There was a time when there was no greater calling than that of an explorer. So much of the world was still unknown to us and it was up to a few brave and curious adventurers to probe the deepest, darkest corners of the planet to illuminate the rest of us.
It was dangerous work and many lives were sacrificed during the pursuit of this noble endeavor. As you are about to see, some men who probed the unfathomable abyss were never heard from again.
10. The Vivaldi Brothers
Not much is known about Vadino and Ugolino Vivaldi. We know that they were two brothers from the Republic of Genoa who lived during the second half of the 13th century and that they were both thriving maritime merchants. Whether or not the siblings had a history of exploration and adventure, we cannot say, but in 1291 they set off on a very ambitious journey – to try and find a sailing route from Europe to India via Africa.
Basically, it was the cape route that they were looking for – the sea lane that traversed the South Atlantic Ocean, rounded Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, and then crossed the Indian Ocean. It served, basically, as the most important shipping route in the world for centuries, but the Vivaldi brothers attempted to sail it almost 200 years before it was actually discovered by European explorers.
Suffice it to say that things did not go to plan. The brothers left Genoa in May 1291 aboard two galleys, possibly named the Sanctus Antonius and the Alegrancia. They were known to have made it out of the Mediterranean and to have sailed off the coast of Morocco, but once they hit the open ocean, they were never heard from again.
9. John Cabot
Like the Vivaldi brothers, Giovanni Caboto was an Italian explorer, but he sailed under the auspices of King Henry VII of England, hence the anglicized version of his name, John Cabot. The adventurer undertook three voyages for England, but it is his second journey in 1497 that he is most famous for. Simply known as the Cabot Expedition, this trip saw the intrepid explorer reach the coast of North America, becoming the first European to do so since the Vikings. The exact spot where he landed is still under debate, although the Canadian Government recognizes Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland as Cabot’s landfall.
Since this voyage was a success, Cabot intended to repeat it a year later, with the full backing of the king. This time, he had more ships, and they had been loaded with merchandise, suggesting that Cabot was looking to trade.
The fleet set off from Bristol in May 1498. We know that one of the ships was damaged early on during a storm and had to return to England. From that point on, the expedition and John Cabot himself simply disappeared from the historical record. Possible outcomes for them included the obvious – that they were lost at sea – or that they reached Canada, but shipwrecked and died at Grates Cove on the Avalon Peninsula.
However, some historians believe that Cabot did make it back to England in 1500 and died there a few months later, although this doesn’t really explain why there is no mention of his return or death.
8. Henry Hudson
A hundred years after Cabot, there was another navigator who sailed under the English flag and explored the northeastern coast of North America. He was Henry Hudson, the man who gave his name to the Hudson River, the Hudson Strait, and a few other places.
There are quite a few similarities between Henry Hudson and our previous entries. Like Cabot, he undertook several successful voyages to the New World during the early 1600s. Then, like the Vivaldi brothers, Hudson embarked on a very ambitious mission that proved to be his doom. In his case, it was the search for the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by passing through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
The first man to successfully complete this route was Roald Amundsen in 1906, so we already know how things went for Hudson who attempted it 300 years earlier. The explorer set off from London in 1610 aboard the Discovery with a crew of 23, including his son, John Hudson. He reached the Arctic Ocean, but got trapped in ice in James Bay and had no choice but to go ashore and wait out the winter.
Miraculously, the expedition only lost one man during the coming months but, by the time spring came around, most of the crew wanted to return back to England. They mutinied and placed Henry Hudson, his son, and seven loyal shipmates in a boat and cast them adrift, and they were never seen again.
7. La Pérouse
During the late 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing, and expeditions of scientific exploration were the new hot ticket. Following the voyages of James Cook, France felt like it was lagging behind England slightly, so in 1785 King Louis XVI ordered his government to organize an expedition around the world and complete Cook’s exploration of the Pacific.
The man chosen to lead this scientific mission was Jean-François de Galaup, Count of La Pérouse, a senior naval officer who had distinguished himself fighting against England during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. La Pérouse was given command of two frigates – La Boussole and L’Astrolabe – fully stocked with the most modern scientific equipment of the day, plus a sizable library, and a crew that included multiple scientists.
The expedition left France in August 1785 and, for three years, things went very well. La Pérouse started by sailing to South America, then rounding Cape Horn and traveling northwards all the way to Alaska. He then crossed the Pacific and reached East Asia before heading south to Polynesia. In January 1788, the two ships reached Australia, where they docked for a month-and-a-half. They left in early March and were never seen again.
Their disappearance was considered a national tragedy in France and several rescue missions could not find a trace of what had happened to them. Even King Louis XVI, on the day of his execution, was reported to have asked his captors on the way to the guillotine if there was any news of La Pérouse.
It wasn’t until almost 50 years later that sailors found remnants that suggested that both ships smashed against the reef of an island called Vanikoro and sunk, but this still did not explain the fates of the crewmen. Local oral history said that survivors spent months on the island, building a schooner before setting out to sea again and disappearing once more.
6. Douglas Clavering
Scottish naval officer Douglas Clavering made a name for himself as an Arctic explorer, leading an expedition that surveyed Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago in 1823. That, however, had nothing to do with his mysterious disappearance. After making his successful return to England, Clavering was given a different commission as part of the West Africa Squadron, Britain’s recent anti-slavery initiative.
The squadron was formed in 1808, following the passing of the Slave Trade Act, and it consisted of a fleet of Royal Navy ships that patrolled the waters off the coast of West Africa in an effort to suppress slavery. Captain Clavering became part of this squadron in 1825, after being appointed commander of the brig-sloop HMS Redwing.
Although the West Africa Squadron seized around 1,600 slave ships during its 50-year existence, little is known of Clavering’s personal involvement. What we do know is that two years after his appointment, the Redwing set sail from Sierra Leone and was never seen again. Bits of wreckage that washed ashore suggested that the vessel might have caught fire, perhaps from a lightning strike.
5. Baron von Toll
In 1900, geologist and explorer Baron Eduard von Toll was commissioned by the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences to lead a new Russian polar expedition to the arctic to survey an archipelago called the New Siberian Islands. Specifically, he was to search for the mythical Sannikov Land and prove, once and for all, whether or not the island actually existed.
This landmass had been first spotted a hundred years earlier and, ever since then, several explorers claimed to have seen it, including von Toll himself during an earlier expedition. This made him perfect for the mission so, in June 1900, he set off for the arctic with a 19-man team aboard the Zarya.
Unfortunately for von Toll, Sannikov Land did not exist and this proved to be his undoing. After two years in the arctic, his team gathered plenty of scientific data, but no sign of the elusive island. With the expedition coming to a close, von Toll tried one last bold gamble. After the winter of 1902 passed, he and three crewmen left the Zarya and went on a separate journey using sleighs and canoes to maneuver easier through the archipelago. They were supposed to rendezvous with the rest of the team on Bennett Island, but the thick ice prevented the ship from getting anywhere close. From that point on, the fate of von Toll and his three crewmen became a mystery. Months later, a search party found their camp on Bennett Island along with several notes written by the explorer, but no trace of the men could ever be found.
4. Joshua Slocum
In 1898, Canadian sailor and adventurer Joshua Slocum turned into a worldwide sensation after becoming the first man to single-handedly sail around the world. He had spent the last three years traveling 46,000 miles aboard his sloop named Spray. Slocum then wrote an account of his experience titled Sailing Alone Around the World, which became an international bestseller.
Slocum’s success also provided him with some financial stability, which allowed him to buy some land and settle down. However, the old seadog soon realized that he was more at home on the open ocean than on terra firma, so he resumed his sailing, often traveling between the United States and the West Indies or South America.
Unfortunately, it was one such trip that led to Slocum’s demise. In November 1909, he left Massachusetts and headed for the Caribbean aboard his trusty Spray. He was last seen resupplying in Miami before disappearing. Neither man nor ship was ever found. Although the obvious scenario suggests Slocum perished at sea, especially since he apparently never learned to swim, there is another idea that suggests that the adventurer faked his disappearance in order to start a new life away from his family.
3. Roald Amundsen
In the pantheon of polar explorers, the name Roald Amundsen probably rings out greater than any other, but not even he was spared an untimely and uncertain demise.
In 1906, Amundsen led the first expedition that successfully navigated through the Northwest Passage. Five years later, he became the first man to reach the South Pole. Those were his two biggest claims to fame, but Amundsen stayed involved with arctic exploration until the very end.
On May 25, 1928, the polar airship Italia crashed somewhere in the Svalbard archipelago. This prompted an international rescue mission, which included an aging Amundsen, who boarded a Latham 47 flying boat prototype with a team of five to help search for the wreckage. The plane left Tromsø, Norway on June 18 and disappeared without a trace over the Barents Sea.
The wreckage of the Italia was eventually found and multiple survivors were rescued, but the same could not be said for Amundsen’s Latham 47. Even modern searches using the latest sonar technology and underwater vehicles have yielded no results so, for now, the final resting place of one of the greatest arctic explorers remains a mystery.
2. Michael Rockefeller
Michael Rockefeller was born into the fabulously wealthy Rockefeller family, but unlike his predecessors, he eschewed the worlds of business and politics and opted, instead, for a life of adventure.
After studying history and economics at Harvard, Rockefeller took an interest in ethnology and anthropology. In 1960, he joined an expedition to serve as the sound man on a documentary about the Dani people in Western New Guinea, back then part of the Netherlands. While there, Michael encountered another group of people called the Asmat, who fascinated the young Rockefeller with their artwork.
The following year, he funded his own expedition back to New Guinea, hoping to study the Asmat people in detail and even organize an art exhibition back in New York. The team consisted only of him, Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing, and two local Asmat teenagers. For three weeks, the expedition went well, as Rockefeller visited and traded in 13 different villages, amassing a sizable collection of Asmat artifacts.
Things went wrong on November 16, while the team was sailing down a river to the next village. Some powerful waves and crosscurrents overturned the boat, plunging all four men into the water. The two Asmat teenagers quickly swam ashore and went to get help, but Wassing and Rockefeller had no choice but to hold onto the overturned raft and drift down the river. After an entire night like this, Rockefeller tried to make it to shore…and that was the last time that anyone ever saw him. Wassing was spotted from a helicopter and rescued the following day.
Rockefeller’s official cause of death was drowning, but in the years that followed, a story went around that he had actually been murdered and cannibalized by the people from a village called Otsjanep. However, by then, Western New Guinea was no longer part of the Netherlands, so no official investigation was ever carried out.
1. Peng Jiamu
We end with the most recent entry on our list, which goes to show that even in modern times, there are still plenty of unknown parts of the world that hold hidden perils. By 1980, Peng Jiamu had already established himself as one of China’s premier biochemists, having taken part in multiple scientific expeditions over the previous 25 years to study the wildest, most remote regions of the country. That year, he left to explore the Lop Nur, a desert in the Tarim Basin. Five days into the mission, Peng vanished without a trace, seemingly swallowed by the vast emptiness of the desert.
It appeared that the scientist left the camp alone in the middle of the night to search for water and got lost in the desert. This was very puzzling given that Peng was an experienced explorer who would have known better. Add to that the fact that extensive searches by the Chinese government uncovered no signs of him and this prompted several conspiracy theories that suggested that Peng could have been murdered by his colleagues, kidnapped by the Russians or Americans, or even defected of his own will. The truth remains a mystery.