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History’s Most Famous (Although Ill-Fated) Explorers

As the clock struck an hour before midnight, John Cabot walked into the Bar of Lost Souls, his 15th-century explorer’s garb reeking of the sea. Stopping in his tracks, he stroked his white beard and looked around inside the bar, squinting as his lips pursed in mild irritation.

Turning his gaze to a dimly lit corner, Cabot found the man he was looking for.

Ciâo, scignöro Giovanni Caboto!” exclaimed Christopher Columbus, enthusiastically gesturing at Cabot to come closer. He stood up to welcome his fellow seafarer, hat in hand, billowy robe nearly sweeping the floor.

“Come on, Christoforo,” Cabot retorted, ambled toward Columbus’s table. “Make your case quickly, before I regret coming over.”

“Relax, relax! Sit down, my friend,” said Columbus, offering Cabot a seat and a drink.

As Cabot sat down and took a swig of his ale, Columbus continued. “We are but two old Italian explorers, reminiscing about the good old times, yes? Back when the world was full of wonders to be discovered. Besides, if you didn’t like this idea, then why are you here?”

“I had nothing better to do,” Cabot admitted. “After five centuries of aimless wandering, I figured, why not?” He looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “And as much as I’d hate to admit it, it was largely thanks to you and your exploits for Spain that I was able to secure funding from Bristol’s merchants for my own voyage.”

“Then sit down, share your daring exploits with me, and join me in drowning our collective woes in copious amounts of alcohol.” Columbus raised his drink in a toast.

“Fair enough.” Cabot took another gulp.

The Strait Sailor

Italian navigator and explorer John Cabot

“Under orders from King Henry the VII himself, I set sail from Bristol in 1496. With a single ship, we attempted to cross the northern Atlantic. Alas, our first try was ill-fated; the lack of food, unsafe weather conditions, and constant bickering of my idiot crew put our lives at risk and forced us to return to Bristol.”

“In a way, sailing in itself was already courting death,” mused Columbus. “But please, continue.”

“A year later, we tried again. Aboard our ship Matthew, we had an 18-man crew and enough supplies. We journeyed for roughly a month, finally making landfall on… when was it? Ah, June 24. Exactly where we landed, I can no longer remember. I thought we’d reached the northeastern coast of Asia, but time would eventually prove me wrong. As it turned out, we’d ended up in northern America. I think it was either southern Labrador, Newfoundland, or Cape Breton Island. I wish I knew for sure.”

Columbus nodded silently. Cabot reached for his mug once more, downing its contents.

“Could you blame me, though?” he said as he wiped foam off his beard, his voice slightly rising. “I mean, there was practically no one there! It’s not like I could have asked anyone. So, I followed the logical course of action and claimed the land for England.”

“But the king welcomed you back with open arms, yes?”

“Indeed. They were delighted to hear my report, and even funded my second expedition in 1498.”

“Ah, yes. And that’s where it all went to hell.”

“Almost as soon as we left, yes. I don’t even remember what actually happened; I think our fleet was caught in a terrible storm. Next thing I knew, I woke up in the afterlife. Those bloody English bastards didn’t even give me a proper burial—instead, they gave up on trying to find me!” Cabot buried his face in his hands, his words garbled by his blubbery tears.

“There, there,” said Columbus, patting Cabot on the back. “At least they named an entire strait after you, right? Your mistake wasn’t all for naught.”

“O-ho, is that Cabot, inebriated and crying up a storm?! Looks like I arrived just in time!” a loud voice boomed, seemingly out of nowhere. Columbus looked up to see a dark figure walking toward their table.

“Ah, but where are my manners?” The Frenchman gripped the hilt of his sword and bowed. “Bonsoir. Jacques Cartier, at your service.”

“I didn’t know you invited this French butthole to this gathering,” muttered Cabot, abruptly sobering up as he wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Cabot! Glad to see that you are still the same, no?” Cartier took a seat and pulled out his sword, watching flickering lights bouncing off its blade. “The same whiny enfant, crying over his failed attempt to locate Asia. Hah!”

“Hm. You really are as they say you are, Cartier,” observed Columbus. “You do and say whatever you want.”

“But that is the mark of a true explorer, is it not? To survive in those deadly seas and seize glory, one must be uninhibited, ready to do whatever it takes!”

“Ah, yes. And I suppose that includes lying to an entire tribe, right?” Cabot arched an eyebrow.

Un moment, Cabot. Don’t be too hasty. Allow me to tell you the real story, and then you be the judge. After all, is this not why we are all here? To tell our stories?”

Columbus smiled. “Very well, then.”

Cartier slid his sword back into its sheath and gestured to the barman for a drink.

The Tribal Terror

French explorer Jacques Cartier

“Under the authority of King Francis I, I set out to explore the northern lands in May 1534 in the hopes of finding riches for France and a different route to Asia. I had two ships and a 61-man crew. After twenty days of sailing, we reached Newfoundland, where we explored, traded, and hunted birds for survival.”

“Right,” interjected Cabot. “Hunted around a thousand birds, right? Did you know that the birds you slaughtered were great auks? How does it feel, knowing that you were partly responsible for the death of an entire species three centuries later?”

Calmez-vous, s’il vous plait!” Cartier protested. “What we did, we did to survive. Surely, as an explorer yourself, you would not fault us for that?”

“Easy, both of you,” said Columbus. “Continue, dear Cartier.”

Cartier grunted and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “This first voyage also set us on the course of claiming the lands they now call Canada.”

“This was the same adventure where you pissed off the Iroquoians of St. Lawrence, right?” Columbus asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. They initially treated us quite well, but when they realized what I and my crew had set out to do, they were… not so pleasant. Admittedly, that enormous cross I planted there saying ‘Long Live the King of France’ did not help matters. I told them it was nothing more than an insignificant landmark, but they did not seem to believe me.”

Cabot snorted. “I bet kidnapping the sons of the Iroquoian captain didn’t make things easier for you, either.”

Mais non, I did not kidnap them! I persuaded them to come with me with the promise of giving them European goods to trade upon their return to their tribe. There is a significant difference, you know.” Cartier paused briefly to glare at his two-man audience.

“Anyway,” he continued, “the king was so happy with my report that he ordered a second voyage in 1535. That time, I had three ships—the Grande Hermine, the Petite Hermine, and the Émérillon—and twice my original crew.”

“Ah, but karma dealt you a swift hand, did it not?” Columbus regarded Cartier somberly.

Oui, it did. Little did we know that a harsh winter was ahead of us. Nearly a quarter of my men died of scurvy. On top of that, the Iroquois were quite upset with us, and even killed 35 of us! We retaliated by capturing some of their chiefs and hastily retreating to France,” Cartier admitted.

“My third expedition, however, proved to be my last. I sailed back to what is now known as Quebec in 1541, and I found what I thought were precious stones. To my deep regret, my stubbornness got the better of me. Instead of waiting for another party of explorers and joining them in Quebec, I decided to take the minerals we found back to France. There, they discovered that my stash was, to put it bluntly, worthless.”

Cartier sighed. “That marked the end of my career as an explorer, as I no longer received any royal commissions afterwards. Still, I got to name Canada after the word kanata—a word that meant village, which I appropriated from the tribe that wanted my head.”

Columbus grinned. “Fascinating story! Why, I did not even get to name America myself!”

By then, it was a quarter to midnight. As if on cue, the door swung open, and two more explorers walked in: Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée, and British polar explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton.

“Ah,” said Columbus, “Look who the wind brought in!”

“Very funny, Columbus,” replied Andrée. “So, what is this gathering? Five doomed explorers, centuries apart, reminiscing about their glory days?”

“That’s exactly what it is,” affirmed Columbus. “What’s the matter?” “Ahem,” said Andrée, “I didn’t really have any ‘glory days,’ as far as exploration’s concerned.”

A Burst Balloon

Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée

Andrée began: “I was a pioneer in the field of air electricity, having published much about the subject near the turn of the twentieth century.”

“Back then, exploring the North and South Poles were regarded as heroic undertakings. Only the bravest, most brilliant men took on the challenge. Thus, I hatched a plan: I’d take a small team with me and ride a balloon from Svalbard, across the Arctic Ocean, all the way to the North Pole.”

“That sounds like a profoundly stupid idea,” remarked Cartier, “and I say this as a man who lied to an entire tribe and came back to face their wrath.”

“Easy for you to say now, you arrogant Frenchman,” snapped Andrée. “I was convinced that I knew what I was doing. After all, I was the first Swedish balloonist; no one had the audacity to question my calculations. In fact, everyone thought I was a hero! I can see your faces, Columbus and Cabot, and I would appreciate it if you’d stop giggling like a pair of imbeciles.”

“Our apologies, Andrée,” said Columbus through his teeth, trying hard not to burst. “Please, go on.”

“So, I bought a hydrogen balloon in 1893 and named it Svea—”

“You named your balloon?”

“Don’t you name your ships, Cabot? Now shut your pie hole before I stuff it with surströmming. As I was saying, I had the support of some of the greatest people of the age: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Alfred Nobel, and even King Oscar II!”

“So, what happened?” asked Columbus.

“My first attempt on June 7, 1896 ended abruptly because the weather wasn’t cooperating. It was the second attempt a year later that ended in absolute disaster for me and my crew.”

Andrée paused, bowing his head sadly.

“Along with engineer Knut Frænkel and photographer Nils Strindberg, I tried again on July 11, 1897. Within just 10 hours, though, strong winds blew us off track. Four hundred and seventy-five kilometers into our journey, we were forced to land, pulling our supplies and sledges ourselves across the unforgiving terrain. We reached Kvitøya, east of Svalbard, in October. Throughout our journey, we were exhausted, sick, and plagued with indigestion. None of us made it, and no one’s sure exactly what killed us. For all we know, it could have been the constant illnesses, the parasite-ridden polar bear meat we were forced to eat, or asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide from our own stove.”

Andrée paused, seeing their horrified faces. “They would not find our bodies until 33 years later.”

For a long time, everyone was silent.

After what seemed like forever, Shackleton spoke. “Okay, time for a more uplifting story, no?”

The Ice Hero

British polar explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

“Back in 1914, I decided to be the first person to cross the Antarctic via sea,” said Shackleton. “I was certain I could accomplish this: I was not only experienced explorer, but also highly motivated.”

“Interesting,” said Columbus. “How so?”

“Simple: I almost discovered the South Pole, had I not been off by about a hundred miles.”

Columbus nodded. “Ah. How unfortunate. Go on.”

“My 28-man crew and I left on our ship, the HMS Endurance, on January 19. Unfortunately, we managed to get ourselves stuck between two gigantic ice floes and couldn’t free ourselves. My crew had no other choice but to brave the winter. We finally abandoned ship on October 27—nine months after we started our voyage—as it had already fallen apart.”

Shackleton drummed his fingers on the table. “We survived on whatever food and supplies we could find. For the next four months, we dragged our supplies and ourselves across the Antarctic, hoping to find open water and sail to safety.”

Cabot raised an eyebrow. “And then what happened?”

“The ice cracked.”

The assembled explorers stared at Shackleton.

“The ice cracked,” Shackleton shrugged, “and we were in danger of either drowning or being eaten by killer whales. None of us were planning to die there, though, so we soldiered on until we reached Elephant Island. There, I left most of my crew and set sail in a 20-foot boat to find help. I was trying to reach South Georgia Island, and I did. The wrong side of the island, though. I had to travel for a day and a half across that 4,500-foot-tall mountain range to find people who could help us.”

Cartier raised his mug to Shackleton. “Tres bien. So, how many of your men did you save?”

“All 28 of my crew survived.”

The other explorers gasped. “Remarkable,” exclaimed Cabot, without a hint of sarcasm. “You must have been considered a hero back home after that.”

“Indeed,” said Shackleton. “All I cared about, though, was getting my men to safety.”

“That truly was fascinating,” Columbus agreed. “Anyway, I’m happy that you all made it—”

“Wait,” remembered Cabot. “You haven’t told us your story yet!”

“What’s there to tell?” Columbus shrugged. “I led expeditions to discover new lands, started the Columbian Exchange of goods in the places I visited, and brought honor and glory to Spain. In fact, you said it yourself, Cabot: If it weren’t for me, your expeditions wouldn’t get funded.”

“Ah, but that’s not the entire story, right?” said a voice from behind them.

The five explorers turned around; to their shock, it was none other than Ferdinand Magellan, in the flesh. In a manner of speaking.

“Ferdinand!” Columbus rose and shook the newcomer’s hand. “What a surprise! What brings you here?”

“Brings me here?” Magellan laughed heartily. “Columbus, I run this bar. And you don’t run a bar for over half a millennium without hearing some really interesting stories.” Magellan winked. “And I’ve heard quite a few about you.”

The Cruel Ruler

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus

Magellan took a seat at their table and continued. “Your main goal was to find an easier route to the spice-trade ports of India, right?”

“Yes, and?”

“You never really succeeded in doing that. However, you did manage to leave a bloody trail, didn’t you?”

“W-Well, as I have testified multiple times to the powers that be, I feel deep sorrow for all of the so-called crimes allegedly committed by my crew. I also believe that I have endured enough by having my good name ruined by these accusations from the historians in the land of the living.”

“Is that so?” asked Magellan. “Some of the living still believe that you ‘discovered’ America. Which is ridiculous, as you didn’t even reach North America.”

Magellan went on. Columbus shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“All things considered, you weren’t a good leader. Most people aren’t even aware of your reign of terror as the governor of the Caribbean Islands. You enslaved and tortured the natives, overworked and underfed your crew, and even condoned the selling of children as sex slaves!”

Columbus remained quiet, unable to look at anyone.

“In fact, when you returned to Spain in 1496, your reputation had been so tarnished by your actions and by reports of your cruelty that you were eventually stripped of your titles and positions. And so did your life end: plagued with gout, arthritis, the atrocities you committed, and your failure to achieve your main objective.” Magellan gave Columbus an even look.

“Tha-that’s quite unfair, I think,” stammered Columbus, his face a mix of anger and shame.

“Fortunately, none of us here are in any position to pass judgment, my friend,” smiled Magellan, putting his hand on Columbus’s shoulder. “I merely shared all of that because it only felt fair to do so. Besides, you can’t go back in time and fix things. That doesn’t make any of it okay, but… what can we do?”

Columbus relaxed a bit. An awkward silence fell upon the group.

“If it helps, I’ll share my story too,” said Magellan. “As far as failures go, my record’s hardly clean.”

“How so?” asked Cabot. “You led the first expedition that circumnavigated the world, didn’t you?”

“I started it,” Magellan clarified, “but I didn’t live long enough to finish it. Remember that whole business with Mactan and Lapu-Lapu’s forces? Why, I still wince when I remember what they did to me.”

“Wait,” said Shackleton. “There are conflicting accounts about your death. Were you really slashed and stabbed in battle, or was it a poisoned arrow?”

“Ah. that’s easy,” replied Magellan. “Here’s the truth…”