliefs led to the discovery of North America and LOTS of new land for Spain.
Life on the Ship
Life on a sailing vessel was generally miserable. Sailors were forced to endure the terror of constant sea storms, malnutrition, lack of privacy, and fetid living quarters. The food supply was one of the biggest problems faced by sailing vessels. Hardtack, a kind of unappetizing bread was a stable, along with salted pork or beef. It was nearly impossible to keep the food from spoiling during long journeys, and sailors were forced to consume food crawling with worms, maggots, bugs, and rodent droppings. When the food supply was totally consumed, sailors resorted to eating leather and sawdust. Based on these unhealthy diets, it is no surprise that some sailors were stricken with Scurvy, a condition brought on by a lack of Vitamin-C. Sailors stricken with Scurvy would suffer a horrifying demise as their gums and tongue became black and swollen, and their bodies covered with sores.
Sailors lucky enough to maintain their health lived in cramped, disgusting living quarters with no access to clean sheets, clothes, or water for that matter. Many suffered from severe insomnia. Sailors had no privacy and risked their lives every time they had to go to the bathroom, as “bathroom equipment” failure resulted in a sailor plunging into the sea.
Sailing in the 1500’s was risky business. Not only were storms and disease real threats to the success of the voyage, but pirates were too! Pirates were roving bands of sea-mercenaries who attacked and plundered coastal villages and sea vessels.
Pirates would sail throughout the sea, but were most numerous on the fabled “Barbary Coast”, where Islamic pirates attacked and stole from English ships along the north African coast. English and French pirates, in turn, frequently mobbed and destroyed Spanish shipping vessels in the Caribbean Sea. The most noted pirate, Sir Francis Drake, was so successful in stealing from the Spanish, in both the Caribbean and the western coast of South America, that the Queen of Spain demanded that Queen Elizabeth of England order him beheaded. Queen Elizabeth, instead, made him a knight. This was one of the reasons Spain declared war on England in 1588.
In the 1400’s and 1500’s, much of the world had not been explored. Large portions of the populations believed in myths and legends we would call ridiculous today. Many sailors aboard early seafaring vessels believed that terrible, serpent-like sea monsters existed, that the water boiled near the equator, and that a ship could simply sail off the edge of the world. In deed, many of the maps published during these times came complete with sea monster images swimming in the oceans. Among the monsters reported by some expeditions was the Kraken, a large sea monster that could envelop ships and toss them into the air. Most reports were probably a combination of fact and exaggeration, as the Giant Squid and Basking Shark can appear as sea monsters to those not expecting them. There were even books published that detailed the various sea monsters that could be encountered in the open ocean. Among the monsters detailed was the aforementioned Kraken, and another that appeared as a lobster the size of a whale. Other monsters, known as “The Sea Bishop,” and “Sea Monk” had the heads of clergy men and the bodies of an unidentified sea creature.
St. Elmo’s Fire
St. Elmo’s Fire is an electrical phenomenon in which plasma (ionized gas) is created from an object in an atmospherical electrical field such as a thunderstorm. Named after St. Erasmus of Formiae, the patron saint of fire, St. Elmo’s Fire often occurred on the masts of sailing vessels following a terrifying storm. During Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, the sailors believe that the presence of St. Elmo’s Fire was a divine sign leading them to continue on their journey.