British Explorers – The Top Ten

British Explorers – The Top Ten

  • Posted: Sep 15, 2015
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Continuing on from the ‘Top Twenty British Explorers’, here are the ones that have made it into the Top Ten. The investigation of the World by British explorers contributed significantly to the development of modern society as we know it today. Explorers were expected to discover new lands, break records and map the world for future travellers. It was a dangerous but exhilarating opportunity for adventurers, whatever their social class, to advance scientific knowledge, acquire new mineral and agricultural resources and to make their own fortunes. Still, even those that succeeded often paid for their bravery with their lives. Of the top twenty British explorers, in this and the previous list, only three – just 15% – survived to old age.


1862 – 1900

Mary Kingsley

Nationality: English – Born: Islington, London, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Died Young of Typhoid during Boer War

Main Achievements:

(1893) Travelled through Sierra Leone and Angola where she studied the lives and customs of the local tribes.
(1894 – 1895) Studied tribal life in Western Gabon.
(1895) Journeyed by canoe up the Ogooué River in Gabon. Collected many specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her.
(1895) Explored the uncharted territory of the Fan(g) tribe who were believed to be cannibals.
(1895) Established a new (European) route up Mount Cameroon.
(1896-1899) Provided one of the first empathetic studies of indigenous African culture and religion.
(1903) Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine establish an honorary medal in her name.


9. Henry Hudson

c.1565 – c.1611

Henry Hudson

Nationality: English – Born: Torquay, Devon, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Murdered / Hypothermia

Main Achievements:

(1607) Contracted to discover a northerly route to the Pacific Ocean and the coast of Asia.
(1607) Reached Greenland and named an important headland as ‘Young’s Cape’.
(1609) Hudson discovered Delaware Bay.
(1609) Explored the ‘North River’ which was renamed the Hudson River in his honour.
(1610 ) Discovered the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay which he charted.
(1607 – 1611) Created a far better understanding of the eastern coast of America.


8. Sir Ranulph Fiennes

1944 –

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Nationality: English – Born: Windsor, Berkshire, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Alive – Maimed twice by frostbite

Main Achievements:

(1967) Led an expedition up the Jostedalsbreen Glacier in Norway.
(1968 – 1969) Led the very first expedition up the White Nile on a hovercraft.
(1970) Undertook a second expedition along the Jostedalsbreen Glacier.
(1971) Undertook the Headless Valley Expedition.
(1979 – 1982) Transglobe Expedition: Leader of the first team to journey around – circumnavigate – the world on its polar axis by only using surface transport. Nobody else has ever done so by any route before or since.
(1979 – 1982) First person (together with Charles Burton) to visit both the North and South Poles by surface means
(1981) Together with Charles R. Burton he completed the first west-to-east transit of the North West passage in an open boat (whaler).
(1986) Awarded the Polar Medal for “outstanding service to British polar exploration and research”.
(1992) Discovered the lost city of Ubar in the Rub al Khali desert of Oman near Ash Shisr and the Yemini border.
(1992 – 1993) Together with Mike Stroud became the first person to completely cross Antarctica on foot – the longest unsupported polar journey in history.
(2000) First person to visit both the North Pole and South Pole by surface means.
(2009) – Climbed the Everest Nepal Summit thus becoming the first person ever to reach the summit of Mt Everest and cross both polar ice caps. Also now credited as the oldest British person to climb Mt Everest to the summit.
(2013) Currently recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s greatest living explorer.


7. Alexander Mackenzie

1764 – 1820

Alexander Mackenzie

Nationality: Scottish – Born: Stornoway, Lewis, Scotland, Britain
Cause of Death: Bright’s Disease

Main Achievements:

(1788) Journeyed to Lake Athabasca in Canada and helped to found Fort Chipewyan.
(1789) Undertook the Mackenzie River Expedition and in search of a North West Passage and traced it to the Arctic Ocean.
(1792) Established Fort Fork on the Peace River.
(1793) Became the first recorded European to cross the North American continent north of Mexico

The Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park and the Mackenzie River are named after him.
The Alexander Mackenzie rose is named after him.


6. Robert Falcon Scott

1868 – 1912

Robert Falcon Scott

Nationality: English – Born: Plymouth, Devon, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Hypothermia while on Expedition

Main Achievements:

(1901 – 1904) Undertook the “Discovery” Polar Expedition.
(1903) Discovery of the Polar Plateau (Antarctic Plateau) – considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of polar exploration.
(1903) Collection of many important geological and botanical samples as well as extensive magnetic readings and the development of charts.
(1910 – 1912) Undertook the ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition.
(1912) Became the first British explorer to reach the South Pole.
(1912) Became the second expedition to reach the South Pole after Roald Amundsen.


5. William Dampier

1651 – 1715

William Dampier

Nationality: English – Born: East Coker, Somerset, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Unknown Causes

Main Achievements

(1679 – 1680) Circumnavigated the Globe for the first time while serving under the notorious buccaneer Captain Bartholomew Sharp.
(1686) Dampier joined Captain Charles Swan in the Cygnet and set out across the Pacific to raid the East Indies.
(1688) While the Cygnet was beached on the northwest coast of Australia he studied the flora, fauna and indigenous peoples.
(1688) Dampier was the first Englishman to land on the Mainland of Australia.
(1691) Returned to England and set about publishing his journals relating to his discoveries in Australia.
(1699) Undertook the Roebuck expedition to map the east coast of Australia (New Holland). Conducted the first extensive study relating to the geography, flora and fauna of the region.
(1699) Discovered and explored the Islands of the Dampier Archipelago which was named after him.
(1699) Discovered and sailed through the Dampier Strait which was named after him.
(1700) Discovered the island of New Britain.
(1701) Circumnavigated the Globe for the second time while serving as a privateer commander during the War of the Spanish Succession.
(1708) Circumnavigated the Globe for the Third time as Sail Master of the privateer Duke.

Dampier is recognised as the first natural historian of Australia and the first person to circumnavigate the world three times.

4. Sir Walter Raleigh

c.1552 – 1618

Sir Walter Raleigh

Nationality: English – Born: Hayes Barton, Devon, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Heart Attack / Murder?

Main Achievements:

(1578) Raleigh sailed to America with his half brother, the explorer, Sir Humphrey Gilbert.
(1585) Sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island.
(1587) Explored the area from North Carolina to present-day Florida. He named the lands ‘Virginia’ in honour of Queen Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin’ Queen.
(1595) Undertook his first expedition to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado for Queen Elizabeth I. The search was a failure but Raleigh is credited with the discovery of Guiana.
(1596) Credited with the introduction of the potato into Britain.
(1616) Raleigh was released from prison to take a second unsuccessful expedition in search of El Dorado.


3. David Livingstone

1862 – 1900

David Livingstone

Nationality: Scottish – Born: Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland
Cause of Death: Malaria / dysentery while on expedition in Africa

Main Achievements:

(1840) Departed for the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa.
(1844) Survived a Lion attack which nevertheless shattered the bones in one arm.
(1849) Explored parts of the Kalahari Desert.
(1849) First westerner to discover Lake Lake Ngami in modern day Botswana.
(1851) Crossed the Kalahari Desert and sighted the upper Zambezi River.
(1852 – 56) Undertook extensive exploration of the hinterland of Southern Africa with the purpose of discovering a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast.
(1855) Was the first European to Discover the the Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders- waterfall. These falls are recognised as the largest in the world.
(1855) Renamed the Mosi-oa-Tunya falls as the Victoria Falls in honour of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
(1856) Reached the mouth of the Zambezi River and thus became the first recorded European to cross the African sub-continent from Luanda in Angola (west to East) to Quelimane in Mozambique.
(1859 ) First European to discover Lake Nyasa, now named lake Malawi.
(1866) Explored the headwaters of the Congo River, Lake Mweru and the region surrounding Lake Tanganyika.

Considered to be the all time greatest European explorer of Africa.


2. Sir Francis Drake

1540 – 1596

Sir Francis Drake

Nationality: English – Born: Tavistock, Devon, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Dysentery while on Expedition

Main Achievements:

(1561) First voyage of discovery to the New World (America).
(1570) Voyaged to the West Indies.
(1571) Second voyage to the West Indies.
(1778) Discovered and named Elizabeth Island – now most likely called Henderson Island.
(1778) Discovered that Tierra del Fuego, to the south of the Straits of Magellan, was not part of a giant southern continent.
(1778) Correctly predicted that it would be possible to sail around the horn of South America.
(1778) Credited with the inferred discovery of the Drake Passage below South America.
(1579) Claimed the Coast of New Albian (Alta California) for Queen Elizabeth I. Drakes Bay in California is named after him.
(1579) Discovered that Java was an Island and not connected to a mysterious southern continent.
(1577 – 1580) Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman (and third explorer) to Circumnavigate the World.
(1581) Was given the “Drake Jewel” by Queen Elizabeth I – It survives in the British Museum.


1. Captain James Cook

1726 – 1779

Captain James Cook

Nationality: English – Born: Marton, North Yorkshire, England, Britain
Cause of Death: Murdered

Main Achievements:

Undertook three great sea voyages of exploration:
(1763 – 1767) Aboard HMS Grenville he was responsible for charting the complex coastline of Newfoundland.
(1768 – 1769) Sailed to Tahiti via Cape Horn to observe the transit of Venus for ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’.
(1769 – 1770) Explored the South Pacific for the fabled land of Terra Australis.

(1769) First European to circumnavigate New Zealand and very accurately charted the coastline.
(1770) First European to discover the Eastern coastline of Australia.
(1770) First British explorer to set foot on Australia at the Kurnell Peninsula.
(1770) Provided the name for Australia’s infamous Botany Bay.
(1770) Discovered and named ‘Possession Island’ (Bedanug) in the Torres Straight where Cook claimed the coastline for Britain and named it New South Wales.
(1770) Proved that New Guinea & Australia (New Holland) were not connected.
(1973) Circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, thus becoming the first person to cross the Antarctic circle and the first explorer to circumnavigate Antarctica.
(1774) Discovered Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean.
(1774) Discovered New Caledonia Island.
(1775) Circumnavigated South Georgia Island and made the first landing. He named it “The Isle of Georgia” in honour of King George III and claimed it for Britain.
(1775) Proved that the great continent of ‘Terra Australis’ did not exist and that Australia was the largest landmass in the South Pacific.
(1778) Discovered the Sandwich Islands now known as the pacific Islands of Hawaii. He became the first European to land on Kauai Island.
(1778) He became the first Navigator to effectively map the northwest coast of North America.
(1778) Named Nootka Sound and British Columbia.
(1778) Determined the shape and extent of Alaska.
(1779) During February 1779 Captain James Cook was murdered in Hawaii. He is largely accepted as the greatest British explorer of all time. The Cook Islands were named after him to honour his memory.