Happy Discovery Day — Real Geographic Discoveries of the Modern Age

Portrait of Columbus

I will not make the argument that Columbus‘s arrival in the New World was insignificant merely because he was an absolutely awful person or because he didn’t actually discover anything (which he himself maintained, claiming until his death that he’d merely found a different route to Asia). But think about this before you dismiss — before Columbus, avocado, bell peppers, blueberries, cashews, cassava root, chili peppers, chocolate, cocaine, gourds, maize, peanuts, pecans pineapples, pumpkins, squash, tobacco, tomatoes, and vanilla were all unknown in the Old World and alcohol, apples, bananas, barley, cheese, coffee, mango, onions, rice, tea, and turnips, and wheat were unknown in the Americas. Imagine an existence without any of those and you can hopefully begin to get a taste of the importance of the Columbian Exchange. Imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce or gnocchi and you can’t help but wonder if this is why Columbus is so dear to many Italians. Imagine, on the other hand, genocide, slavery, and old world diseases and you’ll understand why he’s even more hated by many others.

Echo & the Bunnymen“Seven Seas”

We all know now that Columbus wasn’t the first European to visit the Americas either — but neither was Leif Erikson. Europeans had been living in the North American territory of Greenland since sometime between 876 and 932 CE when Gunnbjorn Ulfsson was blown off course and sited the world’s largest island. Around 978, Snæbjörn Galti was the probably first European to set foot on Greenland but we rightly don’t make a big deal out of that since there were already Inuits living there and before them, an earlier people who’d arrived and abandoned the country — and that cultural exchange was by most measures, less impactful on the planet.

The Divine Comedy – “A Seafood Song”

Greenland, of course, is just as much a part of North America as are the Bahamas (where Columbus landed) as are the US and Canada — or Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Clipperton Island, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curaçao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Montserrat, Navassa Island, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and United States Virgin Islands, for that matter.

Crime & the City Solution – “The Bride Ship”

The fact is that people have been exploring for roughly 1.8 million since Homo erectus first caught that ramblin’ fever years ago and identifying the first European to do something is a silly pursuit. Exploration and adventuring, on the other hand, is vital and something done by all good people (and plenty of bad). Most of the inhabitable world was discovered in antiquity but in the post-Classical age, new lands were still being discovered by humans around the planet — especially Arab, Austronesian, and European seafarers. In the15th Century, the more isolated islands of the Atlantic were still being added to maps with some regularity and discovery of islands in the Arctic and Southern Oceans continued into the 20th Century. Here then is a look at some of the real discoveries of the modern age — previously uninhabited lands just waiting for humans to despoil them.


Madeira (image source: World for Travel)

Madeira was first claimed by Portuguese sailors in the service of Infante D. Henrique in 1419, who were driven by a storm to an island harbor which they called Porto Santo. The settlement of the island began in 1420 and by 1433 it was known as Ilha da Madeira.


Azorean chamaritta

The Azores were known of in the 14th Century but humans didn’t begin to colonize them until 1433. Before arriving, sheep were deposited to establish a food source for the colonists, who included Sephardic JewsMoorish prisoners and African slaves, as well as Flemish, French, and Spanish colonists. Nowadays there are about a quarter of a million residents of the country.


Morna performed in the documentary Dix petits grains de terre

The volcanic islands of the Cape Verde archipelago were discovered by Italian and Portuguese navigators around 1456. The first settlement, founded in 1462, was the first European settlement in the tropics. Located off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde’s economy was predictably built on the back of the slave trade but the African population was joined by Jewish refugees from the Inquisition, as well as Dutch, French, British, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and other settlers.


São Tomé and Príncipe
Sao Tome and Principe (image source: Shut Up and Take Me There)

The islands of Sao Tome and Principe were uninhabited before the arrival of the Portuguese who arrived sometime between 1469 and 1471 — led by explorers Joao de Santarem and Pero Escobar. The permanent settlement of Sao Tome was begun in 1493 and the settlement of Principe followed in 1500. Few colonists came until Jews (and other undesirables) began to be settled there by the Portuguese. Today there are about 190,000 Sao Tomeans.


Sega musician Denis Azor

Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, first appeared on an Italian map in 1502. It may have been known to earlier Arab mariners, who made reference to an uninhabited island called Dina Harobi, the identity of which has not been conclusively identified. The Portuguese visited between 1507 and 1513 but it wasn’t until 1638 that Mauritius was settled by the Dutch East India Company. Humans are, of course, rarely the true discoverers of anything and the Dutch were preceded by the dodo, which they famously drove to extinction after 1662.


Upper Jamestown, Saint Helena
Jamestown, Saint Helena (image source: Burghouse)

Saint Helena, one of the most remote islands in the world, was uninhabited when discovered by the Galician navigator Joao da Nova (sailing in service of Portugal) in 1502. The permanent settlement of Saint Helena was begun by the English in 1659. Napoleon Bonaparte was famously imprisoned there by the British as was, less famously, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu leader who led an armed struggle against the British.


Gombey dancers in Bermuda

Bermuda, located 1,030 kilometers off the coast of North Carolina, was discovered by Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermudez in 1503. Not wanting to risk a shipwreck, he claimed the island for Spain but never set foot upon it. Pigs were later transported to the island to establish a food source for future colonists, who arrived via shipwreck in 1609. The entire crew of the Sea Venture, including a dog, survived but all but three sailed on to Jamestown in 1610.


Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha

Tristão da Cunha first sited and named Ilha de Tristão da Cunha, in 1506 but he never landed. The first visitors were the crew of the Heemsteded, captained by Claes Gerritsz Bierenbroodspot, who landed in 1643. The first permanent settler of Tristan da Cunha (as it is known in English) was Jonathan Lambert of Salem, Massachusetts, who arrived at the remote volcanic islands in December 1810 with two other men. Located in the Atlantic Ocean, 2,000 kilometers from the nearest inhabited land (Saint Helena), Tristan da Cunha is today the most remote human settlement. Most of the island’s 297 residents live in a small village called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.


Ã?le Amsterdam
Île Amsterdam (image source: Institut Polair)

Île Amsterdam, located in the southern Indian Ocean, was discovered by the Basque explorer Juan Sebastian Elcano on 18 March 1522. Since Elcano didn’t record a name, Dutch captain Anthonie van Diemen named it Nieuw Amsterdam after his ship in 1633. The first recorded landing on Île Amsterdam was made in December 1696 by Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh. From 1792 to 1795, French Pierre Francois Peron was marooned there and recollected his experience in the memoir, Memories. Attempts were made to permanently settle the island in 1871 but were abandoned seven months later — along with a small herd of cattle. It is currently home to about 30 non-permanent resident scientists.


Musicians in the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of eighteen main islands and many smaller islets. They were first visited by humans in 1535, when the Bishop of Panamá, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, was blown off course and found himself there. In, 1684, buccaneer Ambrose Cowley mad perhaps the first map or the archipelago and named them individually after British pirates and noblemen. Naturalist Charles Darwin famously visited them and studied their endemic species whilst researching and writing his book, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Ecuador took control of the islands in 1832 and subsequently gave the islands official Spanish names. Nowadays there are about 25,000 living on four of the islands, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristobal.


Ile Saint-Paul
The crater on Île Saint-Paul (image source: Sophie Lautier)

Île Saint-Paul was first discovered in 1559 by the Portuguese crew of the Nau Sao Paulo. The island’s first human visitor, however, was likely George William Robinson, an American sealer who hunted there from 1819 until 1821. In 1889, Charles Lightoller was shipwrecked on the island for eight days after the Holt Hill ran aground. He would later serve as Second Officer on the RMS Titanic and publish an autobiography titled Titanic and Other Ships. In 1928 a group of Bretons and Madagascans attempted to establish a lobster cannery. By March 1930 all but seven had returned home. When relief came that December only three were rescued as five had died (a child had been born and died). There is currently a scientific research station but no permanent population.



Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen

The Norse referred to a land called Svalbaro (“cold shores”) as early as the 12th century and it may have referred to Greenland, Svalbard, or Jan Mayen Island. The first conclusive sighting of the Svalbard archipelago, however, was in 1596 by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596. The largest island is Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeoya. Smeerenburg, one of the first permanent settlements, was established by the Dutch in 1619, most of whom were involved in hunting. Today there are today roughly 2,600 people living there, mostly in the town of Longyearbyen.


Flying Fish Cove at Christmas Island (Image source: David Stanley)

The Christmas Island referred to here is an Australian island territory in the Indian Ocean. There are also an island known as Christmas Island off the coast of northwest Tasmania and Kirimati — an island of Kiribati — is also called “Christmas Island.” Although located only 430 kilometers or so off the coast of West Java, there is no evidence that it was inhabited prior to the 17th century.

In 1615, it was sighted by Richard Rowe of the Thomas. It was named by Captain William Mynors of the Royal Mary, a vessel of the English East India Company when he sailed past on Christmas Day in 1643. When it first appeared on a map, however, Dutch cartographer Pieter Goos labeled it “Mony” or “Moni,” the meaning of which is unclear. It was first visited by two crew members of the Cygnet, captained by English navigator William Dampier, who made landfall in the spring of 1688 whilst on his way from New Holland to Cocos. The first attempt at exploration came in 1857 when crewmembers of the Amethyst tried and failed to reach the island’s summit. The settlement of the island followed in the wake of the discovery of phosphate of lime in 1888.

Map of Christmas. This map was produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, unless otherwise indicated. Maps dated 1976 were taken from The Indian Ocean Atlas, published by the Central Intelligence Agency.

As of the 2016 Australian census, the population of Christmas Island was 1,843. Most of the inhabitants are of Chinese, Australian, Malay, or English ancestry.


Diego Ramírez Islands

The Diego Ramírez Islands were first sighted on 12 February 1619 by the Garcia de Nodal expedition. They were named after the cosmographer of the expedition, Diego Ramirez de Arellano, and were the southernmost known landmass for 156 years until the discovery of the South Sandwich Islands. A Chilean meteorological station, built in 1957, is today the southernmost human-occupied site in South America.


Marion Island, South Africa
Marion Island (Image source: AQUAzone)

The Prince Edward Islands, two small, volcanic islands in the Indian Ocean, were first sighted in 1663 by Barent Barentszoon Lam of the Dutch ship Maerseveen who named them Maerseveen and Dina. The first landing likely took place in 1799, when a group of French sealers headed ashore. In 1908, the British government assumed ownership of the islands and granted William Newton the exclusive right to exploit guano deposits for the next 21 years. Shipwreck survivors established a settlement called Fairbairn in 1908. In 2003 the islands were declared Special Nature Reserves and the only residents are the staff of a science station operated by the South African National Antarctic Programme on Marion Island.


Grytviken in South Georgia Island
Grytviken in South Georgia Island

The South Atlantic island of South Georgia were the first Antarctic territory to be discovered. There were sightings of islands sometimes now believed to have been South Georgia as early as 1502 but most believe that it was discovered by English merchant Anthony de la Roché, whose ship was blown off course whilst attempting to sail from Chiloé to Salvador, Brazil. La Roché found refuge for fourteen days in 1675 and returned to London in 1678 where he published an account of his voyage. No territorial claims were made of Roche Island and in 1775 it was surveyed by Captain James Cook, who renamed the island after King George III.


It’s possible that French navigator Binot Paulmier de Gonneville was the first human to see the Falkland Islands in 1504 and many more possible sightings have been recorded since (some of which were likely of icebergs). However, the first human to go ashore was almost certainly Englishman John Strong, who stopped there in 1690 on his way to South America and named the archipelago after Viscount Falkland. The Falklands remained uninhabited until the 1764 establishment of Port Louis on East Falkland by French captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville. In 1982, The Falklands War kicked off between Argentina and the UK over their control and 258 people died.


Northern Fleet personnel is reestablishing a base on the island of Kotelny at the North Siberian Islands.
Reestablishing a base on the island of Kotelny 

In 1710, a Cossack explorer, Yakov Permyakov, sighted two previously unknown arctic islands — later named Bolshoy Lyakhovsky and the Medvyezhi Islands — part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago. In 1712 he returned with Merkury Vagin to explore the islands but the two were murdered by mutineering members of their expedition. Located north of Yakutia it seems conceivable that they were already known to the indigenous North Asian Yakuts — something which isn’t recorded — but they had never been colonized although the Russian Navy in September 2014 has re-established a presence in an old Soviet base that was abandoned in 1993.


Tromelin Island

French navigator Jean Marie Briand de la Feuillée first spotted Tromelin Island in 1722 and named it Île de Sable. The island, 450 kilometers east of Madagascar, was first “settled” when a French slave shipwrecked offshore and sixty slaves were abandoned by the crew, who used a raft to return to Madagascar. Fifteen years later the surviving slaves and their offspring were “rescued” by Bernard Boudin de Tromelin, after whom the island was renamed.


Crozet Base
Alfred Faure in the Crozet Islands (image source: Jorge Sanchez

The Crozet Islands are a group of islands which include IÎle aux Cochons, Île des Pingouins, Îlots des Apôtres, Île de la Possession, and Île de l’Est. They were first discovered on 24 January 1772 by Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne. Having already named Marion Island after himself, the islands were named after his second-in-command, Julien-Marie Crozet. After the discovery, sealers arrived and nearly eradicated the entire population by 1835. Shipwrecks were common as well and in 1821, the Princess of Wales sank stranding her crew on the island for two years. In 1887, the stranded crew of the wrecked Tamaris tied a note to the leg of an albatross, which was retrieved although the crew were not until all had perished. The islands have been a nature reserve since 1938 and the mice, rats, cats, pigs, and goats brought by humans have all been exterminated. The islands are currently uninhabited except for a single research station, Alfred Faure, which has been lived in since 1963.


Bouvet Island
Bouvet Island (image source: Atlas Obscura)

Bouvet Island was discovered by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier on 1 January 1739. However, he incorrectly recorded its location in the Southern Ocean and it wasn’t seen again until 1808 when British whaler James Lindsay spied it and renamed it Lindsay Island. Although disputed, the first claim of landing was by American sealer Benjamin Morrell. It was later named Liverpool Island and finally, in 1927, Bouvetoya, or “Bouvet Island” in Norwegian. In 1928, a Norwegian expedition attempted to establish a meteorological station but no suitable location was found and a hut built and flagpole erected the previous year were found to have been washed away. It became a nature reserve in 1971 and it is uninhabited by humans.


South Sandwich Islands (image source: Vidar Bakken-Oceanwide Expeditions)
South Sandwich Islands (image source: Vidar Bakken-Oceanwide Expeditions)


Captain James Cook discovered the southern eight islands of the Sandwich Islands group in 1775, which he tentatively named “Sandwich Land.” They were later discovered to be a series of islands and were renamed the South Sandwich Islands to distinguish them from Hawai’i, which although already inhabited and named, were referred to by the English as the Sandwich Islands. A permanently manned Argentine research station was located on Thule Island from 1976 to 1982 but today the islands are uninhabited.


A Kerguelen cabbage growing on Péninsule Rallier du Baty, Grande Terre
A Kerguelen cabbage growing on Péninsule Rallier du Baty, Grande Terre

The Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, are a group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean located more than 3,000 kilometers from the nearest human settlement. The main island, Grande Terre, is surrounded by 300 smaller ones. They were discovered by Breton navigator Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec on 12 February, 1772. James Cook visited in 1776 and discovered the message left by Yves de Kerguelen claiming them for France. Whalers and sealers drove both animals to near extinction. In 1940, Bernhard Herrmann — a soldier on the German ship Atlantis — died from injuries resulting from a fall on his ship and was buried ashore. There is no permanent population but between 45 and 100 French scientists and others live there.



Rockall, a remote granite islet in the North Atlantic, has been known of since at least the late 16th Century but the earliest recorded date for a landing upon it is 1810 when a Royal Navy officer named Basil Hall led a small landing party from the HMS Endymion Rockall’s summit and which were subsequently stranded there for what must have been a terrifying few hours. The islet is located 370 kilometers from Scotland‘s Outer Hebrides and fewer than twenty individuals have been confirmed to land upon it. The longest confirmed continuous stay is 42 days.


Macquarie Island isthmus

Macquarie Island, located in the Southern Ocean, was discovered in 1810 by sealer and whaler Captain Frederick Hasselburgh. In 1977 Macquarie Island, an important breeding ground for many types of animal, became a Biosphere Reserve and there are no human residents.


Mount Erebus in Antarctica
Mount Erebus in Antarctica (image source: Antoine Perroud)

There is no evidence that Antarctica had ever been seen by human eyes before 1820 although its existence had been hypothesized for millennia. A captain in the Imperial Russian Navy (Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen) and a captain in the Royal Navy (Edward Bransfield) first sited Antarctica in 1820. The first documented landing on the frozen desert took place in 1821 when American sealer John Davis landed at Hughes Bay. Edgeworth David and three other members of Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole in 1907. An expedition led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the geographic South Pole in 1911. Several governments maintain research stations on the continent and the population varies from about 1,000 in winter to 5,000 in summer.


Heard Island
Heard Island and destroyer

The barren, volcanic Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HMI) were first charted in the 1830s and Heard Island was named by American captain John Heard, who sighted the island from his ship, Oriental, upon which he was journeying from Boston to Melbourne. The McDonald Islands were named by the captain of the Samarang, Captain William McDonald, six weeks later in 1854. No landing took place on the Heard Island until March 1855, when sealers from the Corinthian, led by Captain Erasmus Darwin Rogers, went ashore at a place called Oil Barrel Point. Around 200 sealers settled on the island until they’d almost completely decimated them by 1880 and, their job done, they left. Scientists have occasionally visited and camped since but there is no permanent settlement. The first landing on McDonald Island didn’t occur until 1971 when Australian scientists Grahame Budd and Hugh Thelander arrived via helicopter. The McDonald Islands are also uninhabited by humans.


Heiss Island, Franz Josef Land
Heiss Island, Franz Josef Land (image source: Jeffrey Donenfeld)


Franz Josef Land was discovered in 1865 either by Norwegian seal hunters led by Nils Fredrik Rønnbeckor a Russian scientist, N.G. Schilling. None of them reported their findings at the time and the first reported siting occurred in 1873, when an expedition to the North Pole led by Austro-Hungarians Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht named the Arctic archipelago after Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Soviets annexed them in 1926 and built a small outpost which has since been abandoned and since 1994 the islands have been a nature sanctuary.


Norwegian landing team on Victoria Island (1930)
Norwegian landing team on Victoria Island (1930)

Victoria Island in the Arctic Ocean was discovered in 1898 by two Norwegian sealing captains, Johannes Nilsen and Ludvig Bernard Sebulonsen. Nilsen named the island after his the steam yacht of his employer, English adventurer Arnold Pike. Eager to claim the remote and icy rock, Norway sent a team to establish a presence but were scuppered by severe weather. In 1930 a second attempt was made and seven men followed Gunnar Horn, who left building materials and raised a flag. However, in 1932 the USSR annexed the island and Norway quietly relinquished their claim.


Severnaya ZemlyaSevernaya Zemlya (image source: DXing.at-communication)

Located across the Vilkitsky Strait from Tamymr Peninsula, it’s possible that that region’s indigenous North Asian people, the Nenets, already knew of Severnaya Zemlya when it was first added to Russian maps after being sited during the 1913-1915 Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition of icebreakers Taimyr andVaigach. It was explored from 1930-1932, making it the last archipelago on Earth to be charted. Today it is uninhabited except for a single Arctic base.


Ushakov Island


Ushakov Island is located in the Arctic Ocean halfway between Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya. It was only discovered by humans in 1935 when Icebreaker Sadko carried Soviet explorer, cartographer, and oceanographer Georgiy Alekseevich Ushakov ashore. The first wintering too place in 1954, when a polar station was installed.

I hope the fact that most of the world has now been discovered by people (and in some cases left mostly unmolested), don’t get too hung up on not being able to go where no one has gone before. The ego trip is the one journey best left unmade.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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