Who were the 10 Most Influential Explorers of the Age of Discovery?

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Top 10 Explorers of the Age of Discovery. Image (left to right): Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, and Christopher Columbus

The Age of Exploration (15th-17th century), otherwise known as the Age of Discovery, was one of the most crucial periods in the history of the Europeans. It began with the exploration of the other parts of the world by the Europeans using the seas as their mode of transport.

The effect of this exercise has been the subject of many debates. While others have argued that it improved international trade and relations, some have also claimed that the expeditions increased colonialism and also helped in the spreading European diseases to those areas, which in turn decimated the local population.

Many historical accounts indicate that Portugal was the first to embark on this exercise followed by Spain. As time went on, countries like France, Holland, and Britain also developed an interest in the discoveries and decided to take part.

In the article below, World History Edu explores, in a descending order of influence, the 10 most famous explorers and navigators of the Age of Discovery.

Ferdinand Magellan

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521)

As the leader and brain behind the first expedition across the globe, Ferdinand Magellan was perhaps one of the greatest explorers from the Age of Discovery. A native of Sabrosa, the Portuguese adventurer began his historic voyage in 1519 with support from King Charles I of the Kingdom of Spain. It started from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain and ended in the same city three years later. The aim of the adventure was to ‘discover’ a western path to the Spice Islands in the East.

During this expedition, Magellan came across a strait between modern-day South America and Tierra del Fuego. The strait, which was later named the “Strait of Magellan”, allowed him and his team to navigate through a great ocean which he named “Mar Pacifico” (now known as the Pacific Ocean).

Ferdinand Magellan, aged just 41, was murdered in the Philippines during the Battle of Mactan on April 27, 1521. It was believed that his will to spread his religion was the cause of his death. Though the Portuguese sailor’s mission ended prematurely, his well laid-out plan helped Juan Sebastián Elcano to complete the journey.

Some interesting stories about Ferdinand Magellan

It is widely believed that Magellan introduced the people of the Philippines to Christianity. According to historians, the explorer and his team presented a picture of Santo Niño (Child Jesus) to the local rulers after they had been baptized.

As stated by Antonio Pigafetta, a member of the voyage, the team encountered a number of giants at Patagonia in South America. Reports also have it that Magellan and his crew kidnapped a couple of these huge humans.

It has been argued that the Magellan-led expedition helped in so many ways in dispelling whatever doubt that was left that earth truly round.

Christopher Columbus

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Coming in at number two of our list of influential explorers of the Age of Discovery is a sailor whose adventures were sponsored by the Spanish monarch. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) completed four missions across the famous Atlantic Ocean from 1492 to 1504. These expeditions in so many ways shed light on the New World, a term used to describe the Western Hemisphere of the Earth.

When the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed in 1494, Spain took control of the western part of the world, which included the Americas. To know what laid in those regions, the Spanish government tasked the Italian navigator to explore and provide more information about the area. However, some historians have argued that his main motive was to find a new path to the Far East after the Silk Road was closed by the Ottoman Empire in the mid 1400s.

Columbus’s arrival at the southern part of the Americas helped to consolidate Spain’s control in the area. He explored regions such as what is today’s Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central America and the Caribbean. Though many have argued that he was not the first European to Western Hemisphere, as that honor belongs to a Viking explorer called Leif Eriksson, it is believed that his expedition prompted other European countries to pay attention to the region. This therefore led to the rapid colonization of the Americas by the Europeans.

Did you know…?

  • As one of the most popular explorers in history, Columbus’s name has featured in a number of works by artists and musicians, most famous among them Jamaica’s Burning Spear, and British-Norwegian band A1.
  • When he landed in the Caribbean during his first voyage, the Italian explorer and navigator thought he had reached Asia.
  • The sailor started his journey aboard the Santa María ship.
  • In 1492, Queen Isabella I of Castile named him the Governor of the Indies; thus he became the first person to hold that position.
  • The “Columbus Day” is celebrated by many countries in the world to mark the navigator’s arrival in the Americas.

Amerigo Vespucci

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Followed closely is another Italian explorer and navigator, Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512). Though Columbus had already visited the Americas, it is believed that the region was named after this noble sailor. He was also credited with coming up with the term “New World” which would be used to describe the western part of the world. As a matter of fact the name “America” was derived from Amerigo Vespucci’s name.

Vespucci’s famed expeditions, which took place from 1497 to 1504, were sponsored by both the Portuguese and Spanish governments. When Columbus mistakenly took the Caribbean as Asia, it was Vespucci who came to explain that the two were entirely different continents. In 1497, he embarked on a voyage with a fleet of Spanish ships to discover a western route to the Indies.

Two years later, he collaborated with Castilian navigator and cartographer Juan de la Cosa to explore other lands that Columbus might have toured. With support from Manuel I, King of Portugal, Vespucci was commissioned to investigate the western area of the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that he ‘discovered’ modern-day Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Fun Facts

  • It is said that Amerigo Vespucci was the first person from Europe to have a view of the mouth of the Amazon River, the world’s the largest river by discharge volume of water.
  • The Italian explorer is also credited with discovering the “Bay of All Saints” in Brazil.

John Cabot

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

John Cabot was one of the main reasons why Britain had access to the Northern part of America. With support from Henry VII, King of England, the Italian sailor led a voyage to North America in 1497. This became the first known journey to the region since the 11th Century. One of the main reasons why Cabot embarked on this journey was to help Britain secure those unknown lands.

After receiving his patent from the English king, Cabot embarked on a failed mission in 1496. The following year, alongside 18 other crew members, the Italian started his journey to North America aboard a caravel known as “Matthew of Bristol”.

Though it was assumed that his first destination was what is today’s Labrador, Canada, other historical accounts have disputed this notion. Areas such as Maine, Cape Breton Island, and St. John’s, Newfoundland have all been mentioned as possible destinations.

Upon his arrival, Cabot claimed the land for his financier, Henry VII. He explored his new-found location and went on to name other landmarks, including the Island of St. John, and St. George’s Cape. He went back to Bristol in 1497 with the belief that he had discovered the northwest coast of Asia.

A year after his return, Cabot secured another deal from Henry VII. The Italian’s main reason for this trip was to move to an area located in modern-day Japan. He set off from Bristol and later got lost out in the sea. To this day, it remains unknown what happened to the Italian sailor. There are some historians that maintain that Cabot might have died after facing a heavy storm.

Vasco da Gama

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama is praised for being the first-known European to reach India by sea

After completing over 24,000 miles journey from his native Portugal to India, Vasco Da Gama opened up a new sea route to Asia from the Eastern part of Europe. Born to a noble family, da Gama, with support from King Manuel I of Portugal, set off for his first voyage in 1497. The primary objective was to help the Portuguese find a route which would help their spice trade with the Indians.

Da Gama sailed downward to the West African coast before going round the Cape of Good Hope, which is on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. On his way, he and his crew made several stops along the shores of the African continent. Some of these places were what is today Mombasa, Mozambique, and Malindi. His aggressive tactics helped the Portuguese in establishing a number of colonies along the African coast.

From the Portuguese perspective, da Gama’s voyage was very successful because he forced the rulers of those regions to trade with his country. Many historians have also argued that this adventure was the catalyst of western colonialism during the Age of Discovery. Throughout his active years, he embarked on a total of three expeditions which lasted between 1497 and 1524.

What happened after da Gama’s first voyage?

The Sines-born explorer returned in 1499 to a heroic welcome. His sponsor, King Manuel I, awarded him the title “Lord (Dom)”. He was also given about 300,000 reis as pension. In addition to that, he was honored with the title “Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Orient (Almirante dos mares de Arabia, Persia, India e de todo o Oriente)”.

Sir Francis Drake

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

English explorer and privateer Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596)

Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) was widely regarded as the greatest English explorer during the tenure of Queen Elizabeth I. He entered into the history book in 1580 when he completed his navigation around the globe. This made him the first English to achieve this feat.

Before starting his circumnavigation, Drake embarked on an uncommissioned mission to the southern portion of what is now known as the Caribbean Sea. He fought many battles with the Spanish Main in search of treasures. He fulfilled his task and went back to Plymouth in 1573.

Four years later, with the backing of the Queen, he started his historic expedition around the world. This mission was seen as a conscious effort by the British to challenge the dominance of Portugal and Spain. It was also seen as an attack on the Spanish colonies along the American coast.

On his way, he seized many Spanish crafts including the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. Aboard the Golden Hind, Drake arrived in Plymouth in 1580.  He continued his heroic adventures after his return. Drake was one of the key sailors who defended England from the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Did you know…?

  • Aside from being an explorer, Sir Francis Drake was also a pirate or privateer. He was infamous among the Spaniards for plundering the Spanish ports in the Americas. Those actions of Drake, which received tacit approval the English Crown, were one of the reasons why the Philip II of Spain decided to sail his Spanish Armada (fleet) to invade England in 1588.
  • He received the Drake Jewel from Elizabeth I as a reward for completing a voyage across Earth.
  • Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581.
  • He established the fact that Tierra del Fuego was a number of islands and not a continent as perceived by some Europeans.
  • The English sailor was also involved in slave trades.

Pedro Álvares Cabral

Portuguese military commander and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral

Pedro Álvares Cabral has been credited as the first person from Europe to ‘discover’ Brazil. He attained this feat in 1500. Originally named Pedro Álvares de Gouveia, the Portuguese naval commander and explorer spent most of his early years in the court of the King of Portugal. It was during this time that he began his training as a seaman.

His most notable expedition came in 1500 when he was put in charge of a fleet of 13 ships to India. The main aim of this task was to create a commercial relationship between Portugal and the Far East. They were also tasked to claim new land for Portugal and also help to spread Catholicism in the region. The team was expected to use the newly-opened sea route created by Vasco da Gama.

However, the Cabral-led fleet anchored at Porto Seguro in present-day Bahia, Brazil. This made him the first European to ‘discover’ Brazil which he later claimed for his native country.

Other interesting facts about Pedro Álvares Cabral

  • He’s known to be the first person to lead an expedition to touch four continents, that is, Africa, Asia, America, and Europe.
  • Cabral was also a military commander.
  • In 1497, he was made a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ.
  • Cabral was featured on the 10 Brazilian Reais banknote which was issued in 2000.

Zheng He

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Famous Chinese explorer Zheng He

Before the European sailors discovered a route to the East, Chinese explorer and fleet admiral Zheng He had led what was seen as the largest expedition in the region. In the 1400s, under the command of Emperor Zhu Di, the Chinese adventurer organized and led a fleet of over 300 ships. These also included 62 treasure ships which were said to be more than 400 feet long.

The objective of this mission was to spread China’s influence along the Indian Ocean. In 1405, he embarked on his first voyage and explored the western part of Asia. He visited many ports and towns in India where he conducted many businesses and established diplomatic relationships with the indigenes. He went on to complete six additional voyages which earned him the reputation as the greatest explorer from Asia.

Some facts about Zheng He that you probably didn’t know

  • Zheng He’s original name was Ma He. It’s also said that the explorer was born into a Muslim family.
  • He was arrested in 1381 and was made the servant of then Prince of Yan, Zhu Di.
  • The explorer was later named the Head of the Directorate of Palace Servants after Zhu Di became the Emperor.
  • He earned the surname “Zheng” after defending the Zhenglunba city.
  • Throughout his seven voyages, he visited 25 modern day countries in Asia and Africa.

Hernán Cortés

Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Conquistador Hernan Cortes. Conquistadors were the explorer-soldiers of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Last but not the least is another Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés. Considered one of the most well-known Spanish conquistador, Cortes would be remembered as the leader of the expedition that brutally conquered the Aztec Empire in the 16th Century. This placed the present-day Mexico under the rule of the Spanish Crown.

At an early age, he moved to the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He later worked as a farmer before joining Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez on his mission to Cuba in 1511. Seven years later, he was named as the leader of a Spanish expedition to Mexico. When he got to know about the vast treasures possessed by the Aztec nation, Cortés and his men decided to claim the land for Spain.

He fought both the Cholula and Tlaxacan armies and eventually claimed the land for Spain. To honor the vast territories he seized on behalf of the Spanish monarch, Cortés was named as governor of Mexico.

Fun Facts

  • He was initially trained to become a lawyer.
  • Cortés was a relative of the famous explorer Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador best known for his conquest of Peru in the 1530s.
  • The Gulf of California was initially called the Sea of Cortes.
  • He went back to Spain in 1528.
  • While searching for gold, Hernán Cortés discovered the peninsula which would later be known as Baja California.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa

Age of Discovery explorers

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a Spanish conquistador and explorer

Vasco Núñez de Balboa helped the Spanish Kingdom to secure many territories along South America’s western coast. He was known to be the first explorer from Europe to lead a voyage to see the Pacific Ocean. He sighted the ocean in 1513 when he and his crew crossed the famous Isthmus of Panama.

Three years before that, he established the Santa María la Antigua del Darién settlement which is located in modern-day Colombia. For his achievement, he was appointed the governor of both Coiba and Panama. de Balboa also embarked on other expeditions between 1517 and 1518.


  • San Miguel Bay was named by him.
  • He was beheaded after he was wrongfully accused of treason.
  • His search for gold was the motivation behind his journey to the coast of South America.


Though the Age of Exploration brought about many discoveries, it is appropriate to acknowledge the works of some navigators before and after this period. One of these renowned figures is the Norse explorer called Leif Erikson. He is regarded as the first-known sailor from Europe to arrive in North America.

We can’t also ignore the works of British explorer James Cook who has been credited with drawing a detailed plan of Newfoundland. From 1768 to 1779, he completed three voyages through which the first circumnavigation of New Zealand was recorded.

Other notable names are Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe; and Jacques Cartier, the first-known explorer from Europe to map and describe the Saint Lawrence River as well as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

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