Famous People of the Age of Exploration


The Age of Exploration encompasses an extensive time period. In fact, it is difficult to say when it started and when it ended, if indeed it has. Humans have been seeking new places, whether to search for new food sources or just habitable lands since time began and will continue to do so. The explorers listed below all had various reasons for traveling the world. The one thing they did have in common was simple curiosity.

As stated, all of the world travelers had different goals in mind when setting out on an adventure, possibly never to return. Some set out to find shorter trade routes, ostensibly to the Orient for spices. Even if the original destination was never reached, sometimes the outcome proved to be much better. Such is the case of Christopher Columbus. He enlisted the aid of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to find a western route to China. He never accomplished that, but he did land on North America, which eventually was given to Spain by papal bull – a much better outcome in the eyes of the King and Queen. Many travelers searched for treasure. Others did it for the exploratory experience alone, such as Ferdinand Magellan, whose last remaining ship made it back, albeit without him since he had died, after circumnavigating the globe. Then there were those who wanted to spread Christian beliefs throughout the world, such as Charles I.

The explorers listed are all special in their own way. The biographical links delve deeper into the motivations that drove these men and women to risk their lives – fame, glory, treasure, or knowledge. The forces that drove them have been the foundation of the world we live in today. Their impact cannot be denied.

  • Ibn Battuta - This medieval world traveller visited every Muslim land in his time. He is said to have travelled over 75,000 miles. Other places he visited include Ceylon, China, Byzantium, and South Russia.
  • John Cabot - Born Giovanni Caboto in Genoa, Italy, he anglicized his name to John Cabot when he moved to England in 1483. After convincing King Henry VII to finance his expedition to Asia, he actually was the first explorer to discover mainland North America or "new found land" (Newfoundland).
  • Sebastian Cabot - Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot was a mapmaker and navigator by trade. He wanted to find a northern route to the Orient. He abandoned the quest due to a mutinous crew. A later expedition also produced no results.
  • Juan de Cartegena - De Cartegena was the captain of the San Antonio, one of the ships that sailed with Magellan. After attempting to murder Magellan to take over the expedition and leading a mutiny, he was stranded on Patagonia, the southernmost region of South America.
  • Jacques Cartier - Jacques Cartier was an explorer who was looking for a passage to China. Funded by the King of France, he journeyed on three occasions, never finding success. After three such journeys, he gave up his adventures and retired.
  • Samuel de Champlain - Also financed by the King of France, Champlain set out to find the rumored Northwest Passage to Asia. He never did find it, but he did end up exploring the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.
  • Charles I (Charles V) - Charles I wished to be leader of a Christian world that spanned the globe. Conquistadors like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro crushed the Aztec and Inca nations. Spain held the Spanish American territory of New Spain, which was part of the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America north of Panama and some West Indian islands as well some islands of the Philippines. He is known to be the first to conceive the idea of creating a canal in Panama.
  • Admiral Cheng Ho - During his time in the Chinese army, Cheng Ho or Zheng He helped establish Chu Ti to the throne, making him Emperor Yonglo of the Ming Dynasty. The Emperor made him the Grand Imperial Eunuch and chose him to lead several naval voyages all over the Indian Ocean. Along with his Grand Fleet, he visited more than 35 countries during his seven voyages and set up diplomatic relations with those countries. He established Chinese trade routes through Asia and Africa.
  • Christopher Columbus – The main goal for Christopher Columbus was to discover a western route to China. He appealed to the King of Portugal and then the King and Queen of Spain before getting funding for his mission. He discovered many places, including America by accident during his four voyages.
  • Diego Columbus – When Christopher Columbus died, he had regained his wealth but not his titles in the Indies. Diego Columbus, his son, fought to regain those titles. He traveled to Santo Domingo and was granted the title of Governor of the Indies. He also was given the vice royalty of the islands but wanted all of his father’s titles restored. He subsequently compromised, giving his son, Luis the fiefdom of Jamaica and an annuity.
  • James Cook – Captain James Cook rose from the ranks of the British Army to become one of the greatest naval explorers. His adventures took him to New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii, where he was killed over a minor dispute with the natives. He traveled by way of the Cape of Good Hope and along the northern edge of Antarctica. He also discovered the Cook Islands, which he named the Hervey Islands.  
  • Bartolomeu Dias - Dias was appointed by the King John II of Portugal to sail around the coast of South Africa and find the Christian African king, Prester John. The Portuguese wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the country. He partially succeeded in 1487, and christened the coast the Cape of Good Hope as requested by the King of Portugal. He never managed to find the legendary Prester John. He later showed Vasco de Gama the Cape Verde Islands. He did attempt another voyage to the Cape, but his ship was wrecked outside of the Cape of Good Hope.
  • Francis Drake – In 1577, Francis Drake was sent on an extremely secret mission to locate the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and to colonize the New World. Establishing trade routes to the Far East was another goal of the voyage. Per records, owing to the necessity of keeping this journey a secret from the Spanish, the crew of the Golden Hind did not know the eventual destination. He circumnavigated the globe, being the second to do so, bringing back a fortune in gold, silver, and spices. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his efforts.
  • Sebastian del Cano - A lifelong seafarer, del Cano was part of Magellan’s crew. He chose to mutiny with Juan de Cartegena but was not stranded on an island like de Cartegena or executed because Magellan needed his skills in order to succeed. He took over as commander of the mission after Magellan was killed by islanders, which included three ships. He successfully piloted the last remaining ship the Victoria loaded with spices back to Spain.
  • Queen Elizabeth I –Francis Drake had successfully defended England, who had the much smaller navy from the Spanish Armada. As a reward, the Queen sent Francis Drake on a mission to find treasure and spices. The only caveat was that the mission had to be kept secret from the Spanish. On his return, Queen Elizabeth I knighted him aboard his ship, the Golden Hind.
  • Eric the Red - A Norse chieftain from Iceland who discovered Greenland after being banished from Iceland. He led a group of colonists there in 986 A.D. The colony lasted four or five centuries.
  • Leif Ericson – Son of Eric the Red, Leif Ericson has long been considered to be the predecessor to Columbus’ sighting of North America. Per records, he made three landfalls, one to Labrador, one to Newfoundland, and one to a country he named “Vinland.” Although Columbus gets the credit as the discoverer of the new world, it is actually Leif Ericson who set foot on North American soil first, making him the first European to do so.
  • King Ferdinand – Ferdinand was the King of Spain, who, along with his wife, Queen Isabella, bankrolled Christopher Columbus in the hopes of finding great treasure and new lands to call their own and convert the natives to Catholicism. Though a papal bull granted them the New World, King Ferdinand stripped Columbus of his wealth and titles, only restoring the wealth in later years.
  • King Francois I - King of France from 1515 until his death. Italian navigator, Giovanni de Verrazano persuaded the King of France to establish a new colony on Nouvelle-Angouleme, or New France which had been newly discovered. Attempts to colonize failed, but fishing fleets from France continued to sail on the Atlantic coast.
  • Vasco da Gama – Portuguese explorer who commanded three expeditions across the Indian Ocean by way of the Cape of Good Hope to promote spice trade routes with Portugal. After two voyages, he returned to Portugal with the intent of settling down. However, in 1524, King John III sent him to India where he died.
  • King George III – Also known as “Mad King George” or the King who cost England the American colonies. He sanctioned expeditions by James Cook to the Pacific Ocean, supported by the public. He also helped John Harrison petition Parliament for payment for his invention of the maritime chronometer.
  • Harold Godwinsson – Prior to becoming the last Anglo-Saxon king before the Norman Conquest, he attempted a voyage but was shipwrecked on the coast of Ponthieu, Normandy. The Duke of Normandy rescued him from Guy I and made him to swear an oath of fealty to him. He was made king on Edward the Confessor’s deathbed. He died at the Battle of Hastings later in 1066.
  • Hanno – Sixth century Phoenician admiral who explored the western coast of Africa. He is notable for founding colonies off of the Moroccan coast and a trading post on the Mauritian coast. It is rumored that he found his way to Arabia. 
  • Harald Hardradde – Set off to Constantinople in search of wealth so that he could come back and win the hand of Princess Ellisif. After earning untold wealth, he was imprisoned. He then escaped and was able to return to claim her hand. He became King of Norway but soon his sights on becoming King of England. He was killed in his quest with an arrow to the throat. He is notable for traveling Jerusalem, Sicily, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway, and Russia.
  • John Harrison – He was an Englishmen known for inventing the maritime chronometer, allowing navigators to calculate longitude with greater ease. Four prototypes were made and were found to be in excellent working order. However, he had to enlist the help of King George III to get any type of payment from Parliament, eventually settling for approximately half of what was promised.
  • King Henry VII – This king is notable for commissioning John Cabot to find trade routes to the Orient. What he found was Newfoundland instead of a trade route. King Henry VII approved a second voyage. However, John Cabot’s ship was never recovered.
  • King Henry VIII – Presumably the most well-known of the Kings of England, he is not known for his belief in the explorations to find trade routes to the Orient. He refused to fund Sebastian Cabot.
  • Prince Henry, the Navigator – Prince Henry financed many voyages and expeditions in order to find trade routes, Christian allies, and of course, gold and treasure from the reputed “River of Gold.” The river was never located, but gold dust was found, as were slaves.
  • Heriolf – Viking explorer who sailed with Eric the Red and colonized Greenland.
  • Himilco – Himilco was a sailor from Carthage who was the first to sail the Mediterranean all of the way to the northwestern coast of Europe.
  • Henry Hudson – On a ship called the Half Moon, Henry Hudson journeyed the entire length of the Hudson River and Hudson Strait. His intention had been to find a northeast route to Asia. However, due to the many icebergs his ship encountered, he decided to keep searching the Atlantic Coast, eventually exploring the length of the Hudson River.
  • Queen Isabella – Along with her husband, King Ferdinand, financed the adventures of Christopher Columbus. Without her influence on her husband, none of the voyages of Columbus would have happened.
  • King Joao I – Father of Prince Henry, the Navigator.
  • Kublai Khan – Mongol grandson of Genghis Khan who is considered to be the greatest of all of the Khans. His reign lasted for 34 years. He invaded China, taking 16 long years to finally conquer it. He used the nomadic Mongols to extend his territories.
  • Sieur de La Salle – Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle was born in Rouen, France in the middle of the 17th century. He immigrated to the French colonies in North America and was a farmer and fur trader. In communications with the Iroquois, he set out to discover a water route to China. While he failed in that pursuit, he did find the Ohio River and traveled the length of it, being the first to do so.
  • Ferdinand Magellan – Technically, he is the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe going from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, proving the Earth is indeed round. He discovered the Strait of Magellan, Cuba, India, and the Spice Islands of the East Indies, not to mention many animal species previously unknown. He also correctly ascertained that if he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, his ships could make it back to Spain. He died in the Philippines during the historic journey. Of the 237 men who started on the expedition, only 18 returned.
  • King Manuel I – King of Portugal who sent explorers to India and Brazil in the hopes of expanding Portugal’s holdings. These explorers included Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral, Francisco de Almeida, and Afonso de Albuquerque. All of the places discovered made the kingdom very wealthy.
  • Luis de Mendoza - De Mendoza captained the Victoria, one of the ships in the fleet under Ferdinand Magellan. 
  • Mongols – The Mongol tribes lived in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, the nomadic Mongols helped him build an empire that stretched from China to Hungary.
  • Moors - The Moors were believed to have been from Mauritania. However, the Moors also occupied lands and castles in the Sahara and Gibraltar.
  • Pope Nicolas V – Renaissance pope who issued a papal bull called Dum Diversas, allowing the Portuguese to make slaves of Muslims, pagans, and any other unbelievers.
  • Ottoman Turks – The Turks were led by the Sultan of Turkey. They had lands from Syria to the Balkan states, parts of Hungary, Russia, Egypt, and Iraq.
  • Antonio Pigafetta – Devoted chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan. He was one of the 18 survivors of Magellan’s original crew.
  • Martin Alonzo Pinzon – Pinzon was a navigator on Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. He was commander of the Pinta. He deserted Columbus on two occasions in the attempt to get back to Spain to be first to tell of “his” discoveries. However, fate intervened, and both he and Columbus made port the same day. He was unable to get an audience with the King and died a few months later.
  • Vicente Yanez Pinzon – Captained the ship the Nina during Columbus’ expedition. He is also credited with discovering Brazil and sailing the Amazon River. 
  • Maffeo Polo – Uncle to Marco Polo who resided in Constantinople until political instability forced him to relocate to Crimea with his brother, Niccolo. After their many travels, they returned to Venice.
  • Marco Polo – A famous traveler and explorer who got his start with his father Niccolo and Uncle Maffeo. On their journeys, they met Kubla Khan in Mongolia, who liked them so much he would not allow them to return home. Finally allowed to leave, they traveled to the Silk Road in China. He was briefly imprisoned, at which time he dictated his adventures to a fellow inmate.
  • Niccolo Polo - Father of Marco Polo and a wealthy merchant from Venice.
  • Prester John – Legendary African Christian King who inspired many expeditions to Africa, Asia, and India. He was proof that Christianity was possible in the midst of Muslim territory. There are no claims, however, that any of the explorations located this mythical man.
  • Ptolemy – Ptolemy was a scientist, mathematician, astrologer, and geologist whose theories on latitude and longitude were found to be incorrect due to the inability to be able to precisely measure times. He also was a prolific writer of geographic tomes, which vastly overrated Asia’s size.
  • Pytheas – Fourth century Greek historian who was the first to make the connection between the moon and the tides. He sailed to the British Isles, Spain, Portugal, and France.
  • Gaspar de Quesada – He was the captain of the Concepcion, part of Magellan's expedition. He plotted to kill Magellan and participated in mutiny attempts. Magellan had him executed in 1520.
  • Earl of Sandwich – British First Lord of the Admiralty. During this period in history, Great Britain was intensely interested in those lands in the Pacific Ocean. The Earl aided James Cook in his endeavors by outfitting his ships for the voyages. The Islands of Sandwich were named for him by the grateful James Cook.
  • Scylax – Sailor from Caryanda who sailed along the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. He navigated through the Arabian peninsula, Yemen and Oman. 
  • Amerigo Vespucci – Famous as the namesake of America, he was a well-known cartographer, navigator and explorer. King Ferdinand founded a school of navigation especially for Vespucci in order to standardize the known navigation methods. He went on several voyages as an observer to explore South America, the Cape of Good Hope, India, Brazil, and America.
  • William the Conqueror – He defeated Harald Hardradde on the way to claim the English throne, then Harold Godwinsson in the Battle of Hastings. He then became King of England.