20 Doomed Explorers Who Made History For All The Wrong Reasons

Successful explorers — Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus spring to mind — are celebrated for their bravery and their discoveries. But not all expeditions end in triumph. Shambolic planning, faulty information, and sheer bad luck can combine to end an exploratory quest in disaster and tragedy. That’s hardly surprising, since by its nature the charting of unknown seas and lands is a highly risky business. Here we tell the tales of 20 explorers whose plans went awry — often fatally so.

1. Salomon August Andrée

Salomon August Andrée’s exploration idea must rate as one of the most hare-brained among the many madcap schemes that have been pursued by adventurers. Andrée was a Swedish engineer and in 1897 he decided that he could stake its claim to international recognition as a trailblazing explorer. He’d do this by crossing the Arctic in a hot-air balloon.

Incredibly, this deranged scheme attracted the support of the Swedish King. Apparently Andrée had persuaded all and sundry that this feat was perfectly plausible. He had worked out the route, he was a highly skilled balloonist and navigating by the midnight Sun would be a simple task. In a telling omen of the likely outcome of this expedition, Andrée’s first attempt at launch failed.

On foot

The whole plan depended on the wind and on July 11, 1897, it was indeed blowing northwards. The expedition balloon Eagle was launched with Andrée and two others aboard. After just four days and several crash landings, the balloon was wrecked. The three men now set off on foot.

As they’d thrown most of their supplies overboard in a vain attempt to keep Eagle in the air, they soon ran out of food. They trekked across the icy wilderness, retracing their route and now heading southwest. Eventually the harsh conditions and their lack of supplies led to an inevitable conclusion. Andrée’s diary was later discovered and judging by the entries in it, all three men were dead by mid-October.

2. Captain Sir John Franklin

In the spring of 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin led an expedition from England with 129 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. His mission was to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. That was a sea route that mariners had sought ever since Christopher Columbus had discovered America. Explorers searched for a sea lane that crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of the lands that are now Canada and Alaska.

Many had tried and failed to discover this route. In fact, Franklin’s 1855 expedition was his third attempt to do so, although the previous searches had involved overland journeys across the frozen wastes on the far north of the Americas. Undeterred by his first two failures, Franklin was determined to embark on his third attempt, this time by sea. 

Human remains

Some whalers were the last to spot Erebus and Terror a couple of months after the two ships had left England. At that point Franklin and his men were sailing north of Baffin Island, which lies between Canada and Greenland. In 1847 when nothing had been heard from Franklin, the alarm was raised. For the next 12 years, many search missions were launched, but it wasn’t until 1859 that the expedition’s fate was discovered.

On King William Island to the north of Canada the searchers found the human remains of some of the crew. They also found a written account of what had befallen Franklin and his men. In September 1846 the two ships had become icebound near the isle. By 1848 Franklin and 23 of his men had died there. The remaining 105 had abandoned ship in an attempt to head south overland, but all had perished.