A Brief History
On December 13, 1577, Francis Drake set out from Plymouth, England on his ship, the Golden Hind, on a voyage that would take the ship and crew around the world, the first circumnavigation of the globe by an English vessel. This voyage, of course, has gone down in history as a famous one, as have the rest of the voyages listed here. We, however, will provide you with some little-known facts about each of these voyages that your teacher probably never told you.
5. HMS Beagle, 1831.
The HMS Beagle was made famous by Charles Darwin who went on a 5-year scientific voyage on it, ultimately resulting in the theory of evolution. For a ship that spent 5 years at sea and circumnavigated the globe,at only about 90 feet long and 24.5 feet wide, the Beagle was relatively small. It had been modified for its scientific voyage by removing 4 of the 10 guns, raising the main deck and adding a mast which changed the ship from a brig-sloop to a bark. On her first voyage of discovery, the captain shot and killed himself. Darwin’s voyage was the second of three science voyages the Beagle embarked on. The voyage was initially planned to last for 2 years, but lasted for 5, during which time the Beagle went down the east coast of South America and up its west coast. In Brazil, Darwin found gigantic fossilized bones of extinct mammals such as Megatherium, the giant sloth, and a hippo-sized rodent called Toxodon. At this time, Darwin was not the old, bearded accomplished naturalist he is often depicted as, but a 22-year-old man who had intended to enter the clergy but studied natural sciences instead. In 1839, Darwin achieved fame by publishing an account of the voyage in his Journal and Remarks, sometimes called Journal and Researches and later renamed The Voyage of the Beagle. It is from these extensive notes that he wrote his later works, including the famous On the Origin of Species which was not published until 1859, 23 years after the voyage. Fossils and samples he brought back were also studied by other men who then gave Darwin’s evolutionary theories some credence.
For those readers who are interested, the following video gives you an idea how the giant sloth, the Megatherium, looked:
4. Ferdinand Magellan, 1519.
Magellan, who embarked on a 3-year voyage around the world, is usually believed to have been the first person to circumnavigate the Earth. The truth, however, is that he died in battle in the Philippines, a little more than halfway around the planet. For some reason, schools do acknowledge that he died enroute, but still give him the credit. Perhaps Juan Sebastian Elcano, the captain who completed the voyage, should be given credit as the first circumnavigator. The epic voyage was attempted with a 5-ship fleet which was led by the flagship Trinidad. The total crew for the 5 ships was about 270 men. Of the 5 ships, only one, the Victoria, made it back to Portugal with about 34 men. Magellan had never intended to sail around the world, which makes his fame as the first circumnavigator all the more confusing. The decision to keep heading west was made by Elcano after Magellan had died.
3. Christopher Columbus, 1492.
Known in Spanish-speaking countries as Cristobal Colon and in Italy as Christoforo Colombo, Columbus went on 4 voyages to the New World. Contrary to popular myth, most educated people at the time of his first voyage understood that the world was round. In other words, the purpose of his first voyage was not to prove that the Earth was not flat. Another common mistake is that he had a ship called the Niña. Niña was only a nickname for the ship actually named the Santa Clara. Likewise, the actual name of the Pinta was also something different, but that name has been lost to history. Also, his ships on his first voyage were tiny by today’s standards; the largest, the Santa Maria, being only 62 feet long by 18 feet wide! Her crew was a mere 40 men. The next largest ship, the Santa Clara (Niña), was only 50 feet long by 16 feet wide and had a crew of 24. Another point often left out of school teachings is that Columbus was a jerk. He was a poor leader and brutal toward the Natives of the Caribbean islands he “discovered.” Eventually Columbus was fired from his “job” as governor of Hispaniola and ended up back in Spain in chains. Finally, Columbus never made it to the mainland of North America, only reaching islands on his first voyages and the coast of South America on his later voyages. One last interesting fact, Columbus never admitted that he had found “new” continents; all the while he believed he had reached Asia.
2. Apollo 11, 1969.
This space voyage that landed the first humans on the moon was portrayed to the public as an example of American technical excellence. Only recently has information surfaced that the landing of the lunar module was fraught with potential disasters, including computer glitches, a low fuel emergency and boulders strewn about the “pad” where it touched down. We now know that the moon landing program had been rushed with insufficient regard to prudent and safe development and that this haste made the trip even more hazardous than was necessary. Also, it was recently discovered that many of the moon rocks brought back to Earth are now missing. Of the sets presented to all 50 states, 11 cannot be accounted for! Other rocks have also disappeared from storage and from countries that had been given them as keepsakes.
1. RMS Titanic, 1912.
Nearly everyone knows how the Titanic, on her maiden voyage, struck an iceberg and sank, taking with her her captain and about 1,500 passengers and crew. Stories of “women and children first” into the lifeboats have perpetuated the myth that this procedure is traditional or even mandatory, but it is not. Apparently, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it probably contributed to the pandemonium in launching the lifeboats. Additionally, a fact not given much coverage is that the lowest class passengers were locked below deck and trapped to drown so as not to compete with higher class passengers for lifeboat spaces. The Titanic also had 2 sister ships who were nearly identical to her, the Olympic and the Britannic. The Britannic is rumored to have initially been named the Gigantic, and that that name was changed when the Titanic was lost. That is probably a myth though. The Olympic had a long and relatively uneventful career, whereas the Britannic was sunk by a mine or torpedo in the Aegean Sea in 1916. Oddly enough, despite depictions of the Titanic as jammed with passengers, she was actually carrying only about half the total number of people her capacity allowed. Also, the Titanic was not the first ship to use the then new distress signal, SOS, but her sinking made its use famous. Now wrap your mind around this: The Titanic burned 610 tons of coal everyday! That is a lot of coal.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been on a voyage on an ocean-going ship or even on a spaceship? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. Empire Books, 2012.
Sir Francis Drake Commission, The University of California, Los Angeles Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, et al. Sir Francis Drake and the Famous Voyage, 1577-1580: Essays Commemorating the Quadricentennial of Drakes Circumnavigation of the Earth (Contributions … for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 11). Univ of California Pr, 1984.