What Motivated Early Ocean Explorers

When Christopher Columbus peered across the vast Atlantic Ocean, he wondered, “Maybe I can cross this pond and get to the riches of India!”

Not a very noble thought, you would think. At best he might just have been thinking of trade, but the track record of exploration till that time is not a pretty sight. The primary motive to set out to sea had been plunder and pillage. And if there was a technological advantage involved, conquest was the usual result. When you stop to think about it, what else would motivate someone to step into the vast desolation of the ocean on a meager pile of wood?

Curiosity drawing explorers into the ocean is a luxury of modern times. There may have been isolated instances of such in the past, whose inevitable failures have not come down to notice. One that has is the expedition of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made it to Britain around the year 325 BC. He used the sightings of the pole star to calculate latitude, and made copious observations of the British Isles which appear to be strictly geographical in nature. He may even have made it to Norway and Iceland.

But whatever the motives of pioneering seafarers, their accomplishments leaves one marveling at the thing called the “indomitable spirit of man”. How desperate for plunder were the Vikings that they had to sail thousands of miles all the way to the coasts of America? Who among the Phoenicians proposed that there was profit to be made by hopping across posts on the Mediterranean Sea? Was Ferdinand Magellan only thinking about profit when he dared to circumnavigate the globe in an 85 ton carrack?

Further back in time there is the abiding mystery of the Polynesian seafarers. When James Cook first came across the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific, he took note of the striking racial similarities between people separated by thousands of miles of ocean. They were clearly related, both genetically and culturally. But they were barely in the Neolithic stage of development. The canoes and catamarans that they had were only used for local island-hopping. But apparently not only had these people crossed endless oceans using similar vessels sometime in the past, they had also taken with them enough seeds and livestock to set up new colonies. Using genetic information, historians now place the period of colonization between 2000 BCE and 800AD.

But other historians refuse to believe it. The logistics simply defy the imagination. To colonize the tiny islands dotted around the Pacific not only requires good ships and well-stocked fleets, but also tremendous navigation skills. On top of which there is the question of why. Nobody believes that population pressure forced these people into the ocean. And why did they suddenly stop? There is no tradition or memory of ocean exploration among the Polynesians today.

Investigators just do not know why or how the Polynesians sailed to every corner of the vast Pacific Ocean. Or is it just that the indomitable spirit of man will confound the skeptics at every turn?

Columbus may only have been selling his idea to Queen Isabella of Spain, but the very fact that he dared to cross the Atlantic marks him out as special. His expedition on the Santa Maria in 1492 kickstarted the Age of Discovery. Eight years later the Portuguese Vasco Da Gama sailed around Africa to India. The 16th century explorers confronted the globe itself. Amerigo Vespucci’s lent his name to the continent that he sailed around. Magellans feat was on the behalf of Spain, while Sir Francis Drake also sailed around the world in the name of the English Crown in the year 1580.

Does it matter that all these efforts were sponsored by states with an eye to colonization? Or is it more important that they took up the challenge of the ocean and overcame? Nobody doubts that the world shed a great part of its mysteries due to the efforts of these intrepid explorers.

The age of discovery opened the way to the age of science. The passion for science of the young Edmund Halley took him all the way to the South Atlantic Ocean in 1676, and his astronomical charts earned him membership in the prestigious Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. This set the precedent of carrying scientists on board in voyages of discovery. Cook was also a keen follower of science, and on his 1768 mission to the South Pacific he took with him the noted naturalist Joseph Banks, who is responsible for naming Sydney’s Botany Bay. The 1831 expedition of the Beagle to the South Pacific carried on board a certain naturalist named Charles Darwin, whose theories sparked a revolution.

Despite the incredible advances in ocean exploration in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ocean still stands before man’s curiosity as the vast unknown. It is commonly quoted that scientists know more about the Moon and Mars than they do about the ocean depths. The immensity of the ocean has challenged the spirit of man from the earliest days of civilization, and continues to do so today.