The first great explorers of whom we have any record were the Phoenicians, who lived in the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In the 10th century B.C., they sailed their ships along the coast to the Greek isles, to Sicily and Sardinia, to Utica on the African coats and finally to Spain. They made their way overland to China, India, and Persia. And in the 7th century B.C they sailed their ships all the way round Africa.
The Greeks’ love of adventure led to their exploration and colonization of the Mediterranean coast. Greek towns were set up in southern Italy and in Sicily in the 8th century B.C. Marseilles was founded by Greek traders about 600 B.C.
The Romans were the great conquering and trading people. Over a period of three centuries, they built an empire that included the whole of the ancient civilized world (West of Persia). The Roman occupation of the British Isles began in 55 B.C nd the entire island of Great Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall was Romanized.
After the decline of the Romantic Empire, trade exploration was carried on by Irishmen, Bretons, and others. But few were as daring or as adventurous as the Norsemen (Vikings). They sailed from the Scandanavia in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries and attacked the coasts of the British Isles, France, and Spain. Eric, the Red voyage to Iceland and Greenland. His son, Leif Ericson, who lived about A.D 1000, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in North America.
MARCO POLO’S ADVENTURE
The Polos were a wealthy merchant family who lived in the 13th century. At that time, Europeans seldom travelled more than a few miles into Asia. When a merchant or adventurer did manage to make his way inland and return safely, he had wonderful things to tell.
In 1271 Marco Polo (1254-1324) set out for China. The 17-year-old youth traveled with his father, who had already made one successful journey to Peking, and his uncle Maffeo. They spent four years in this voyage, travelling through burning sand, fever-filled swamps and frozen plains and up the steep passes of the highest mountain ranges in the world.
The Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan (1216-94), welcomed them to Peking. He took a special liking to Marco, who was intelligent and had already learnt to speak many languages. Marco was given work to do at the court and send on missions to various parts of the vast Mongol Empire.
The Polos stayed in China for 7 years. In 1292, they set out for home on a journey that took them three years. At first friends did not recognize them, for they had been away for 24 years. Quite naturally, they became famous Venetian citizens, and Marco was made an admiral. A year or so later, when war broke out between Venice and Genoa, Marco was captured and put in prison. To while away the hours there, he told the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner who wrote them down. After Marco was released, he returned to Venice and his book of travels was published. It became very popular and was translated into many languages. Even today you can buy it in a bookshop or borrow it from your library and read about the amazing adventures of the young Venetian.
THE EXPEDITIONS OF DIAZ
More than a hundred years after the Marco Polo’s trip, a great age of exploration began. Asia had many goods which European wanted, such as spices, silks, drugs, precious woods, and gems. For centuries, these goods had been brought overland most of the way because no sea routes to the East were known.
The trade routes to India and China went through lands of the Moslem Arabs. The Arabs were often, in fact, middlemen in the trade between Europe and the East. But, as time went on, the Turks conquered most to the most part of Asia. In 1453, the great European city of Constantinople fell into their hands. They would not let Christians travel through their lands, so the land route to the East was closed.
The Portuguese did most for navigation in this period. In the first half of the 15th century, Prince Henry of Portugal- or Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), as he is usually called- lived at Sagres on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. Prince Henry was a famous military leader of his time. But what he really liked was navigation and exploration. He organized what has sometimes been called a school of navigation at his place at Sagres. His men explored every bay and river-mouth along the west coast of Africa, making maps and charts. The results of these expeditions helped to make possible the achievements of many navigators who came afterwards.
The seamen sent out by Prince Henry to explore the west coast of Africa, did not go to the southern tip to the continent. It remained for another Portuguese, Bartholomew Diaz (1450?-1500) to do this.
Diaz started his seafaring life as a young man. He made several voyages as far as the Guinea coast and brought back ivory and gold. The King of Portugal was pleased with the achievements of Diaz that he put him in charge of an expedition to the west coast of Africa.
In 1487 Diaz left Portugal with three ships. He followed the coast past Morocco, into the Gulf of Guinea and then southwards, exploring and making maps along the way. As the ships went further south, they ran into one of the great storms of the South Atlantic and were blown far out to the sea.
When the storm died out, Diaz turned back to find land again. He followed the shore in a north-easterly direction and then northwards. Almost without realizing it, it had sailed round the southern tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean.
The King of Portugal was delighted with the success of the voyage. He referred to the place where the ships had been blown off course as the Cape of Good Hope because it had brought the hope of a route to the East nearer to fulfillment.
After this expedition, Diaz made trading voyage along the African coast. Then, in 1500, he sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil. On the way home, his ship was lost and he was never seen again.