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.
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 food 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.
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, CuraÃ§ao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Montserrat, Navassa Island, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint BarthÃ©lemy, 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 was first claimed by Portuguese sailors in the service of Infante D. Henrique in 1419, who were driven by storm to an island harbor which they called Porto Santo. Settlement of the island began in 1420 and by 1433 it was known as Ilha da Madeira.
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 Jews, Moorish 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.
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.
SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE
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. Permanent settlement of Sao Tome was began in 1493 and 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.
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.
Saint Helena, one of the most remote islands in the world, was uninhabited when discovered by the by the Galician navigator Joao da Nova (sailing in service of Portugal) in 1502. 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.
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.
TRISTAN DA CUNHA
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha
Tristao da Cunha first sited and named Ilha de Tristao 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 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.
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.
The crater on Île Saint-Paul (image source: Sophie Lautier)
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 Svalbardarchipelago, however, was in 1596 by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596. The largest island isSpitsbergen, 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.
DIEGO RAMIREZ 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 land mass 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.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLANDS
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.
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 theUK over their control and 258 people died.
NEW 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 have re-established a presence in an old Soviet base that was abandoned in 1993.
French navigator Jean Marie Briand de la Feuillée first spoted 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.
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
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
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, 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 (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 Expeditionbecame 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 AND MCDONALD ISLANDS
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 being 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.
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 RÃ¸nnbeckor 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 Payerand 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)
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.
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 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.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing,Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.