For every Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama, there were other adventurers who were seemingly swallowed by the vastness of the oceans, jungles and deserts they tried to explore. Many of these vanished travelers have become sources of enduring speculation, sometimes even inspiring doomed rescue missions. Get the facts on six famous explorers who journeyed to the far reaches of the earth, only to never be seen again.
1. Percy Fawcett
The unforgiving Amazon jungle has claimed the lives of more than one adventurer, but perhaps none so famous as Colonel Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in 1925 while on the trail of a mythical lost city. One of the most colorful figures of his era, Fawcett had made his name during a series of harrowing mapmaking expeditions to the wilds of Brazil and Bolivia. During these travels, he formulated a theory about a lost city called “Z,” which he believed existed somewhere in the unexplored Mato Grosso region of Brazil.
In 1925 Fawcett, his son oldest son Jack and a young man named Raleigh Rimmell set off in search of the fabled lost city. But following a final letter in which Fawcett announced he was venturing into unmapped territory, the group vanished without a trace. Their fate remains a mystery. While conventional wisdom suggests the explorers were killed by hostile Indians, other theories blame everything from malaria to starvation to jaguar attacks for their demise. Some have even speculated that the men simply went native and lived out the rest of their lives in the jungle. Whatever its cause, the group’s disappearance captured the imaginations of people around the world. In the years after Fawcett vanished, thousands of would-be adventurers mounted rescue missions, and as many as 100 people eventually died while searching for some sign of him in the darkness of the Amazon.
2. George Bass
The British mariner George Bass is remembered for discovering the strait between Australia and Tasmania, but he is even more famous for vanishing during an 1803 voyage to South America. Bass began his career as a ship’s surgeon in the Royal Navy and gained a reputation as a bold explorer after he surveyed the eastern coast of Australia in a tiny ship called the Tom Thumb.
Hoping to strike it rich as a private trader, Bass returned to Australia in the early 1800s on a merchant ship called the Venus. When his cargo failed to fetch a respectable price, Bass hatched an audacious plan to travel to South America—then a Spanish territory—on a rogue trading mission. He set sail in February 1803 but soon disappeared with his crew in the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. While the Venus was most likely lost at sea, another theory argues that Bass and his men made it to the coast of Chile, only to be arrested as smugglers and forced to spend the rest of their lives toiling in a Spanish silver mine.
In a chilling coincidence, the Portuguese brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real both vanished during separate voyages to the coastline of modern-day Canada. In 1501 Gaspar led a three-ship fleet on an expedition to the shores of Newfoundland. After claiming some 60 natives as slaves, he tasked his brother Miguel with ferrying them back to Portugal. Gaspar was expected to follow shortly thereafter, but both he and his ship were never seen again.
Miguel Corte-Real returned to the New World in 1502 on a quest to rescue his beloved brother. After arriving in Newfoundland, his three caravels split up and began a frantic search of the coastline. But while the other two vessels later returned to their rendezvous point, Miguel’s ship vanished without a trace. The fate of the two Corte-Reals remains a mystery, but there is some evidence that Miguel may not have perished immediately after his disappearance. In 1918 a Brown University professor discovered an inscription on a boulder in Dighton, Massachusetts. Dated 1511, the message read: “Miguel Corte-Real, by the will of God, here leader of the Indians.” If genuine, these markings would suggest that Miguel managed to survive in the New World for at least nine years. Even more amazing, they imply that he eventually joined and perhaps even led a tribe of natives.
4. Jean-Francois de Galaup Lapérouse
In 1785 France’s King Louis XVI dispatched the explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup Lapérouse on a grand around-the-world mapmaking expedition. After setting sail from Brest, the navigator rounded Cape Horn and spent the next few years surveying the coastlines of California, Alaska, Russia, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Lapérouse reached Australia in 1788, but after leaving Botany Bay his fleet disappeared. A rescue expedition arrived in 1791, but it found no trace of Lapérouse, his two ships or his 225 crewmembers.
It was nearly 40 years before any evidence of the explorer’s fate emerged. In 1826 an Irish sea captain named Peter Dillon learned from natives that a pair of ships had once sunk near the island of Vanikoro. After sailing to the site, Dillon recovered anchors and other wreckage later confirmed to belong to Lapérouse’s two ships. In a bizarre twist, the locals also claimed that some of the men—including the group’s “chief”—had survived on Vanikoro for some time before building a ramshackle boat and heading out to sea. If this mysterious “chief” was indeed Lapérouse, it would mean the doomed navigator survived for several years longer than was originally believed.
5. Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier
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Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier were among the most renowned polar explorers of the 19th century, and their disappearance triggered a decades-long series of rescue missions. In 1845 the duo led two ships on an expedition to discover the elusive Northwest Passage—the sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But after passing Baffin Island that July, the expedition vanished without a trace.
It was two years before a search party arrived from England, and only then did some of the terrifying details of the explorers’ fate finally come to light. The investigations revealed that Franklin and Crozier’s vessels had become trapped in pack ice during the winter of 1846-1847. While the expedition had three years’ worth of supplies, all the provisions had been sealed with lead, which almost certainly contaminated the sailors’ food. The crew soon became weakened and delirious from lead poisoning, and at least 20 men—including Franklin—perished by mid-1848. Natives who came in contact with the expedition later claimed that Crozier tried to lead the survivors south in search of help. Most if not all of the men are believed to have died during the journey, and recent evidence shows some even resorted to cannibalism. Spurred on by Franklin’s widow, as many as 50 ships would later travel to Canada in an attempt to locate the lost expedition, but the bodies of Franklin and Crozier—along with the wrecks of their two ships—have never been recovered.
6. Peng Jiamu
Perhaps the most famous example of a modern lost explorer is Peng Jiamu, a Chinese biologist who vanished during a desert expedition in 1980. One of China’s most beloved adventurers, Peng began his travels in the late 1950s. He participated in multiple scientific expeditions to northwestern China’s Lop Nor desert, often described as one of the driest places in the world. In 1980 Peng led a team of biologists, geologists and archeologists to Lop Nor to conduct new research. But several days into the journey, he abruptly disappeared from his camp after leaving a note saying he was going out to find water.
The Chinese government launched a massive search of the desert, but no sign of Peng was ever found. According to those familiar with the dangers of Lop Nor, the famed biologist was most likely buried alive by a freak sandstorm or crushed by an avalanche of loose soil. But while as many as six skeletons have been recovered from Lop Nor since his disappearance, none has been proven to be Peng.
Did You Know?
For early sea explorers, perhaps no disease was more dreaded than scurvy, an ailment that led to gum deterioration, sores and eventual death. While the symptoms of scurvy were known to Europe by the 1400s, its cure—eating foods rich in vitamin C—was repeatedly lost and rediscovered until the late 1700s. Before that, scurvy often wreaked havoc on malnourished sailors. In fact, during their two famous voyages, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama both lost more than half of their crews to the disease.