Europe's first explorers set out in search of what was beyond the horizon


The expedition that circumnavigated the globe via the oceans for the first time 500 years ago is among the major journeys of discovery by European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

1488: Dias

With the mighty Ottoman Empire holding a monopoly on trade with the Indian subcontinent in the 15th century, Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator launched a quest to conquer the seas via Africa.

At the time the length of the continent’s coastline was unknown.

Less than 30 years after Henry’s death, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias led the expedition that rounded the southern tip of Africa for the first time in 1488, opening a new sea route from Europe to Asia.

He called it the Cape of Storms but Portuguese King John II renamed it the Cape of Good Hope.

Dias continued his eastward journey but his exhausted crew eventually forced him to turn back.

1492: Columbus

Italian Christopher Columbus, determined to reach the East via a western route, made four voyages across the Atlantic between 1492 and 1504, sailing for the Spanish crown.

During the first, he disembarked from his flagship, the Santa Maria, in the Bahamas in October 1492 and then moved on to today’s Haiti, which he named Hispaniola.

In another expedition he set foot on the American mainland for the first time in present-day Venezuela, but is convinced he is in the East Indies.

It is only later that Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci realized that the landmass that Colombus discovered is a new continent. It is named America in his honor in 1507.

1498: da Gama

Vasco da Gama from Portugal became the first European to reach India via Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope discovered by Dias just a decade before.

He left Lisbon in 1497 and sailed around the tip of the continent to reach the coasts of India in 1498.

During his second expedition, da Gama established the first Portuguese trading post in Asia at Cochin, in eastern India.

1500: Cabral

Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral and his fleet of 13 caravels departed from Lisbon in 1500, on a southwest course to benefit from the trade winds, to discover what he called “Island of the True Cross.” It later became known as Brazil.

He then reached the Indian subcontinent via the Cape of Good Hope, returning to Portugal laden with spices but having lost half of his fleet.

It is believed that Spaniard Vicente Yanez Pinzon may have arrived in Brazil shortly before Cabral but had not claimed the discovery.

1522: Magellan

In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan launched the sea journey that became the first to circumnavigate the globe. He left Seville with five ships and 237 men.

They passed through a South American strait that later was named in his honor and reached calmer waters in an ocean that he named the Pacific.

The fleet pushed on to the Philippines, where Magellan was killed by an arrow shot by a local warrior in 1521.

Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano took over command and completed the circumnavigation. He returned to Spain in 1522 with the last ship, the Victoria, and around 20 survivors.

1534: Cartier

In 1534 Frenchman Jacques Cartier set off on a mission under King Francis I to find a western passage to Asia.

Just weeks later he reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored the surrounding territory that he called Canada, after “kanata,” which means village in the local language.

Cartier claimed Canada for France and made two more journeys there, the last in 1542.