Christopher Columbus is one of the most famous explorers of all time, but he was neither the first nor last adventurer to ever stumble upon a great discovery. From the Silk Road of Asia to the icy shores of Antarctica, our knowledge of the world today is in large part due to several intrepid pioneers, risking life and limb for the sake of exploration. After all, setting off into the dark unknown requires an enormous amount of bravery. But every explorer quickly learns that courage and curiosity aren’t enough to save you if you can’t read a map or trespass on somebody else’s land!
In this fourth installment of the Epic Fails series, authors Erik Slader and Ben Thompson introduces readers to an international cast of trailblazers and details every mutiny, wrong turn, and undiscovered city of gold behind the age of exploration.
About the Author
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails...of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the coauthor of the Epic Fails book series, including The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving Into History and Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff.
Ben Thompson is the author of over a dozen books on various awesome historical subjects including the Guts&Glory series, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.
Ben Thompson is the author of a dozen books on various awesome historical subjects including the Guts&Glory series, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog and podcast about the most epic fails… of history.
With Ben Thompson, Erik is the coauthor of the Epic Fails series, including The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving Into History and Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff.
Tim Foley was born in Flint, Michigan, and attended college at the Kendall School of Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His has illustrated such books as Ben Thompson and Erik Slader's Epic Fails history series and Is it Safe to Kiss My Cat?
Tim lives and works in Grand Rapids with his wife, Terri.
Read an Excerpt
Vikings in America
"Leif set sail when he was ready; he ran into prolonged difficulties at sea, and finally came upon lands whose existence he had never suspected."
— The Saga of Erik the Red
The first European to discover America was a Viking. A Viking named Leif Erikson, to be exact.
The Vikings were fierce and often bearded seafarers who lived in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway between AD 793 and 1066. They are, perhaps, best known today for terrorizing their European neighbors by plundering, pillaging, and burning cities to the ground. The Vikings were tough, terrifying warriors you wouldn't want to encounter in battle — on land or sea. They were well-known for their skills at sailing and navigation. They spent a good three hundred years striking fear into the hearts of anyone unfortunate enough to come within rowing distance of their awesome dragon-headed longships.
Erik the Red, in particular, is remembered as one of the toughest Vikings in all of history. Which is nothing to sneeze at.
Erik was known as "the Red" not because he'd get so mad that his face would turn crimson, but because he had really long red hair and a huge, bushy red beard. He was born in Norway about 950 and spent his early years putting on armor; grabbing a huge, two-handed battle-ax; and raiding unsuspecting European villages — reducing them to charred rubble. Things went well until, in 980, Erik and his dad got into a fight with their neighbors that resulted in, as the sagas put it, "some killings." Convicted of murder, Erik and his pops were kicked out of Norway. They boarded a wooden ship and sailed west to the recently colonized Viking realm of Iceland.
Erik and his dad were pretty happy in Iceland for a while. (It's actually green and lush and not as miserable as it sounds.) Erik got married, had some kids, one of them being the intrepid Leif Erikson, bought a farm, and captured a bunch of Irish and English villagers to work as his slaves. But he still wasn't a particularly chill dude, so it wasn't long before his old life caught up to him. One day, some of Erik's slaves were working in a field when they accidentally caused a rockslide, which crushed the house of Erik's neighbor. The neighbor got mad and killed the slaves, which wasn't very smart, because Erik became furious and killed him with a sword. The dead neighbor's best friend was Hrafn the Dueler, who, as his name might suggest, challenged Erik to a duel. So Erik killed that guy, too. A few weeks after that, Erik lent some benches to a different neighbor, a guy named Thorgest. Thorgest didn't return the benches, and when Erik went over to ask him about it, Thorgest got mad. Swords were drawn, and in the ensuing fight, Erik went berserk and killed Thorgest, both of Thorgest's adult sons, and "certain other men" (whatever that means).
Naturally, Erik was exiled from Iceland for three years.
Unsure where to go next, Erik decided to sail west, toward a "bleak land of ice" that hadn't truly been explored before. Erik braved a storm, dodged ship-destroying icebergs in his wooden boat, and sailed to a mysterious new world. He spent his exile in this bleak land of ice all alone, living off the land, discovering fjords and forests and mountains, and naming pretty much everything he found after himself. Everything, that is, except the island itself. He decided to call that Greenland, because, in his words, "people would be more eager to go there if it had a good name."
Upon his return to Iceland, Erik the Red, a man convicted of murder more than once, somehow convinced four hundred people to travel to a land covered completely in ice and build a colony at a place he named Eriksfjord.
Unexpectedly, Erik settled down after this, ruling over Eriksfjord as a jarl (a minor lord) for a few more decades without killing anyone. He had three kids — Leif, Thorvald, and Freydis. All three would go on to have adventures in North America. From this unlikely beginning, the discovery of America began.
Erik's oldest son, Leif, went first. When Leif was just a boy, a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson came to Erik's court with an interesting tale. Bjarni had been sailing to Eriksfjord, but he had gotten lost during a storm and accidentally discovered a mysterious land far to the west. Realizing he wasn't in Greenland, Bjarni quickly turned around and found his way to Eriksfjord.
Leif's mind was blown by this story. What was this mysterious land? It didn't appear on any map. It was vast, strange, and uncharted. An awesome place for a young adventurer to make his name.
Years later, Leif Erikson bought Bjarni's boat, hired some of his crew, and grilled Bjarni for detailed information and maps about where this land might be. Then, in 1000, Leif Erikson and thirty rowers took Bjarni's ship and rowed it west into unknown, uncharted waters.
In an open-topped, multi-oared longship with snarling dragons carved into its sides, the Vikings rowed through freezing waters, intense winds, driving rain, and deadly waves. The sky was black, and storms hammered the ship, sometimes for days at a time. Many men worried about sea monsters eating them, being lost forever at sea, or even falling off the edge of the earth. But then, amazingly, after days of rowing, an incredible thing appeared on the horizon:
Leif Erikson and his crew first landed at a place we know today as Baffin Island, Canada, but Leif Erikson had a different name for it: Helluland. It means "Slab Land," because Leif thought it looked like a big slab of miserable nothingness. It was boring, and he didn't like it. He told his crew to get back on the ship and start rowing south. After a brief stop in another boring place, which he named Markland, meaning "Wood Land," because it had a bunch of trees, Leif finally landed in an area different from all the others.
It was a vast, sunny land full of forests, green meadows, golden fields of wheat, and clusters of wild grapes that could be turned into wine. Leif called this place Vinland, meaning "Wine Land." He was so pleased with it that he pulled over the ship and had his men build a settlement there. They constructed turf-roofed houses and built a blacksmith shop, a lumberyard, a winery, and even a sauna. They repaired some wear-and-tear damage to their ship, relaxed in the hot springs, and spent the entire summer chilling out in their North American party pad. And when the following spring came along, the Vikings sailed back, and every man on the adventure returned home to Greenland a hero.
Unfortunately, when Leif got home, he received some bad news — Erik the Red had died while Leif was gone. Leif was now the jarl of Eriksfjord, and that meant he couldn't go on any more expeditions. So, instead, he sent his siblings, Freydis and Thorvald, to continue exploring Vinland.
Unfortunately, Freydis and Thorvald's expedition wasn't nearly as successful as their brother's. When their expedition reached Vinland, they ran into some unexpected guests: a group of terrifying warriors they referred to as skrellings.
Now, skrellings is just the Norse word for fairies, elves, leprechauns, and basically anything else the Vikings couldn't identify. Today, we're pretty sure these skrellings weren't Dark Elves but were in fact either Beothuk or Mi'kmaq Native Americans.
Now, though a handful of men claimed to have "discovered" the Americas, before any intrepid explorers landed on its shores, millions of people populated the continent: hundreds of tribes of indigenous Americans. They may not have had gunpowder, steel, or marble statues of dudes in togas, but they did have agriculture, complex trade networks, and sophisticated political structures long before any Europeans arrived.
The Native Americans approached the Vikings with their war paint on, wielding bows, spears, and tomahawks, and they spoke a strange language the Vikings had never heard before. The Beothuk weren't happy that these Vikings were building structures on their land, and the Vikings weren't exactly easy people to get along with, so naturally, as you might expect, a fight broke out — Native American warriors versus ferocious Vikings in a brutal life-or-death battle.
The Beothuk took the advantage, because the Vikings were unfamiliar with the land and these strange warriors. Thorvald was killed by an arrow, and when he fell, the Vikings ran for it. But Freydis refused to retreat. She pulled a bloody sword from the hand of a dead Viking warrior, pounded her chest, and ran screaming toward the attackers. Freydis was approximately eight months pregnant at the time, and the Beothuk didn't really know what to make of this. When they slowed down, the Vikings regrouped and forced them to retreat. Freydis would later go on to kill five women with an ax in an argument over grapes, so it's probably a good idea they didn't try to mess with her.
The Vikings would stay in Vinland for three more years. The first European child born in the New World was Freydis's son Snorri, who was born a few weeks after the fight. At one point, up to a hundred Vikings were living in Vinland, and they had even begun to make peace and trade with the Beothuk. Ultimately, however, the travelers decided that Vinland was too far from home and that it wasn't worth all the fighting with the Beothuk. So by 1020, the Vikings packed up and returned to Greenland. No European would set foot in the New World for five hundred more years, and the land Leif discovered vanished off the maps until Columbus rediscovered it.
Interestingly, the Vikings wrote all this down in an old book they called The Saga of the Greenlanders. The story had been told since the 1000s, but over time, so many people forgot about the New World that eventually historians and scholars dismissed the saga as a legend — a work of fiction. In fact, nobody believed Leif's story was true until 1960, when a group of researchers found ruined Viking structures and artifacts at a place called L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Carbon 14 testing confirmed these items had been placed there around the year 1020.
The Vikings truly had been to North America. And they'd gone there over 450 years before Columbus.CHAPTER 2
Marco Polo and Zheng-He: Eastern Tales of Discovery
"I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed."
— Marco Polo
Before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he was just a kid growing up in the Italian port city of Genoa, dreaming of visiting faraway lands. One day, Columbus discovered The Travels of Marco Polo — a fascinating book of one man's journey to China. It was the story of Marco Polo that inspired young Columbus to pursue his dreams ...
To those in medieval Europe, China was a far and mysterious land. But that began to change in 1271, when Marco Polo joined his family on a journey across Asia. The young man from Venice was just seventeen when he left his home with his father and uncle on an adventure that would last twenty-four years! Marco and his family traded European goods for exotic treasures all along the Silk Road, a trade route populated by Arab merchants that connected Europe to Persia, India, and China.
Along the way, the Polos came across a variety of "strange" animals they had never seen before, the finest silk fabrics they'd ever encountered, colorful tapestries, a dazzling assortment of fragrant spices, and even fireworks! Most importantly, during the Polos' journey, they met Kublai Khan, the powerful ruler of the Mongol Empire, which at the time stretched across the entire continent of Asia. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan (who had conquered more land than Alexander the Great), had taken an interest in these curious Christian travelers from the west and invited them to Xanadu, his grand palace in Shangdu, China.
Marco spent the next seventeen years in China and, allegedly, became a trusted emissary in the court of Khan. He claimed to have joined envoys to Tibet, India, Burma, and Java. Eventually, Marco and his family decided to make the long journey back home, much to the unhappiness of Kublai Khan. He allowed them to leave on one condition: that they escort a Mongolian princess and her entourage to Persia, a treacherous two-year journey that almost cost them their lives. The Polos and the Mongolian princess were among only eighteen survivors out of over six hundred travelers who made the trip with them!
When the Polo family finally returned home to Venice in 1295, they found the city at war with the Republic of Genoa. After joining the fight, Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese and became a prisoner of war. It was then that he met his cell mate, Rustichello of Pisa. Marco told Rustichello about his incredible adventures in the Orient. In 1299, the two decided to collaborate on a chronicle of his time in China, later called The Travels of Marco Polo. The book became an instant bestseller, two hundred years before the invention of the printing press. Despite the book's popularity, many considered Polo to be a fraud during his lifetime. It wasn't until hundreds of years later that historians were able to confirm many of the details in Marco Polo's stories.
A century later, during the Ming dynasty (after the fall of the Mongol Empire), there lived another revolutionary explorer: Zheng-He (pronounced Jung-Huh, sometimes called Cheng-Ho), who set out on a similar mission of discovery and diplomacy. Like Marco Polo, Zheng-He is another historical figure who explored farther than originally thought and who, until recently, was considered by historians to be more myth than man.
Born to a Muslim family in the Yunnan Province of China, Zheng-He was just a boy when he was captured and forced into military service in the city of Nanjing. Zheng-He quickly rose through the ranks and soon gained popularity in the royal court. He even drew admiration from the emperor. Years later, the emperor, Zhu Di, would put Zheng-He in charge of the entire imperial navy!
As fleet admiral, Zheng-He was tasked with exploring the farthest reaches of the world in search of new lands and treasure. He set sail with an armada of roughly two hundred and fifty ships, some of which were over four hundred feet long — over six times bigger than Columbus's flagship! It was the world's largest fleet until the British Empire's Royal Navy in the seventeenth century.
Zheng-He sailed west across the Indian Ocean on seven voyages, from the South China Sea to the Horn of Africa, visiting thirty-seven Asian, Arab, and African countries. On his first journey, with sixty-two ships and 27,800 men, Zheng-He sailed to the Indian coast, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. He would later go on to explore the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa, visiting Egypt, Somalia, and Kenya. Along the way, Zheng-He met foreign dignitaries, learned about different cultures, and traded exotic goods, inventions, and ideas.
Zheng-He is believed to have died on his seventh and final voyage, while visiting Calicut in India. However, some, like author Gavin Menzies, have proposed that Zheng-He may have actually made it as far as the California coast! A recently discovered Chinese map of the world, supposedly from as far back as 1417, may indicate that Zheng-He made it to America before Columbus. If Columbus is credited with igniting the Age of Exploration, explorers like Marco Polo and Zheng-He undoubtedly laid the groundwork for him.CHAPTER 3
Columbus Gets Lucky
"For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics, or maps."
— Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
Even before he set sail with his unhappy crew aboard the Santa María, Christopher Columbus was always a risk taker. As a young man, Christopher got an education and then went to sea at an early age. He married the daughter of a Portuguese admiral and inherited a collection of books from her father (which was kind of a big deal back then, in the days before Google). It was among these works that Chris discovered The Travels of Marco Polo. In his writings, Polo talked about how awesome and wealthy China was. Polo inspired Columbus to chart his own voyage and see for himself. There was one problem: Chris was kinda broke.
After Columbus pitched his idea to the Portuguese king, who shot him down and sent him packing, Chris went to Spain. He paid a visit to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand V (of Spanish Inquisition fame) and asked them to financially back his expedition, with the promise of riches for the crown with compounded interest. At first, they laughed in his face. In fact, one expert at the time called Columbus's plan "impossible to any educated person." But after a costly war in Granada, Spain didn't have enough gold to pay all its returning veterans. Now in a somewhat desperate situation, Columbus's offer of a new trade route to Asia, and a vast fortune thereafter, sounded promising. The Spanish monarchy approved.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Age of Exploration: Totally Getting Lost"
Copyright © 2019 Erik Slader and Ben Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Lost at Sea,
Chapter 1: Vikings in America,
Chapter 2: Marco Polo and Zheng-He: Eastern Tales of Discovery,
Chapter 3: Columbus Gets Lucky,
Chapter 4: Ferdinand Magellan — Around the World in ... Three Years?,
Chapter 5: The "Failure" of Giovanni da Verrazzano,
Chapter 6: Cabeza de Vaca: Castaway in Mexico,
Chapter 7: The Seven Cities of Gold,
Chapter 8: Jamestown,
Chapter 9: Captain Cook's Last Voyage,
Chapter 10: Dr. Livingstone and the Quest for the Nile,
Other books In The Epic Fails Series,
About the Authors,