The brutal and exploitative European conquests of the Americas, Australia, the Pacific and Antarctica all begin with seafaring adventurers, sailing bravely and madly off into the unknown. Here's five of the toughest survivors and their incredible stories.


(1) Magellan’s circumnavigation

Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe.

Sailing survivors: Ferdinand Magellan

Sailing survivors: Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the world, taking three years and losing four of his five ships and more than 240 of his 260-strong original crew.

Embarking in 1519, the success of his five-ship Spanish-sponsored flotilla did much to change our understanding of world geography, but the three-year voyage also went down in history as one of the most deadly, claiming the lives of hundreds of people. The original purpose was to find an alternative route to the spice-rich Moluccas Islands that the Spaniards could use without breaching the rights of the Portuguese as laid down in a Papal treaty. Magellan was therefore seen as a traitor to his homeland and the trip was immediately beset by infighting, mutinies and desertions among his multinational crew. In fact, the long voyage proved so grueling that when Magellan finally got back to Spain in September 1522, his flotilla had been reduced to a single ship and just 18 men from the original contingent of 260. Small wonder it would be another 58 years before anyone would attempt the same feat – and the man to do it would be our own Sir Francis Drake...


(2) Drake’s piratical rampage

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake was chosen by Queen Elizabeth I to lead an expedition around South America and beyond.

Sailing survivors: Sir Francis Drake

Sailing survivors: Sir Francis Drake was a glorified pirate operating under license from Queen Elizabeth I and returned in 1580 with enough treasure to pay off the entire national debt of Britain.

However, this was not a quest for the edification of mankind. On the contrary, Drake was given express permission to secure vast profits for himself and his Queen – and if at all possible to do as much damage to the Spanish as he could. In effect, he was unleashed as a pirate with royal patronage. It wasn’t long before Drake’s appetite for the task was rewarded with the capture of six tons of treasure from a high-value Spanish Galleon and that was just the beginning. He continued west in his flagship, the Golden Hinde, and when he eventually returned to Plymouth in September 1580, he did so with only 56 men and one ship left, but the loot he had collected amounted to more than 47 times the money invested in the voyage. Of course, it would eventually result in the Anglo-Spanish War, but it also managed to pay off the entire national debt, win him a knighthood and guarantee him a place in the annals of maritime history.


(3) Cook’s secret voyage

At the time, Cook’s now famous voyage of 1768 appeared to be prompted by the Royal Society.

James Cook

Cook became the first European to encounter the south-eastern corner of the land known as Terra Australis.

Funded by King George III, its purpose was firstly to witness the 1769 Transit of Venus in Tahiti, and secondly to chart the vast unknown tracts of the South Pacific. The ship to be used was a flat-bottomed 106-footer called Endeavour and its company of 73 sailors and 12 Royal Marines was supplemented by cartographers, astronomers, botanists and naturalists and led by Lieutenant James Cook. However, once the Pacific observations of Venus had been carried out, Cook opened a sealed order for the second phase of his mission – only to discover that the first phase (celestial observations on a small and inconspicuous ship like Endeavour) had merely been a cover to enable Britain to discover the fabled Southern Continent of Terra Australis and claim its riches before any of its European rivals. He pushed on and after landing in New Zealand and charting its coastline, he moved west, past Tasmania, and in so doing, became the first European to encounter the southeastern corner of the Australian continent. He spent more than four months charting the entire east coast – and while British colonial rule would eventually prove disastrous for the Aboriginals, the continent’s discovery was a huge boon for Britain, who had recently lost control of the American colonies. Cook would eventually die on another Pacific expedition but not before his enlightened form of exploration had charted thousands of miles of fresh coastline, solved a great many mysteries and (with remarkably few deaths on his missions) provided a working model for a mariner’s good health during long spells at sea.


(4) Bligh’s tropical exile

It might have been glamourised on the big screen but Captain Bligh’s small boat voyage in 1789 remains one of the most astonishing feats of maritime endurance ever recorded.

Captain Bligh

Captain William Bligh famously covered 3,600 miles of open ocean on a 23ft open boat loaded with 18 people bailing water every day and surviving on meagre rations.

Having suffered a mutiny on board his ship, HMS Bounty, the famously tough (some say tyrannical) Bligh was cast adrift in a 23-foot open boat with 18 loyal shipmates whose loyalty had more to do with a wish to return to England than a fondness for their Skipper. However, under Bligh, their struggle for survival saw them navigate more than 3,600 nautical miles over 47 days from Tofua to Timor with nothing but a compass, a sextant, a quadrant and a pocket watch. With an eight-inch freeboard, the men were constantly forced to bail out, as well as survive on meagre daily rations but despite their hardships and the constant threat of a second mutiny, only one man was lost. More would subsequently succumb to fever, but Bligh himself would reach England 11 months after the original mutiny, whereupon he was greeted with immediate promotion and an assurance that the mutineers would be brought to book.

(5) Shackleton’s Polar escape

In 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton launched an outrageously ambitious expedition to traverse the entire Antarctic Continent on foot.


After five months icebound off Antarctica, Sir Ernest Shackleton's team of 18 made it to Elephant Island in three small, open boats, after which, he and five others sailed a further 800 miles and hiked across a mountain range to raise the alarm.

The plan was to cover 1,800 miles of largely uncharted territory from the Weddell Sea coast via the Pole to the Ross Sea coast but in the event, things went badly wrong. His ship, SY Endurance, got trapped in pack ice before it could set them ashore and after being pushed hundreds of miles out to sea, it was crushed by the ice and sank. This left the entire 28-man crew cut off on drifting ice with just three small lifeboats. They managed to survive for more than five months in this perilous condition before, in April 1916, the melt finally released them and they made a dash for Elephant Island. However, with no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five others were forced to set off once again in search of help. What followed was a struggle that has gone down in history - an epic 17-day, 800 Nautical mile voyage across the wildest ocean on earth in a 23-foot open boat. They finally made land on the storm-lashed coast of South Georgia and, following a trek over the mountains to the Stromness Whaling Station, the alarm was raised. Thanks to this astonishing rescue mission by both land and sea, not a single one of the 28 men in Shackleton’s crew lost his life.

The high seas have a long history of unravelling sailors' minds and bodies. Take a look at Alex Smith's History of Cannibalism at sea and Four unbelievable seafaring expoits.