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.
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.
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.
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.
When the British first discovered and colonized Australia, naturally they spent most of their time trying not to be murdered by it. Ernest Giles, desert explorer extraordinaire, had no such fear of the great red continent, even though its deserts are hot enough to kill camels. Giles didn't just make it his life's quest to cross the great expanse; he was downright impatient about it, leading four expeditions in four years, even though each one nearly killed him.
The top of his head must have been around four shades darker than the rest of him.
His first, in 1872, saw him wandering for five months around the landscape with two other men, discovering various rocks and lakes and other rocks. Although this was considered one of the more successful expeditions through spiderworld, Giles considered it a failure, possibly because everyone made it back without so much as a trace of Gulf War syndrome. When he returned in early 1873, he waited less than a year before heading out again.
This time he was accompanied by Alfred Gibson, a man who by all accounts shouldn't have been there, considering he had no experience with desert exploration. But Giles liked to live life on the edge, so they set out to cross the vast nothing between Adelaide and Perth.
"We must map this emptiness so modern man may continue to avoid it."
Things went about as smoothly as could be hoped until eight months into the journey, when Gibson's horse died of thirst. With only one horse between them, it was decided that Gibson should ride on ahead while Giles traveled alone and on foot. Gibson was no doubt extremely happy with this arrangement, and so he rode off into the sunset, presumably with a final shout of "So long, sucker!" That was the last time anyone saw him alive.
In the meantime, Giles was forced to walk for eight days through the scorching desert without any food, and carrying a massive keg of water on his back. According to his own journals, toward the end of his journey, he came across a baby wallaby, and "pounced upon it and ate it, living, raw, dying -- fur, skin, bones, skull and all."
It came with a built-in salad.
Giles survived just fine, and named the area the Gibson Desert after his less badass comrade. Then, over the next couple of years, he did it all again twice more. How many wallabies he ate alive during that time remains undocumented.
In 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton decided to conquer Antarctica, the last unexplored continent on Earth, because fuck there being an unexplored continent. The idea was to take a ship to Antarctica, land on the north side and then simply stroll across to the other north side (every side of Antarctica is the north side. Think about it).
Unfortunately, the plan went awry before they even reached the continent, which wasn't supposed to be the hard part. As they drew close to Antarctica, the Endurance and its crew got stuck in the solidifying ocean, preventing its progress. Realizing that they wouldn't be able to free the ship until the ice melted of its own accord, Shackleton and his crew sat and waited for warmer weather to come in. They waited for 10 freaking months.
That's Shackleton after the 10-month wait, looking frighteningly sane.
If you think we're going to tell you that the ice finally broke up and released them, then you don't know us very well. Ten months was just the point at which the ship sank, stranding them all on the ice. That was the beginning of their trouble. Once the men were forced to fend for themselves on top of the frozen ocean, that is of course the point at which the ice decided finally to start breaking up. If it could speak, it would have asked "What? Isn't this what you wanted? Make up your minds!"
As cracks started to appear in the ice around them, the explorers did the only thing they could do -- grab their lifeboat and drag it to the nearest land mass, which was the barren Elephant Island. Now safe from immediate death, they faced the very real threat of starvation unless they could get the hell back to the sane part of the world. The only option was for Shackleton and a few other crew members to make it back to the nearest outpost of civilization to get help. To do that, they would have to sail 800 miles. Over some of the most dangerous ocean in the world. In a lifeboat.
"Now, just to make this more interesting, I'm going to strap a live time bomb to each of you."
Oh, by the way, while they were messing around in Antarctica for all those months, World War I started. That meant that the ocean wasn't full of just sharks and icebergs, but also German raiders and lots of people trying very hard to kill everyone. Through sheer luck and determination, the crew eventually made it to the inhabited South Georgia Island. The only problem was that all the people were on the other side of it. To get there, they would have to cross a huge mountain range. And they did. At this point it wouldn't have been surprising if they then had to fight a Cyclops. They would have grit their teeth and done that, too.
Even after they made it to the whaling stations on the far side of the island, it would be months before conditions were right to send a rescue mission for the men they left behind. Perhaps most amazingly, almost everyone survived. Of the 28 men who left for Antarctica, 25 returned ... three years later.
"Finally! Our lives are sure to be exactly the same as when we left three years ago!"
Dustin Koski demonstrates monthly at Toptenz his ability to write list articles even longer than this one. Eric Yosomono writes for GaijinAss.com and you should like them on the GaijinAss Facebook page. All the cool kids are doing it!
For more old-timey badassery, check out The 11 Most Badass Last Words Ever Uttered and 7 Songs From Your Grandpa's Day That Would Make Eminem Blush.