Ludovico di Varthema — Louis-Antoine, comte de Bougainville — Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen — John Hanning Speke — Francisco Pascacio Moreno — Isabella Lucy Bird — William Speirs BruceRobert Falcon Scott — Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon — Harry St. John Bridger Philby — Entre dos aguas – Paco de Lucía (Music Video)



Explorers have shaped the world for centuries. A new coffee-table book, the Book of Exploration, considers their roles in more detail. Here are just a few of the defining characters and moments described in the book. Images are courtesy of the Royal Geographic Society. Information is taken from the new Book of Exploration by Ray Howgego (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30)

Defining European contact with Asia

Lodovico-di-Varthe_1458404iDate: 1502-08

An Italian adventurer with a passion for travel, Ludovico di Varthema was the first to provide European readers with a comprehensive account of India and southeast Asia. The image is a detail from the opening page of his book, Itinerario.

Ludovico di Varthema, also known as Barthema and Vertomannus (c. 1470-1517) was an Italian traveller and writer. He was the first European non-Muslim known to have entered Mecca as a pilgrim.

He was perhaps a soldier before beginning his distant journeys, which he undertook apparently from a passion for adventure, novelty and the fame which (then especially) attended successful exploration.

He left Europe near the end of 1502. Early in 1503 he reached Alexandria and ascended the Nile to Cairo. From Egypt he sailed to Beirut and thence travelled to Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus, where he managed to get himself enrolled, under the name of Yunas (Jonah), in the Mamluk garrison. From Damascus he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as one of the Mamluk escort of the Hajj caravan (April-June 1503). He describes the sacred cities of Islam and the chief pilgrim sites and ceremonies with remarkable accuracy, almost all his details being confirmed by later writers.


Finding Paradise in the South Sea

Bougainville-cut-o_1458411iDate: 1766-69

The mathematician, scientist and diplomat Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was not the first to discover the South Sea islands of the Pacific. However, his voyage, taken at the command of the French king, was one of the best documented at the time. This image taken from his publication Voyage Autour du Monde, shows native canoes in the area.

Louis-Antoine, comte de Bougainville (12 November 1729 Paris – 31 August 1811 Paris) was a French admiral and explorer. Bougainville was born in Paris, the son of a notary, on either 11 or 12 November 1729. In early life, he studied law, but soon abandoned the profession, and in 1753 entered the army in the corps of musketeers. At the age of twenty-five he published a treatise on the integral calculus, as a supplement to De l’Hôpital’s treatise, Des infiniment petits. In 1755 he was sent to London as secretary to the French embassy, and was made a member of the Royal Society.

In 1756 he went to Canada as captain of dragoons and aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Montcalm. He took an active part in the capture of Fort Oswego in 1756 and in 1757 at the Battle of Fort William Henry. He was wounded in 1758 at the successful defence of Fort Carillon. He sailed back to France the following winter, under orders from the marquis to obtain additional military resources for the colony; during this crossing, he continued familiarising himself with the ways of the sea, skills that would later serve him well. Having distinguished himself in the war against Britain, he was rewarded with the cross of St Louis and returned to Canada the following year with the rank of colonel, but with little supplies to show for his trip – the metropolitan authorities having decided that “When the house is on fire, one does not worry about the stables”.


Finding the Antarctic

Bellingshausen-cut_1458412iDate: 1819-21

Russia, seeking to extend its influence in the world, sent the Estonian-born Baltic German Faddei Bellingshausen to voyage towards Antarctica. He is sometimes credited with the discovery of the continent after spotting a continental ice shelf, although that accolade might more legitimately fall to Royal Navy captain Edward Bransfield, who observed the Antarctic Peninsula at around the same time. The image shows Bellingshausen in conference with Pacific Islanders en route.

Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (also known as Russian: Фаддей Фаддеевич Беллинсгаузен; Faddey Faddeyevich Bellinsgauzen) (20 September [O.S. 9 September] 1778–25 January [O.S. 13 January] 1852) served as a naval officer of the Russian Empire and commanded the second Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe. During this expedition Bellingshausen became one of three Europeans to first see the continent of Antarctica.

Born to a Baltic German family in Lahetaguse manor (in German: Lahhentagge), now in Salme Parish, Saare County (Ösel), Estonia—then part of the Russian Empire—Bellingshausen enlisted as a cadet in the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of ten. After graduating from the Kronstadt naval academy at age eighteen, he rapidly rose to the rank of captain. A great admirer of Cook’s voyages, he served from 1803 in the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth. The vessel Nadezhda (“Hope”) was commanded by Krusenstern, completing the mission in 1806. Von Bellingshausen’s career continued with the command of various ships in the Baltic and Black Seas.

When Czar Alexander I authorized an expedition to the south polar region in 1819, the authorities selected Bellingshausen to lead it. Leaving Portsmouth on September 5, 1819 with two ships, the 600-ton corvette Vostok (“East”) and the 530-ton support vessel Mirnyi (“Peaceful”) (captained by Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev), the expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle (the first to do so since Cook) on January 26, 1820. On January 28, 1820 (New Style) the expedition discovered the Antarctic mainland approaching the Antarctic coast at a point with coordinates 69º21’28″S 2º14’50″W and seeing ice-fields there. The point in question lies within twenty miles of the Antarctic mainland. Bellingshausen’s diary, his report to the Russian Naval Minister on 21 July 1821 and other documents, available in the Russian State.


Locating the source of the White Nile


Date: 1857-63

An iconic portrait of John Speke, who stood at the place on the western shore of Lake Victoria where the Nile flows out of the lake.

John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864) was an officer in the British Indian army, who made three voyages of exploration to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile.In 1844 the British army served in the Sikh War under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage, joining the already famous Richard Francis Burton on an expedition to Somalia. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded. Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.

In 1856, Speke and Burton made a voyage to East Africa to find the great lakes which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. Both men clearly hoped that their expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the voyage. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria.


Patagonia gives up its secrets


Date: 1870-1900

Patagonia, with its relentless winds that could drive settlers insane, eventually started to give up its secrets to explorers in the latter half of the 19th century. Pictured is a map of central Patagonia, drawn by one of the expeditions sent out to delineate boundaries between Chile and Argentina. Pioneers in the area include the Englishman George Chaworth Musters, but two Argentinians, Francisco Moreno and Carlos Moyano were the figures that made the most significant inroads.

Francisco Pascacio Moreno (May 31, 1852 – November 22, 1919) was an Argentine explorer, born in Buenos Aires. He is usually referred to as Perito Moreno (perito means “specialist, expert”). Moreno was born in a traditional patrician family of Buenos Aires although Moreno is also a common last name of Spanish decent.

In 1872 Moreno began a series of exploring expeditions that made him well known. In January 1876, he explored Lake Nahuel-Huapi, in the southern Andes, and discovered, on February 14, 1877, Lake San Martín. He also explored numerous rivers in Patagonia, and on 4 March of the same year encountered El Chaltén, which he named Fitz Roy. In 1880 he went on a second expedition to the territory of Patagonia, where he was taken prisoner by a Tehuelche aboriginal tribe and condemned to death, but escaped on March 11, one day before the appointed execution.


Female explorers


Date: 1895

The English traveller Isabella Bird spent the entire second half of the 19th century in almost continuous travel. Here she is pictured at lunch with her boat crew in China.

Isabella Lucy Bird (October 15, 1831 – October 7, 1904) was a nineteenth-century English traveller, writer, and a natural historian. Bird was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire. As her father Edward was a Church of England priest, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas’ when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.

Bird was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, Bird’s father gave her £100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856.
…  Dressed practically and riding not sidesaddle but frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine Leisure Hour,[1] comprised her fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.Bird’s time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, a textbook outlaw with one eye and an affinity for violence and poetry. “A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry”, Bird declared in a section excised from her letters prior to their publication. Nugent also seemed captivated by the independently-minded Bird, but she ultimately left the Rockies and her “dear desperado”. Nugent was shot dead less than a year later.At home, Bird again found herself pursued, this time by John Bishop, an Edinburgh doctor in his thirties. Predictably ill, she went travelling again, this time to the far east: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Yet when her sister died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and finally accepted Bishop’s marriage proposal. Her health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered by Bishop’s own death in 1886. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite her nearly sixty years of age, she set off for India.

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, crossed Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. The following year she joined a group of British soldiers travelling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit’s commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome’s company in London.

Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Bird was by now something of a household name. In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Her final great journey took place in 1897 where she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers which are in China and Korea, respectively. Later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan.She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return in 1904, just shy of her seventy-third birthday. She was still planning another trip to China.


Scottish Antarctic exploration


Date: 1902-04

William Bruce, the son of an Edinburgh surgeon, undertook a rival expedition to the Robert Scott expedition and successfully filled large blanks in the map of Antarctica. Here, his boat Scotia is pictured, with her crew in the ice off Coats Land in 1904, where important discoveries were made.

William Speirs Bruce (August 1, 1867 – October 28, 1921) was a London-born Scottish naturalist, polar scientist and oceanographer who organized and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902–04). He also made many journeys to the Arctic regions, both for scientific and for commercial purposes.

Bruce had initially intended to study medicine, but his outlook changed after he attended extra-curricular courses in the natural sciences during the summer of 1887. After these courses he began to develop a wider range of scientific interests, and in 1892 he abandoned his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, to join the Dundee Whaling Expedition to Antarctica as a scientific assistant.

With financial support from the Coats family, Bruce had acquired a Norwegian whaler, Hekla, which he transformed into a fully equipped Antarctic research ship, renamed Scotia. He then appointed an all-Scottish crew and scientific team.[24] Scotia left Troon on 2 November 1902, and headed south towards Antarctica, where Bruce intended to set up winter quarters in the Weddell Sea quadrant, “as near to the South Pole as is practicable”.[25] On 22 February the ship reached 70°25′S, but could proceed no further because of heavy ice.[26] She retreated to Laurie Island in the South Orkneys chain, and wintered there. A meteorological station, Omond House, was established as part of a full programme of scientific work.

In November 1903 Scotia retreated to Buenos Aires for repair and reprovisioning. While in Argentina, Bruce negotiated an agreement with the government whereby Omond House became a permanent weather station, under Argentinian control. Renamed Orcadas Base, the site has been continuously in operation since then. In January 1904 Scotia sailed south again, to explore the Weddell Sea. On 6 March, new land was sighted, part of the sea’s eastern boundary; Bruce named this Coats Land after the expedition’s chief backers. On 14 March, at 74°01′S and in danger of becoming icebound, Scotia turned north. The long voyage back to Scotland, via Cape Town, was completed on 21 July 1904.

This expedition assembled a large collection of animal, marine and plant specimens, and carried out extensive hydrographic, magnetic and meteorological observations. One hundred years later it was recognised that the expedition’s work had “laid the foundation of modern climate change studies”,and that its experimental work had showed this part of the globe to be crucially important to the world’s climate.


Robert Scott’s assault on the South Pole


Date: 1910-12

Unlike his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott eschewed the notion of travelling with dogs, which was eventually to cause disastrous consequences for his expedition. The picture shows the departure of one of Scott’s depot-laying expeditions.

Robert Falcon Scott CVO (6 June 1868 – 29 March 1912) was a British Royal Naval officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13. During this second venture Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, to find that they had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party in an unsought “race for the Pole”. On their return journey Scott and his four comrades all perished because of a combination of exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.

Before his appointment to lead the Discovery Expedition, Scott had followed the conventional career of a naval officer in peacetime Victorian Britain, where opportunities for career advancement were both limited and keenly sought after by ambitious officers. It was the chance for personal distinction that led Scott to apply for the Discovery command, rather than any predilection for polar exploration.[2] However, having taken this step, his name became ever after associated with the Antarctic, the field of work to which he remained committed during the final twelve years of his life…

Scott was undoubtedly capable of commanding great personal loyalty. Some were prepared to follow him anywhere and did so. “He wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself”, said Terra Nova stoker William Burton. Tom Crean, the Irishman who accompanied Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions, was more effusive: “I loved every hair of his head”. But his relations with others, including Ernest Shackleton, Lawrence Oates, and his expedition second-in-commands, were less easy. Despite his considerable exploration experience, something of the resourceful amateur remained with him until the end. For example his reluctance to rely on dogs, despite the advice of expert ice travellers such as Nansen, has been cited as a critical factor that lost him the race to the pole and, ultimately, the lives of all his party.


Expedition to the ‘River of Doubt’


Date: 1913-14

Candido da Silva Rondon, arguably Brazil’s finest explorer charted an unknown tributary of the Amazon with an unlikely companion – the American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, whose passion for exploration was hampered by his involvement in politics.

Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, or Marechal Rondon (May 5, 1865-January 19, 1958) was a Brazilian military officer who is most famous for his exploration of Mato Grosso and the Western Amazon Basin, and his lifelong support of Brazilian indigenous populations. He was the first director of Brazil’s Indian Protection Bureau (SPI/FUNAI) and responsible for the creation of the Xingu National Park. The Brazilian state of Rondônia is named after him. He was made Marshal, the highest military rank in Brazil.

As a result of Rondon’s competence in constructing telegraph line, he was put in charge of extending the telegraph line from Mato Grosso to the Amazon. In the course of constructing the line, he discovered the Juruena river, in northern Mato Grosso which is an important tributary of the Tapajós river. He also discovered the Nambikwara tribe, which had until then killed all Westerners they had come in contact with.

In January 1914, Rondon left with Theodore Roosevelt on the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition, whose aims were to explore the River of Doubt. The expedition left the Tapiripuã, and reached the River of Doubt on February 27, 1914. They did not reach the mouth of the river until late April, after the expedition had suffered greatly. During the expedition, the river was renamed the Rio Roosevelt.


Mapping the heart of Arabia


Date: 1918-32

Harry St John Philby, a civilian administrator, was the first to map the unknown inner regions of Arabia. He was also one of the first Europeans to introduce motor vehicles into the deserts of the region and most of his later expeditions used this mode of transport.

Harry St. John Bridger Philby CIE (3 April 1885 – 30 September 1960), also known as Jack Philby or Sheikh Abdullah (الشيخ عبدالله), his Arabic name, was an Arabist, explorer, writer, and British colonial office intelligence officer. He was born at St. John’s, Badulla, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied oriental languages under E.G. Browne, and was a friend and classmate of Jawaharlal Nehru, later prime Minister of India. Philby’s son Kim Philby became famous for being a British intelligence agent who was a double agent for the Soviet Union.

In his travels he also took great interest in birdlife and he gave a scientific name to the Arabian Woodpecker (Desertipicus (now Dendrocopos) dorae), as well as a subspecies (no longer valid) of an owl (Otus scops pamelae). Most of his birds were named after women whom he admired. He contributed numerous specimens to the British Museum. He also contributed to the draft of a book on the birds of Arabia by George Latimer Bates. However, it was never published, but was made use of in a work on the same subject by Richard Meinertzhagen. Philby is remembered in ornithology by the name of Philby’s Partridge (Alectoris philbyi).

As he states in his autobiography, he “became something of a fanatic” and “the first Socialist to join the Indian Civil Service” in 1907, and was posted to Lahore in the Punjab in 1908. He acquired fluency in Urdu, Punjabi, Baluchi, Persian, and eventually Arabic languages. Philby married his first wife in September 1910, with his distant cousin Bernard Law Montgomery as best man. He also later married an Arab woman from Saudi Arabia.

Philby is one of the lesser known but most influential persons in the modern history of the Middle East. In late 1915 Percy Cox, chief political officer of the small British “Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force”, recruited Philby as head of the finance branch of the British administration in Baghdad, a job which included fixing compensation for property and business owners. Their mission was twofold: (1) organize the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks; (2) protect the oilfields near Basra and the Shatt al Arab, which was the only source of oil for the Royal Navy. The revolt was organized with the promise of creating a unified Arab state, or Arab Federation, from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. Gertrude Bell of the British Military Intelligence Department was his first controller and taught him the finer arts of espionage. In 1916 he became officiating Revenue Commissioner for Occupied Territories.

In November 1917, Philby was sent to the interior of the Arabian peninsula as head of a mission to Ibn Saud. The Wahabbi chieftain and bitter enemy of Sherif Hussein was sending raids against the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, leader of the revolt. For more than 700 years the non-Turkic Hashemite dynasty held title as Sharif of Mecca.