12 of History's Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions

Tim Flight - July 12, 2018

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
Percy Fawcett, probably photographed in England, 1911. Wikimedia Commons

Percy Fawcett

Percy Fawcett (1867-1925) worked as a cartographer, mapping the Brazilian Jungle for the Royal Geographic Society from 1906. Although he managed to produce the required maps, he also attracted ridicule when he claimed to have seen and shot a 62-foot long anaconda. With such a fantastic imagination, it is perhaps little surprise to learn that Fawcett is most famous for searching for the lost city of Z, whose existence he was convinced of from his own documentary research. He tried twice to find it, falling ill on the first attempt in 1920, and disappearing on the second attempt in 1925.

With his years of experience as a cartographer and ‘compelling’ research, Fawcett managed to attract significant investment for his final attempt, on which he was accompanied by his son, a close friend, two Brazilian labourers, and horses. The search took him into uncharted rainforest across the Upper Xingu in the Matto Grosso state, and it is assumed that he died there. He was last heard from on 29th Mary 1925, when he sent a letter to his wife containing the hubristic words: ‘you need have no fear of any failure’. His disappearance remains a mystery to this day.

It has been suggested that Fawcett was killed by Amazon tribesmen, despite his previous tact and good relations with locals. Various people have claimed to have anecdotal evidence that this was indeed his fate, including David Grann in his account of the mystery, The Lost City of Z. It is more likely that Fawcett was simply underprepared for exploring an uncharted area whose dangers and challenges he was simply unaware of or succumbed to disease and exhaustion. Despite all the theories, nothing has been proven, and many expeditions have failed to find the truth after trekking through Matto Grosso.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
The South Australian Alps as first seen by Messrs. Hovell and Hume by George Edwards Peacock, Australia, 1837-70. State Library of New South Wales

Hamilton Hume and William Hovell

We finish back Down Under. Hamilton Hume (1797-1873) and William Hovell (1786-1875) were Australian explorers and, as you can tell by their life-spans, very successful ones. Their 1824 expedition is the stuff of legend, and discovered important grazing land in Australia’s forbidding interior (then, as now, most Australians lived around the edges). However, their discoveries are all the more impressive with hindsight when we acknowledge the level of incompetence, constant bickering, and downright slapstick moments that occurred on their expedition. Their example demonstrates that even the most successful expeditions in history still have plenty of room for stupidity.

Hamilton Hume was chosen to find the grazing land by the governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, because of his experience of exploring the Outback. Though Hovell was more inexperienced, he was a former sea captain who had explored the area around Sydney since settling there in 1819, and his discovery of the Burragorang Valley in 1823 also suggested that he was a good choice. Unfortunately, despite their relative merits, the two men simply did not get along. Three weeks into their expedition, the two men went their separate ways after disagreeing about how to cross some mountains.

As they divided their belongings, Hume and Hovell first cut a tent in half, then argued over which should have a frying pan. The debate became a literal tug of war, and the frying pan broke apart in their hands, demonstrating an important moral if ever anything did, and each took their part away with them to stop the other having the full implement. The men (and the pan and its handle) were reunited shortly afterwards when Hovell realised he had made a navigational error. Relations however became so strained that Hume threatened to throw Hovell into the Murray River.

Hovell’s alarmingly poor sense of direction also led him to identify Corio Bay as Western Port Bay, which was actually 100km further east of their destination. When they returned shortly afterwards, they reported that excellent grazing land was to be had near Western Port Bay, and it was not until 18 months later that a subsequent expedition revealed their error. Hume and Hovell fostered a lifelong rivalry, constantly debating which man had played the greater part in the expedition and publishing pamphlets to make their point. The uncomfortable truth for both was that they had formed an effective team.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bryson, Bill. Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country. Transworld Pub, 2001.

Chasteen, John Charles. Born In Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: Norton, 2001.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. London: Vintage, 2005.

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon. London: Pocket, 2010.

Hunt, William R. Stef: A Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson: Canadian Arctic Explorer. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986.

Huxley, Elspeth. Scott of the Antarctic. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978.

Murgatroyd, Sarah. The Dig Tree: The Extraordinary Story of the Ill-Fated Burke and Wills Expedition. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Putnam, George Palmer. Andrée: The Record of a Tragic Adventure. New York: Brewer & Warren, 2007.

Rennison, Nick. A Short History of Polar Exploration. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2014.

Rivière, Peter. Christopher Columbus. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

Ross, Andrew C. David Livingstone: Mission and Empire. London: Hambledon, 2002.