The Role of Explorers in Establishing the Limits of Empire

Exploration played a key role in the history of the British Empire. At one level, explorers were required to discover new lands, chart the seas and map the coastlines. Soon though, explorers would go beyond this simple map making exercise as they searched for suitable ports, sources of raw materials and plotted out trade routes. The initial wave of explorers were all sea based. Many of these sailors tried to navigate up rivers and along lakes in the search for resources, peoples and establishing trade links. After a while though, they would have to leave their ships and move to overland exploration and travels. They were often searching for raw materials such as gold, silver or precious gems. Often they would end up discovering new foods, drinks or products that might be sold back in Europe. The next stage was often finding places suitable for the growing of crops, raising of livestock or for fishing - bearing in mind geography, weather conditions and soils available. When places had been earmarked for consideration as colonies, explorers would end up looking at more and more marginal lands as they filled in the blanks of their maps; mountains, deserts, jungles and the polar regions would all receive the exploration treatment. By this time, the economic returns on exploration were declining but the knowledge was still regarded as important either for strategic defence considerations or to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the environments or peoples of the region.

Exploration would take on a matter of prestige between rival European Empires as each sought advantages over each other. They would also spur each other on as one nation's explorers used the information gleaned from another nation's to undertake yet more ambitious journeys. The idea of being the first to discover a place giving the right to claim it added to the competitive atmosphere. Not everywhere was claimed though. If there were found to be powerful political entities in place that might require excessive effort to subjugate or areas that were deemed to have little or no economic value were bypassed and ignored. Over time though even these were hoovered up as European Empires fretted about others hemming their own colonies in or strategically challenging them. Even deserts, jungles and polar regions became desirable eventually.

The role of explorers was fundamental to the imperial project but this role evolved and changed by necessity or a change in priorities over the centuries. This section will examine the various stages of exploration and highlight the role of significant individuals.

The Tudor Era
English exploration started surprisingly early - although with help from the Continent. In 1492, Columbus had discovered the New World on behalf of Spain, but news travelled fast across Europe and the English were keen to try and take advantage of this news. Unfortunately for England, they did not possess the long list of skills and knowledge to undertake ocean going journeys on a continental scale. They therefore turned to sailors from the Continent who might be able to undertake the voyages on England's behalf - much as Columbus had done on behalf of Spain. John Cabot from Venice offered his services to Henry VII. The arrangement suited both of them as Henry received the necessary expertise and Cabot received a patron but also he believed, correctly, that the Northern route across the Atlantic might be significantly shorter than the equatorial one taken by Columbus. Cabot duly crossed the Atlantic in search not just of a route to the New World but hoping to find a route directly through to the riches of Asia. Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese, who were busy exploring southwards, he was hoping that he could find a North Westerly passage. In then end, instead of finding the riches of the Orient, he found the barren rock-ribbed coast of Cape Breton Island, off the coast of Canada. In further voyages his record was no better: unfriendly sightings of Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and New England. He did bring back some eskimos as curiosities to the court of Henry and tales of fantastic fish-banks off the coast of Newfoundland, but otherwise the economic prospects for this New World were wholly underwhelming. The merchants of British ports continued their trade with Europe and lost interest in the New World for the time being. The disappearance of John Cabot's final voyage confirmed the dangers for both explorers and investors alike. Exploration was put on the backburner. John's son, Sebastian Cabot continued working for the English Crown for a while, but he became disillusioned with the extent of England's ambitions and transferred his skills and talents to Spain.

Henry VIII's reign did little more to stimulate interest in exploration - a few more expeditions were launched to try and discover the North West route to China. English merchants seemed to delude themselves to the fact that the Chinese and the Orient might well demand English wool, the country's primary export. They seemed to overlook the weather patterns in Asia and the fact that Asians were producing far better quality cloths and clothes than anything being produced in Europe at the time. Still, Richard Hore set off in 1536 in an expedition to find the elusive North-West passage that was to end in disaster and cannibalism. Members of the crew did return to England, eventually, but their tales of woe acted to deter others from following them. Henry VIII's reign became tied up with trying to resolve matters of religion and asserting England's rising ambitions vis-a-vis the continent. Henry's reign though did establish the groundwork for the later colonial adventurers of his daughter Elizabeth. He used much of the wealth taken from the Catholic monasteries to build up the military infrastructure of England. A key element of this program was in developing his seapower - even if the target was France and Spain rather than for any global exploratary expeditions. It is also clear that English fishermen, amongst others, took Cabot's claims of great fisheries off the coast of his 'newfoundland' and began journeying across the Atlantic to exploit the cod stocks there. Slowly but surely England was expanding its expertise and skills base of its mariners and it was only to be a matter of time before these were to be utilised to their full potential.

Picture Name Year
John Cabot 1450 - 1498/9
Sebastian Cabot 1474 - 1557/8
Sir Humphrey Gilbert 1539 - 1583
Francis Drake c1542 - 1596
Walter Raleigh 1552 - 1618
Richard Hawkins 1562 - 1622
Sir John Henry Lefroy
1817 - 1890
William Speirs Bruce 1867 - 1921

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by Stephen Luscombe