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
Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Canada, c.1915. Wikimedia Commons

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962) was a Canadian explorer. Born William Stephenson, he grew up in Iceland, and read for degrees at the universities of North Dakota and Iowa, where he changed his name to the Icelandic form. He also studied anthropology at Harvard, and went on to live amongst the Inuit people of the Mackenzie Delta in 1906. Somehow or other, this anthropological research qualified Stefansson to organise a trip to the unexplored Arctic on behalf of the Canadian government between 1913 and 16. His belief, incredibly, was that there was a ‘hidden continent’ under the polar ice cap.

He made a number of terrible errors from the start, mostly based around his unwillingness to part with any money, despite the government’s funding. The ship he purchased, the Karluk, was a retired whaler totally unsuitable for exploring the Arctic. He also bought cheap, low-quality thermal gear and inferior tins of pemmican for his men. Three months into the expedition, the Karluk became stuck in the ice, and Stefansson scandalously abandoned the 22 adults and children on board. Half died, but this wasn’t Stefansson’s fault: if only they’d had his survival skills, he explained, they would have been fine.

Two men also died because of the poor quality of the pemmican, with scores of others falling ill. The ‘hidden continent’ was, of course, never found, but the expedition survived two further poor-quality boats to discover new islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Stefansson, frankly, underestimated the dangers of the Arctic, and refused to take any responsibility for the Karluk disaster he caused. And he never learned his lesson. In 1922, he published a book entitled The Friendly Arctic, which claimed that the inhospitable region was ‘a friendly place to live in for the man who used common sense’.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
La Salle’s Expedition to Louisiana in 1684 by Theodore Gudin, France, 1844. Wikimedia Commons

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle

Another explorer with a mixed success rate, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643-87) was born to wealthy mercantile parents in Rouen, Northern France. Aged 15, René-Robert joined the Jesuit order, which required him to give up his inheritance, and took orders as a Jesuit Priest in 1660. In 1666, René-Robert managed to persuade the Jesuits to send him to New France (modern Canada) as a missionary, but after a year in Canada he asked to leave the Jesuit order, citing ‘moral weaknesses’. He was granted land in the western part of Montreal, and immediately set about learning the natives’ languages.

Conversing with the local Mohawk tribes, René-Robert learned of the existence of a great river which flowed into another great body of water. The Mohawk actually meant the Ohio flowing into the Mississippi, but René-Robert assumed they were talking about a river flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and he immediately organised an expedition. This led him to discover large parts of the Great Lakes as well as the Mississippi, where he set up forts to control the lucrative fur trade. These forts were later vital in protecting the French Colonies, too. René-Robert prospered, but it was not to last.

After naming the area around the Mississippi Basin ‘Louisiana’ in honour of the French King Louis XIV, René-Robert perhaps just overreached. Receiving royal permission to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, he led 300 colonists and 4 ships on an expedition. The voyage was beset by pirates, hostile natives, and René-Robert’s poor navigation. One of the ships was captured by pirates, one sank, another simply went back to France, and the other was run aground by a drunken captain. René-Robert then failed to find the mouth of the Mississippi on foot.

The beached ship had ended up 500 miles from its intended destination, and a mixture of disquiet about the conditions of the voyage and René-Robert’s tyrannical rule led to a mutiny breaking out amongst the surviving men. The mutineers murdered the former Jesuit in 1687. The single colony that René-Robert had succeeded in setting up, Fort Saint Louis, survived only a year after his death, when its 20 inhabitants were murdered by Native Americans. Today, René-Robert is seen as a hero for the great discoveries he made, but few remember the level of ineptitude he demonstrated on his final expedition.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
Juan Ponce de León, Spain, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de León was an effective but cruel explorer for much of his blood-soaked career, but merits inclusion on this list because of the ludicrous aim of one of his voyages. He was probably born in 1474, and his surname testifies to a privileged and aristocratic upbringing also evidenced by his serving as a squire to a fellow nobleman. After becoming a soldier and fighting the Moors during the re-conquest of Spain in 1492, his next notable action came in 1493 when he enlisted as a ‘gentleman volunteer’ on our old friend Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas.

After years of obscurity, Juan Ponce de León surfaced again in 1504, taking an active part in the Higüey Massacre, an event so brutal that Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish Dominican friar, attempted to report it to the authorities. Ponce de León clearly impressed his betters, however, as he was made governor of the newly conquered territory. His first foray into exploration came with the discovery and settlement of Puerto Rico, where he served as governor before being ousted by Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego, in 1511. Ponce de León now had his sights set on a much bigger prize.

According to contemporary sources, Ponce de León set out in 1513 to find the Fountain of Youth. In Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535), Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés explains that Ponce de León was seeking the waters of Bimini to cure his aging. Two other sources make the same claim. If the legend is true, Ponce de León was outrageously credulous. What is known is that Ponce de León was sailing around the Bimini area when he reached Florida in 1513, which name he gave to the state, before returning to Puerto Rico a year later.

Having failed to discover the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de León had one more terrible expedition to make, again to Florida, in 1521. This time he aimed to set up a permanent colony, and brought 200 men and a multitude of livestock. Unfortunately, Ponce de León did not count on the reaction of the locals, who responded to the presence of foreigners by attacking them before they could establish a colony. Ponce de León was fatally wounded with a poisoned arrow, and the settlement plans discarded. Given his military background and past viciousness, this defeat represents a serious oversight.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
Scott (centre) with his expedition, taken by the men themselves in Antarctica, 17th January 1912. Wikimedia Commons

Scott of the Antarctic

Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) led two expeditions to the Antarctic, with wildly differing success. Prior to his expeditions, Scott served in the Royal Navy, which he joined as a cadet aged just 13. He eventually reached the rank of lieutenant in 1889, but during his time in the navy he had been marked as a potential polar explorer by the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Clements Markham. When his family met with financial difficulties, Scott saw little opportunity of promotion within the navy, and meeting Markham again by chance on the street in London changed his life forever.

The pair met early in June 1889, and on the 11th of that month Scott knocked at the door of Markham’s house, volunteering to lead the now-President of the Royal Geographic Society’s Antarctic expedition. Despite some within the Society advising against putting an inexperienced Royal Navy officer in charge, Scott was made commander of the ship Discovery, which set sail in 1901. On the expedition, Scott and his men, including Ernest Shackleton, undertook a punishing march to within 530 miles of the South Pole, and made important zoological, biological, and geological discoveries, though their meteorological and magnetic readings were amateurish.

Discovery also had to be freed from the ice with explosives and two relief vessels, but Scott returned to Britain to a hero’s welcome and numerous accolades in 1904. In 1910, he was given command over another Antarctic mission, the Terra Nova Expedition. His aim was to reach the South Pole and to claim it for the British Empire. Scott purchased sled-dogs, motorised vehicles, and Manchurian ponies to achieve his ambitious aim. En route, however, Scott found out that he was involved in a race to the pole with Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, who was also on his way.

The expedition was beset by disaster from the start. The Terra Nova, a converted whaler, nearly sank off the coast of New Zealand, which meant Scott had to rush through preparations upon reaching the Antarctic. A motor sledge was lost, and six of the unsuitable ponies died. Scott remained confident, however, and he marched south with three others supported by a caravan of dogs, ponies, and provisions. His plan was to reach the pole and use the dogs to get him back as quickly as possible. They made it, only to find that Amundsen had beaten them by 5 weeks.

They now faced an 800-mile return journey. The first half went well, but one man, Edgar Evans, died after a fall. An intended rendezvous with a dog-team never happened due to a lack of dog food and terrible weather conditions. One member, Lawrence Oates, bravely sacrificed himself when he realised that he was a hindrance, leaving the tent with the immortal words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’. Suffering from frostbite, and with supplies running out, the surviving men realised they were doomed, and spent the last days of their lives writing farewell letters.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama, Scotland, 1729. Wikimedia Commons

The Darien Scheme

William Paterson (1658-1719) is most famous for founding the Bank of England, but he also organised one of the world’s most useless expeditions. Seeing England grow rich because of the East India Company, Paterson came up with the Darien Scheme, an attempt to make Scotland a global trading power by establishing a colony called ‘Caledonia’ on the Isthmus of Panama. The ambitious scheme attracted a £400, 000 investment, 20% of Scotland’s entire wealth, and a rag-tag group of famished Highlanders and soldiers discharged after the Glen Coe Massacre boarded a fleet of ships to become the first settlers in 1698.

Unfortunately, Darien was only known through the unsubstantiated reports of sailors, and the settlement was an unmitigated disaster. Reaching the mosquito-ridden land of Darien, the first task for the squabbling pioneers was to dig graves for those who died on the voyage, including Paterson’s wife. They had very limited supplies, disease broke out, and the pioneers were attacked by the Spanish, who were already trading in the area. Despite the locals taking pity on the Scots and bringing them fruit and fish, a mere 7 months after landing 400 settlers were dead. The rest decided to call it a day.

But the story doesn’t end there. Unaware of what had happened, two other ships had already set sail for Darien to restock its supplies, and arrived to find hundreds of graves and abandoned huts. 1, 000 other settlers also made a voyage to the new colony, and were furious to find the original settlers waiting for them in the harbour, having escaped to New York and returned, demanding that they help rebuild New Edinburgh. The fort was promptly destroyed by the Spanish. In total, around 2, 000 people died on Darien or sailing home, and the Scottish economy was ruined.

12 of History’s Most Useless Explorers and Dreadful Expeditions
Salomon August Andrée departs to great fanfare, Sweden, 1896. Wikimedia Commons

Salomon August Andrée

What better way to see the Arctic than in a hot air balloon? Well, the Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée (1854-97) certainly couldn’t think of a better method, and so in 1897 he set off to do just that. Incredibly, the mad scheme was warmly received by the Swedish Monarchy, who looked enviously at the advances in polar exploration made by their neighbours, Norway. Over a series of public lectures, Andrée convinced everyone with his calculations, assurances of his prowess as a pilot, and arguments for the ease with which he would use the midnight sun to make observations.

Andrée had his own hydrogen balloon, the Svea, which he tested on a series of short journeys which only served to highlight his poor powers of observation (once mistaking the Baltic Sea and accompanying lighthouse for land and lake) and lack of ability as a balloon pilot. The scheme itself was as crazy as it sounds. Relying almost entirely on the direction of the wind to reach the Arctic meant that the first attempt at lift-off in 1896 failed, and using drag-ropes to steer meant that the balloon was vulnerable to the ropes weighing it down with frost.

At last, on 11th July 1897, the wind was blowing north, and the balloon, named Eagle, was released. Conditions were appalling, and the crew were constantly jettisoning items to keep afloat. After several crashes, the Eagle was finally rendered useless on 14th July. Not to be deterred, despite the whole point of the expedition being to map the Arctic from the air, the men continued on foot, using the meagre safety supplies they had packed for just such an (inevitable) eventuality. Unfortunately, they had thrown away much of their food supplies, and so had to shoot and eat bears.

After spending 3 weeks resting at the Eagle‘s crash site, Andrée and his men packed up, and set out to complete their mission. Unfortunately, the weight of the equipment and provisions broke their sleds and wore them out, and it swiftly became apparent that the trip was now utterly pointless. On 4th August, therefore, they decided to travel back southwest across the ice, but their old enemy, the wind, made progress extremely slow. The ‘home’ they built on an ice floe, hoping it would take them out to sea, broke up, and by September 12 they had all died.

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.