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Great explorers whose fate remains a mystery till this day

Tijana Radeska

There were many adventurers and explorers passionate for new discoveries. Unlike the great voyages and discoveries of Columbus or Howard Carter, there are many lost expeditions and disappeared explorers. So here are the stories of 6 great people and passionate explorers who probably lost their lives on the field, but whose fate remains a mystery till this day.

Percy Fawcett

Fawcett in 1911
Fawcett in 1911. Source

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was born in England in 1867 and was a famous British explorer who’s legendary adventures captivated the world. He ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete and a compass. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared under unknown circumstances in 1925 during an expedition to find “Z” – his name for an ancient lost city, which he and others believed to be El Dorado, in the uncharted jungles of Brazil.

In a letter to his son Brian, Fawcett wrote:

“I expect the ruins to be monolithic in character, more ancient than the oldest Egyptian discoveries. Judging by inscriptions found in many parts of Brazil, the inhabitants used an alphabetical writing allied to many ancient European and Asian scripts. There are rumors, too, of a strange source of light in the buildings, a phenomenon that filled with terror the Indians who claimed to have seen it.
The central place I call “Z”…”

Their fate remains a mystery. Hence, it captured a lot of imaginations of what might have happened to the explorers. While conventional wisdom suggests the explorers were killed by hostile Indians, other theories blame everything from malaria to starvation to jaguar attacks for their demise. Some have even speculated that the men simply went native and lived out the rest of their lives in the jungle.

However, according to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

George Bass

George Bass
George Bass. Source

George Bass was a British naval surgeon and explorer who explored the east coast of Australia. He sailed more than 18 000 kilometres exploring the coastline of Australia and proved that Tasmania was an island. Bass was born in England and arrived in Sydney in 1795. In 1803, he disappeared after he sailed into the Pacific Ocean with a cargo that he wanted to sell in South America. Some people believe he was captured by the Spanish and forced to work in  mines in Peru.

In 1795, together with Matthew Flinders, Bass reached Port Jackson (in what is now New South Wales) and they explored the George’s River and Botany Bay and recommended a settlement, which was made at Banks Town. In 1797 Bass explored the coast south of Sydney and confirmed reports of coal there. Later in the year and in 1798 he determined the existence of a strait—which was named for him—between New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Hoping to strike it rich as a private trader, Bass returned to Australia in the early 1800s on a merchant ship called the Venus. When his cargo failed to fetch a respectable price, Bass hatched an audacious plan to travel to South America on a rogue trading mission. However, Bass and his crew soon disappeared in the Pacific and were never heard of again. Some people believe he was captured by the Spanish in Chile and forced to work in mines in Peru.

Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

Statue of Gaspar Corte-Real in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Statue of Gaspar Corte-Real in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Source

In a chilling coincidence, the Portuguese brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real both vanished during separate voyages to the coastline of modern-day Canada.
Miguel Corte Real was born in the mid-15th century in the kingdom of Portugal. His younger brother, Gaspar, became an explorer and is believed to have reached Greenland and Newfoundland in the early 1500s. Once Gaspar went missing, Miguel went in search of his sibling, only to end up missing himself.

On May 12, 1500, King Manuel authorized Gaspar to make an official voyage of exploration across the North Atlantic. It is likely that the king was interested in learning more about the territory (the North American mainland) recently discovered by explorer John Cabot which was believed to be a far northeast part of Asia. He was travelling north until he reached floating masses of ice and was forced to go back in Lisbon. However, in May 1501 he set off once more across the Atlantic. This time, he headed south with three ships and it is believed that his brother, Miguel, commanded one of them. In October 1501 two of the ships returned to Portugal, but the one captained by Gaspar was not among them.

It was reported that Gaspar and his ship had continued to sail farther south along the coast, in order to reach China. Miguel obtained permission from the king to lead his own expedition across the ocean in search of his brother.  After arriving in Newfoundland, his three caravels split up and began a frantic search of the coastline. But while the other two vessels later returned to their rendezvous point, Miguel’s ship vanished without a trace.

King Manoel, a friend of the Corte Reál family, financed a search expedition in 1503. He forbade a third brother, Vasqueanes, an important government official, from undertaking his own rescue attempt.
While the Corte-Real brothers had failed in their attempts to find a new route to China, they had undertaken some of the first voyages across the North Atlantic Ocean since the days of the Vikings and had reached the North American mainland.

Jean-Francois de Galaup Lapérouse

Jean-François de Galaup
Jean-François de Galaup Lapérouse. Source

In 1785 France’s King Louis XVI dispatched the explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup Lapérouse on a grand around-the-world mapmaking expedition. After setting sail from Brest, the navigator rounded Cape Horn and spent the next few years surveying the coastlines of California, Alaska, Russia, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. In 1783, France began preparing to send an expedition to the Pacific to continue the explorations started by James Cook in the previous two decades. Lapérouse reached Australia in 1788, but after leaving Botany Bay his fleet disappeared.

The expedition consisted of two ships – La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. They carried a total of 225 crew, officers and scientists. The ships left France in August 1785 and sailed south around Cape Horn. The voyage was expected to last four years. In 1791, when La Perouse had not returned to France or made any contact with dispatch, the French government sent out a search party.

It was not until 1826 that an Irish sea captain, Peter Dillon, found enough evidence to piece together the events of the tragedy. In Tikopia (one of the islands of Santa Cruz), he bought some swords that he had reason to believe had belonged to Lapérouse or his officers. He made enquiries and found that they came from nearby Vanikoro, where two big ships had broken up years earlier. In a bizarre twist, the locals also claimed that some of the men—including the group’s “chief”—had survived on Vanikoro for some time before building a ramshackle boat and heading out to sea. If this mysterious “chief” was indeed Lapérouse, it would mean the doomed navigator survived for several years longer than was originally believed.

Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier

Captain Francis Crozier.
Captain Francis Crozier. Source
Sir John Franklin
Sir John Franklin. Source

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was a British naval officer who participated in six exploratory expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1845, he joined Sir John Franklin on the Northwest Passage expedition as captain of HMS Terror. After Franklin’s death in June 1847, he took command of the expedition.
The two ships requisitioned for the purpose, HMS Erebus, and HMS Terror were the most technologically advanced vessels on the planet. Their bows and bottoms were specially reinforced, internal heating systems were installed, and each had sophisticated retractable screw propellers. They carried their own desalinators and were lavishly provisioned with a recent innovation: canned food.

Crozier’s fate and that of the other expedition members remained a mystery for two years when a search party arrived from England, and only then did some of the terrifying details of the explorers’ fate finally come to light. After two years had passed with no word from Franklin, public concern grew and Lady Franklin—as well as members of Parliament and British newspapers—urged the Admiralty to send a search party.

The investigations revealed that Franklin and Crozier’s vessels had become trapped in pack ice during the winter of 1846-1847. While the expedition had three years’ worth of supplies, all the provisions had been sealed with lead, which almost certainly contaminated the sailors’ food. The crew soon became weakened and delirious from lead poisoning, and at least 20 men—including Franklin—perished by mid-1848.

In 1854, John Rae discovered further evidence of the lost men’s fate. Rae met an Inuk near Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk, Nunavut) on 21 April 1854, who told him of a party of 35 to 40 white men who had died of starvation near the mouth of the Back River. Other Inuit confirmed this story, which included reports of cannibalism among the dying sailors.

As many as 50 ships would later travel to Canada in an attempt to locate the lost expedition, but the bodies of Franklin and Crozier—along with the wrecks of their two ships—have never been recovered.

Peng Jiamu

Peng Jiamu
Peng Jiamu. Source

The Lop Nor desert has been the death of hundreds. But Chinese biochemist Peng Jiamu seized the opportunity to explore and study its mysteries, writing, “I have a strong wish to explore the frontiers. I have the courage to pave a way in the wilderness.”
Peng Jiamu was a great scientist and explorer who vanished during one expedition in Lop Nur, the “Wandering Lake”. It is a hostile place that has been nicknamed Asia’s Devil’s Triangle. This unfriendly area has caused the deaths of hundreds of people. Despite several thorough large-scale rescue operations, Peng’s body has not been found until this day.

In 1980 Peng led a team of biologists, geologists, and archaeologists to Lop Nor to conduct new research. But several days into the journey, he abruptly disappeared from his camp after leaving a note saying he was going out to find water.

The Chinese government launched a massive search of the desert, but no sign of Peng was ever found. According to those familiar with the dangers of Lop Nor, the famed biologist was most likely buried alive by a freak sandstorm or crushed by an avalanche of loose soil. But while as many as six skeletons have been recovered from Lop Nor since his disappearance, none has been proven to be Peng.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News