Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition begins

Year
1910
Month Day
June 15

Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, sets sail from Cardiff, Wales on June 15, 1910, bound for Antarctica. Though it will succeed in reaching its objective, the expedition will end in tragedy as Scott and his companions give up their lives in order to become the second party to reach the South Pole.

Scott had previously led the Discovery expedition, one of the first major explorations of the Antarctic, from 1901 to 1904. He recruited 65 men to aid him on his quest “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for The British Empire the honour of this achievement.” Upon reaching Melbourne, Australia, Scott learned that a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen, who had claimed to be heading to the North Pole, was in fact racing South in an attempt to beat Scott. Upon arriving in the Antarctic, Scott’s team spent most of the next year preparing for the journey South, stocking depots to be used during the polar journey, and conducting scientific research as they waited for the Antarctic summer.

READ MORE: The Treacherous Race to the South Pole 

Finally setting out in late September, Scott employed several teams, 28 men in total, as well as motorized sledges, ponies, and dogs in his push to the pole. As the expedition neared its target, Scott selected chief scientist Edward Wilson, Army captain Lawrence Oates, Royal Indian Marine Lieutenant Henry Bowers, and Discovery veteran Edgar Evans to join him in the final approach. On January 16, 1912, the party spotted Amundsen’s flag at the South Pole and were crushed to realize they had been beaten. The next day, having arrived and planted his own flag, Scott wrote, “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”

Dismayed, they began the return journey hoping to at least be the first to report that they had reached the pole, but they would never make it back to the Terra Nova. Evans died on February 17, suffering from multiple injuries after repeated falls. Severely frostbitten and convinced he was slowing his companions down, Oates walked out of his tent and into a blizzard in an apparent act of self-sacrifice on March 16. A few days later, just 11 miles shy of the nearest depot, the rest of the team was stopped by a storm and took to their tent, from which they would never emerge. The bodies of Wilson, Bowers, and Scott were found on November 12, along with their farewell letters and records of their expedition. Though historians have recently begun to question Scott’s overbearing leadership style and many of his tactical decisions, he instantly became regarded as a tragic hero in Britain upon his death.

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Voyager completes global flight


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Year
1986
Month Day
December 23

After nine days and four minutes in the sky, the experimental aircraft Voyager lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, completing the first nonstop flight around the globe on one load of fuel. Piloted by Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, Voyager was made mostly of plastic and stiffened paper and carried more than three times its weight in fuel when it took off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14. By the time it returned, after flying 25,012 miles around the planet, it had just five gallons of fuel left in its remaining operational fuel tank.

Voyager was built by Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company without government support and with minimal corporate sponsorship. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother and a decorated Vietnam War pilot, joined the project early on, as did Dick’s friend Jeanna Yeager (no relation to aviator Chuck Yeager). Voyager‘s extremely light yet strong body was made of layers of carbon-fiber tape and paper impregnated with epoxy resin. Its wingspan was 111 feet, and it had its horizontal stabilizer wing on the plane’s nose rather than its rear–a trademark of many of Rutan’s aircraft designs. Essentially a flying fuel tank, every possible area was used for fuel storage and much modern aircraft technology was foregone in the effort to reduce weight.

When Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force at 8:02 a.m. PST on December 14, its wings were so heavy with fuel that their tips scraped along the ground and caused minor damage. The plane made it into the air, however, and headed west. On the second day, Voyager ran into severe turbulence caused by two tropical storms in the Pacific. Dick Rutan had been concerned about flying the aircraft at more than a 15-degree angle, but he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees, which occurred when the wind tossed it back and forth.

Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, but Rutan, a more experienced pilot, did most of the flying owing to the long periods of turbulence encountered at various points in the journey. With weak stomachs, they ate only a fraction of the food brought along, and each lost about 10 pounds.

On December 23, when Voyager was flying north along the Baja California coast and just 450 miles short of its goal, the engine it was using went out, and the aircraft plunged from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before an alternate engine was started up.

Almost nine days to the minute after it lifted off, Voyager appeared over Edwards Air Force Base and circled as Yeager turned a primitive crank that lowered the landing gear. Then, to the cheers of 23,000 spectators, the plane landed safely with a few gallons of fuel to spare, completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the earth by an aircraft that was not refueled in the air.

Voyager is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids

Year
1493
Month Day
January 09

On January 9, 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”—in reality manatees—and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”

Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically depicted as having a woman’s head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.

Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.

Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boat.

READ MORE: The Ships of Christopher Columbus Were Sleek, Fast—and Cramped

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Mayflower lands at Plymouth Harbor


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Year
1620
Month Day
December 18

On December 18, 1620, the British ship Mayflower lands at modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, and its passengers prepared to begin their new settlement, Plymouth Colony.

The famous Mayflower story began in 1606, when a group of reform-minded Puritans in Nottinghamshire, England, founded their own church, separate from the state-sanctioned Church of England. Accused of treason, they were forced to leave the country and settle in the more tolerant Netherlands. After 12 years of struggling to adapt and make a decent living, the group sought financial backing from some London merchants to set up a colony in America. On September 6, 1620, 102 passengers–dubbed Pilgrims by William Bradford, a passenger who would become the first governor of Plymouth Colony–crowded on the Mayflower to begin the long, hard journey to a new life in the New World.

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower anchored at what is now Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod. Before going ashore, 41 male passengers–heads of families, single men and three male servants–signed the famous Mayflower Compact, agreeing to submit to a government chosen by common consent and to obey all laws made for the good of the colony. Over the next month, several small scouting groups were sent ashore to collect firewood and scout out a good place to build a settlement. Around December 10, one of these groups found a harbor they liked on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. They returned to the Mayflower to tell the other passengers, but bad weather prevented them from landing until December 18. 

READ MORE: How the Mayflower Compact Laid a Foundation for American Democracy

After exploring the region, the settlers chose a cleared area previously occupied by members of a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. The tribe had abandoned the village several years earlier, after an outbreak of European disease. That winter of 1620-1621 was brutal, as the Pilgrims struggled to build their settlement, find food and ward off sickness. By spring, 50 of the original 102 Mayflower passengers were dead. The remaining settlers made contact with returning members of the Wampanoag tribe and in March they signed a peace treaty with a tribal chief, Massasoit. Aided by the Wampanoag, especially the English-speaking Squanto, the Pilgrims were able to plant crops–especially corn and beans–that were vital to their survival. The Mayflower and its crew left Plymouth to return to England on April 5, 1621.

Over the next several decades, more and more settlers made the trek across the Atlantic to Plymouth, which gradually grew into a prosperous shipbuilding and fishing center. In 1691, Plymouth was incorporated into the new Massachusetts Bay Association, ending its history as an independent colony.

READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between Puritans and Pilgrims

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Mt. Everest sees its single deadliest day

Year
2014
Month Day
April 18

On April 18, 2014, 16 Nepali mountaineering guides, most of them ethnic Sherpas, are killed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest, the Earth’s highest mountain. It was the single deadliest accident in the history of the Himalayan peak, which rises more than 29,000 feet above sea level and lies across the border between Nepal and China.

The avalanche, which occurred around 6:30 a.m., swept over the Sherpas in a notoriously treacherous area of Everest known as the Khumbu Icefall, at approximately 19,000 feet. At the time, the Sherpas had been hauling loads of gear for commercial expedition groups. The disaster, in which no foreigners were killed, reopened debates about the dangerous risks undertaken by Sherpas for their typically affluent clients (in addition to lugging most of the supplies for an expedition, Sherpas are responsible for such tasks as setting lines of fixed ropes and ladders for climbers), as well as the over-commercialization of Everest, where human traffic jams during the spring mountaineering season and massive amounts of litter have become common.

In 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to officially reach the summit of Everest, which the British named in 1865 for George Everest, a Welsh-born surveyor general of India. Andrew Waugh, his successor as surveyor general, chose the mountain’s moniker; it’s unlikely George Everest ever saw the peak named in his honor. (Meanwhile, the Nepalese refer to the mountain as Sagarmatha, while Tibetans call it Chomolungma and the Chinese know it as Zhumulangma Feng.) Since Hillary and Norgay’s historic achievement, more than 4,000 people have scaled Everest, while at least several hundred others have perished in the process. In 1996, eight climbers were caught in a storm on the mountain and died, as chronicled in the best-selling book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer. That season, a total of 15 people lost their lives on Everest, making it the deadliest season until 2014.

In the aftermath of the April 18th tragedy, a number of Sherpas boycotted the remainder of the climbing season, out of respect for the 16 guides who were killed and also to protest such issues as the pay and treatment of Sherpas. As a result, many commercial expedition companies opted to cancel their planned ascents.

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Explorer Francis Drake sets sail from England


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Year
1577
Month Day
December 13

English seaman Francis Drake sets out from Plymouth, England, with five ships and 164 men on a mission to raid Spanish holdings on the Pacific coast of the New World and explore the Pacific Ocean. Three years later, Drake’s return to Plymouth marked the first circumnavigation of the earth by a British explorer.

After crossing the Atlantic, Drake abandoned two of his ships in South America and then sailed into the Straits of Magellan with the remaining three. A series of devastating storms besieged his expedition in the treacherous straits, wrecking one ship and forcing another to return to England. Only The Golden Hind reached the Pacific Ocean, but Drake continued undaunted up the western coast of South America, raiding Spanish settlements and capturing a rich Spanish treasure ship.

Drake then continued up the western coast of North America, searching for a possible northeast passage back to the Atlantic. Reaching as far north as present-day Washington before turning back, Drake paused near San Francisco Bay in June 1579 to repair his ship and prepare for a journey across the Pacific. Calling the land “Nova Albion,” Drake claimed the territory for Queen Elizabeth I.

In July, the expedition set off across the Pacific, visiting several islands before rounding Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and returning to the Atlantic Ocean. On September 26, 1580, The Golden Hind returned to Plymouth, England, bearing treasure, spice, and valuable information about the world’s great oceans. Drake was the first captain to sail his own ship all the way around the world–the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had sailed three-fourths of the way around the globe earlier in the century but had been killed in the Philippines, leaving the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano to complete the journey.

In 1581, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Drake, the son of a tenant farmer, during a visit to his ship. The most renowned of the Elizabethan seamen, Sir Francis Drake later played a crucial role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Francis Drake

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Navigator Ferdinand Magellan killed in the Philippines

Year
1521
Month Day
April 27

After traveling three-quarters of the way around the globe, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan is killed during a tribal skirmish on Mactan Island in the Philippines. Earlier in the month, his ships had dropped anchor at the Philippine island of Cebu, and Magellan met with the local chief, who after converting to Christianity persuaded the Europeans to assist him in conquering a rival tribe on the neighboring island of Mactan. In the subsequent fighting, Magellan was hit by a poisoned arrow and left to die by his retreating comrades.

Magellan, a Portuguese noble, fought for his country against the Muslim domination of the Indian Ocean and Morocco. He participated in a number of key battles and in 1514 asked Portugal’s King Manuel for an increase in his pension. The king refused, having heard unfounded rumors of improper conduct on Magellan’s part after a siege in Morocco. In 1516, Magellan again made the request and the king again refused, so Magellan went to Spain in 1517 to offer his services to King Charles I, later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In 1494, Portugal and Spain, at the prompting of Pope Alexander VI, settled disputes over newly discovered lands in America and elsewhere by dividing the world into two spheres of influence. A line of demarcation was agreed to in the Atlantic Ocean–all new discoveries west of the line were to be Spanish, and all to the east Portuguese. Thus, South and Central America became dominated by the Spanish, with the exception of Brazil, which was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 and was somewhat east of the demarcation line. Other Portuguese discoveries in the early 16th century, such as the Moluccas Islands—the Spice Islands of Indonesia—made the Spanish jealous.

To King Charles, Magellan proposed sailing west, finding a strait through the Americas, and then continuing west to the Moluccas, which would prove that the Spice Islands lay west of the demarcation line and thus in the Spanish sphere. Magellan knew that the world was round but underestimated its size, thinking that the Moluccas must be situated just west of the American continent, not on the other side of a great uncharted ocean. The king accepted the plan, and on September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain in command of five ships and 270 men.

Magellan sailed to West Africa and then to Brazil, where he searched the South American coast for a strait that would take him to the Pacific. He searched the Rio de la Plata, a large estuary south of Brazil, for a way through; failing, he continued south along the coast of Patagonia. At the end of March 1520, the expedition set up winter quarter at Port St. Julian. On Easter day at midnight, the Spanish captains mutinied against their Portuguese captain, but Magellan crushed the revolt, executing one of the captains and leaving another ashore when his ship left St. Julian in August.

On October 21, he finally discovered the strait he had been seeking. The Strait of Magellan, as it became known, is located near the tip of South America, separating Tierra del Fuego and the continental mainland. Only three ships entered the passage; one had been wrecked and another deserted. It took 38 days to navigate the treacherous strait, and when ocean was sighted at the other end Magellan wept with joy. He was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. His fleet accomplished the westward crossing of the ocean in 99 days, crossing waters so strangely calm that the ocean was named “Pacific,” from the Latin word pacificus, meaning “tranquil.” By the end, the men were out of food and chewed the leather parts of their gear to keep themselves alive. On March 6, 1521, the expedition landed at the island of Guam. Ten days later, they reached the Philippines–they were only about 400 miles from the Spice Islands.

After Magellan’s death, the survivors, in two ships, sailed on to the Moluccas and loaded the hulls with spice. One ship attempted, unsuccessfully, to return across the Pacific. The other ship, the Victoria, continued west under the command of the Basque navigator Juan Sebastian de Elcano. The vessel sailed across the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Seville on September 9, 1522, becoming the first ship to circumnavigate the globe.

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Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto reaches the Mississippi

Year
1541
Month Day
May 08

On May 8, 1541, south of present-day Memphis, Tennessee, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto reaches the Mississippi River, one of the first European explorers to ever do so. After building flatboats, de Soto and his 400 ragged troops crossed the great river under the cover of night, in order to avoid the armed Native Americans who patrolled the river daily in war canoes. From there the conquistadors headed into present-day Arkansas, continuing their fruitless two-year-old search for gold and silver in the American wilderness.

Born in the last years of the 15th century, de Soto first came to the New World in 1514. By then, the Spanish had established bases in the Caribbean and on the coasts of the American mainland. A fine horseman and a daring adventurer, de Soto explored Central America and accumulated considerable wealth through the Indian slave trade. In 1532, he joined Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Pizarro, de Soto, and 167 other Spaniards succeeding in conquering the Inca empire, and de Soto became a rich man. He returned to Spain in 1536 but soon grew restless and jealous of Pizarro and Hernando Cortes, whose fame as conquistadors overshadowed his own. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V responded by making de Soto governor of Cuba with a right to conquer Florida, and thus the North American mainland.

In late May 1539, de Soto landed on the west coast of Florida with 600 troops, servants, and staff, 200 horses, and a pack of bloodhounds. From there, the army set about subduing the natives, seizing any valuables they stumbled upon, and preparing the region for eventual Spanish colonization. Traveling through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, across the Appalachians, and back to Alabama, de Soto failed to find the gold and silver he desired, but he did seize a valuable collection of pearls at Cofitachequi, in present-day Georgia. Decisive conquest eluded the Spaniards, as what would become the United States lacked the large, centralized civilizations of Mexico and Peru.

As was the method of Spanish conquest elsewhere in the Americas, de Soto ill-treated and enslaved the natives he encountered. For the most part, the Indian warriors they met were intimidated by the Spanish horsemen and kept their distance. In October 1540, however, the tables were turned when a confederation of Indians attacked the Spaniards at the fortified Indian town of Mabila, near present-day Mobile, Alabama. All the Indians were killed along with 20 of de Soto’s men. Several hundred Spaniards were wounded. In addition, the Indian conscripts they had come to depend on to bear their supplies fled with the baggage.

De Soto could have marched south to reconvene with his ships along the Gulf Coast, but instead he ordered his expedition northwest in search of America’s elusive riches. In May 1541, the army reached and crossed the Mississippi River, probably the first Europeans ever to do so. From there, they traveled through present-day Arkansas and Louisiana, still with few material gains to show for their efforts. Turning back to the Mississippi, de Soto died of a fever on its banks on May 21, 1542. In order that Indians would not learn of his death, and thus disprove de Soto’s claims of divinity, his men buried his body in the Mississippi River.

The Spaniards, now under the command of Luis de Moscoso, traveled west again, crossing into north Texas before returning to the Mississippi. With nearly half of the original expedition dead, the Spaniards built rafts and traveled down the river to the sea, and then made their way down the Texas coast to New Spain, finally reaching Veracruz, Mexico, in late 1543.

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First European explorer reaches Brazil


Year
1500
Month Day
January 26

Spanish explorer Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who had commanded the Nina during Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the New World, reaches the northeastern coast of Brazil during a voyage under his command. Pinzon’s journey produced the first recorded account of a European explorer sighting the Brazilian coast; though whether or not Brazil was previously known to Portuguese navigators is still in dispute.

Pinzon subsequently sailed down the Brazilian coast to the equator, where he briefly explored the mouth of the Amazon River. In the same year, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal, arguing that the territory fell into the Portuguese sphere of exploration as defined by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. However, little was done to support the claim until the 1530s, when the first permanent European settlements in Brazil were established at Sao Vicente in Sao Paulo by Portuguese colonists.

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Vasco da Gama reaches India

Year
1498
Month Day
May 20

Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama becomes the first European to reach India via the Atlantic Ocean when he arrives at Calicut on the Malabar Coast.

Da Gama sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, in July 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and anchored at Malindi on the east coast of Africa. With the aid of an Indian merchant he met there, he then set off across the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese explorer was not greeted warmly by the Muslim merchants of Calicut, and in 1499 he had to fight his way out of the harbor on his return trip home. In 1502, he led a squadron of ships to Calicut to avenge the massacre of Portuguese explorers there and succeeded in subduing the inhabitants. In 1524, he was sent as viceroy to India, but he fell ill and died in Cochin.

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