We tend to romanticize the age of exploration, like it was all grand exotic frontiers and tiny people tying sailors down with ropes. What we don't hear about so often is the scurvy and the starvation and the months of endless walking through landscapes full of awfulness. And that's too bad, because it actually makes their stories that much more badass.
#5. The Gulf of Mexico Kills 600 Spaniards
Six hundred men set off on this adventure. Four made it back. Not 400 -- four.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish were nuts about gold in the Americas and were determined to drag as much of it back as their galleons could carry. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was an explorer with one hell of a sexy name who set out with 600 men to stake a claim in Florida, none of them realizing it would be one of the most ill-fated expeditions in gold-hoarding history.
If only he'd remembered: God loves the mustache, but abhors the goatee.
Before they reached the Gulf Coast, 100 men had already deserted the expedition during a layover in what is now the Dominican Republic. It turned out those guys had the right idea. Not long after, the expedition was smashed by a hurricane that killed 60 men and a fifth of their horses. Finally, they arrived in Florida, and the easy part was over.
Now short on supplies and starving to death, the Spanish invasion next had to fend off the waves of native attacks. After miserably failing to conquer the Apalachee people (because damn it, they came here to conquer somebody), the 240 or so survivors were reduced to melting down their weaponry and remaining supplies in a desperate attempt to build some boats to escape this nightmare. And they succeeded! Just long enough to get hit by another hurricane!
Or at least something that rocked them like one.
Only 80 of the original 600 were still alive when the storm wrecked their makeshift fleet against the coast of Galveston Island, Texas, which for evident reasons they named the Island of Misfortune. Absolutely stranded, the remaining men lived among the natives, who thankfully decided to enslave them rather than kill them this time.
In the end, only four men survived to trek across Mexico until they made it into Spanish-colonized territory, 10 years later and not a penny richer. But they did have an entire life full of nightmares to look forward to.
Unfortunately, they never did figure out how to thaw Alvar from the carbonite.
#4. Dr. Livingstone Gets Caught in a Zoo
If you're an old-timey Indiana Jones-style explorer, your number one fear is probably getting captured and slowly eaten by cannibals. Very close behind that would have to be getting captured and made a human exhibit in a zoo. Oh, that happened.
In 1866, the explorer David Livingstone suddenly became really curious about where the Nile River came from ... so curious that he packed his bags and headed out to Africa on foot. With a group of local natives to guide him, it should have been a fairly pleasant walk through the jungle.
Though if he wasn't such an idiot, he could have just Googled it like we did.
Unfortunately for Livingstone, his guides decided one by one that they weren't as curious as he was, and so they abandoned him to his mission whenever they got bored. Some of them even raided his supplies before they left. When the native guides returned to camp and the others asked what had happened to Livingstone, they shrugged and said that he had died.
In the meantime, Livingstone was stumbling through the jungle on his own, mapping out rivers and marshes and fending off every disease the jungle could throw at him. His luck didn't get any better -- in March of 1869, he emerged from the bush to find out that one of his supply caches had been robbed. Alone in the jungle with no supplies, he was forced to rely on passing slave traders to escort him to the village of Bambara. The villagers evidently weren't used to seeing too many white people, because they reacted to his arrival by putting him in a zoo.
Honestly, the dude's pretty weird looking. We probably would have done the same thing.
We mean that literally -- Livingstone was forced to entertain the villagers from inside a roped-off cage in exchange for food.
In the meantime, everyone in the outside world still believed the explorer was dead, but when rumors surfaced of a white man doing humiliating circus tricks in the African jungle, another explorer, Henry Stanley, went looking for him. When he finally found Livingstone, crippled with dysentery and malaria, he greeted the explorer with the now-famous phrase "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"
To which Livingstone replied, "FUCK YOU! Here, eat some of this shit!" And then he flung his shit at him.
Most accounts end this story here, but the lesser-known epilogue is that Livingstone suddenly remembered that he still hadn't found out where the Nile came from ... and so he refused the rescue and wandered back into the jungle. Then he died of malaria. That's why they usually leave this part out.
#3. Ferdinand Magellan's Voyage of Horrors
You know what else your history teacher probably left out? That time Ferdinand Magellan had to drink piss to survive.
You probably heard all about Portuguese explorer Admiral Ferdinand Magellan in school and promptly got him mixed up with Marco Polo and forgot why either of them were important. But while you might have pictured Magellan's voyage as a Disney-style high seas adventure, they never told us just what a bleak, scurvy-ridden nightmare it turned out to be.
Ferdinand would make men practice for the trip by forcing them to eat their own pants.
Magellan's biggest problem, along with the rest of Europe, was not realizing just how freaking huge the Pacific Ocean was, so naturally he brought an utterly insufficient supply of food and water. After several months, supplies began to dwindle and eventually ran out completely, which is a huge problem when you're floating on a hunk of wood in the middle of the Pacific. According to Magellan, after three months without fresh food, the crew had resorted to eating maggot-infested crumbs. After that, they were forced to drink "yellow water" (yes, unfortunately that's what you think it is) and had to tear the leather from the ship to cook it. After that, it was sawdust, and any rats that they weren't too lethargic to catch.
"There's one! Quick, punch it in the face and eat its head off!"
Eventually, they did make landfall on the island of Guam, and there were still some people alive enough to stumble off the ship. It was a short time later, in the Phillipines, when they were (predictably) attacked by natives. The Battle of Mactan wasn't so much a battle as a slaughter, due to the fact there were 1,000 natives versus this small crew of malnourished, probably half-mad Europeans. During the skirmish, Magellan was stabbed in the face with a spear, which by some freak chance proved fatal.
"Listen! Could we just, like, eat some plants or something before we continue?"
However, the expedition survivors did manage to cram their holds full of spices and begin making their way home. When they finally made it back in 1521, there were only 18 survivors of the original 260. On the plus side, everyone got a much, much bigger cut of the treasure, pretty much all of which must have been spent on 16th century therapy.