Finders Losers

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 17, 2023

Getting lost is nowadays becoming increasingly harder to do – even if you want to – because we now have electronic devices of all kinds to guide and direct us, and make it easier for other people to find us. 

Not surprisingly, the people who were most likely to get lost in times past were explorers, attempting to penetrate parts unknown. But by no means did all or most of them manage to bring themselves back alive. A classic example was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who, in 1519, sailed from Europe, intending to circumnavigate the entire world. Unfortunately, in 1521, when only about halfway around, he got killed by natives, on an island in what we now call the Philippines. But, amazingly, one of his ships, with a few of his men, actually made the
entire circuit.

Another great explorer and navigator, the British Captain James Cook, was also killed by natives on a Pacific island, this time in Hawaii (in 1779).

In the next century, the famous Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone was “found” deep in Africa, where he had already led several expeditions. His “finder” was Henry Morton Stanley, an American Journalist, working for the sensationalist New York Herald. Livingstone was already a celebrity. Communications in those days, and in that part of the world, were very poor. He did not consider himself “lost,” but after he had not been heard from for six years, the question of his fate and whereabouts became a public “mystery.” James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the Herald, commissioned Stanley to go to Africa and “find Livingstone.” Stanley’s long search, through one of the least known parts of the Earth, was ultimately successful, and culminated in his reported first words upon their meeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”   

Another eminent explorer, lost, but, in this case, never yet found, was the British Col. Percy Fawcett, whose activities centered on the Amazon region of South America (the Mato Grosso province of Brazil), where he believed a whole civilization had existed, which he called “The City of Z.” His last of many expeditions, whose personnel, this time, included his own 21-year-old son Jack, and Jack’s best friend Raleigh Rimell, disappeared totally in 1925. It has been the object of many unsuccessful searches, right up to the present era, which, however, have found some evidence of the kind of previously unknown cultures which Fawcett himself was looking for.

A very different part of the world – the Canadian Arctic – is the setting for our next lost explorer – Sir John Franklin, another very experienced leader of expeditions, who in 1845 set sail from England with two specially constructed ships named Erebus and Terror, which were fully equipped, with three years of supplies. Their mission was to survey a certain stretch of the Arctic coastline which had not yet been navigated. This would bring closer to realization the almost legendary “North-West Passage” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The ships carried a total crew of 129 officers and men – none of whom were ever again seen alive.

From evidence later pieced together, we now know that both ships became icebound, and had to be abandoned. The crews tried to reach safety on foot, but were simply overwhelmed by the arctic conditions, combined with their own unpreparedness. 

It took several years for the British naval authorities to acknowledge that the entire expedition must be lost, and to begin sending out search parties. One of those who never gave up hope was the leader’s wife, Lady Franklin, who spent the rest of her life organizing her own searches.

Another Arctic disaster occurred some 80 years later, and involved Umberto Nobile, an Italian designer of airships. In 1928, one of his ships, named the Italia, with Nobile aboard, and a crew of 16, managed to fly to the North Pole, but, coming back, crashed onto the ice. An international rescue effort was able to save most of the men, and Nobile returned, a hero, to what was then Fascist Italy.

Finally, we must acknowledge a lost American female explorer, engaged in pioneering new pathways through the air. Her name was Amelia Earhart. She disappeared on July 2, 1937, over the South Pacific, in an attempt to be first to fly all the way around the world. Despite various theories, her fate remains a mystery. 

But, as I myself once wrote: “There’s no way of knowing what too far is, if nobody ever goes there.”  


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