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A painting of a ship on the ocean in a storm

The Epitaphs of 7 Explorers who Disappeared Without a Trace


The tragic, inspiring stories of explorers who roamed the planet in search of unknown territories, and never returned.

It’s not an entirely devastating act to disappear from the face of the Earth. From each of the myriad possibilities following such an event, some return is always close at hand. The miraculous reappearance of someone who’s passed away seems to question whether he or she had ever been gone at all. But then, perhaps a dead man without a grave is never quite dead. This is the tragic fate of all the explorers who’ve disappeared for the sake of glory and in their eagerness to cross new frontiers and to conquer distant territories.

A sailor in a rowboat on the stormy sea


These men aren’t really dead. They are ghosts who survive the passage of time, and their stories (laden with that exotic, melancholic quality which inhabits remote islands, too) still fills us with a gentle sadness. It’s almost impossible not to imagine their final days, their last hours, that moment in which, at last, they closed their eyes one final time.
These are seven brave travelers who never came home…

Giovanni Caboto
It’s said that Caboto, an Italian navigator born in 1450, was the first European to reach the coast of North America after the Vikings. On his first voyage, the Italian left Bristol, England, and sailed the Atlantic in search of a lost island on which he would supposedly find dyes of great value. The search failed. On his second voyage, he arrived at Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland and returned to England proclaiming the territory part of the British Empire. This entitled him to great fame and a great fortune. In 1478, Caboto sailed from the British Isles with five ships under his command en route to northern Canada. A terrible storm forced one of the ships to return. The remaining four stayed their course and disappeared forever into the sea.

Roald Amundsen
One of Norway’s most beloved 20th-century explorers, Amundsen was born there and trained as a sailor. He explored the frozen lands of the north (his was the first trip to unquestionably reach the North Pole), and he led expeditions to Antarctica, again, for the first time reaching the South Pole. A lover of these frozen lands, he disappeared on June 18, 1928, a hero, while flying over the Arctic in an attempt to rescue the passengers from another plane crash.

Henry Hudson
One of the most famous (and tragic) explorers of all time, Hudson’s surname is still heard in the huge bay in eastern Canada and in the Hudson River in New York. A brave traveler, Hudson toured Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago of the glacial Arctic Ocean. His final great expedition was to the North America mainland. In 1610, Hudson set sail on his ship, Discovery, never knowing he was not to return. Nearly two months later, after several quarrels among the crew, a riot resulted in Hudson, his son John, and eight loyal crew members being abandoned to a small boat near the Digges Islands. For some time, the Discovery continued sailing, but it too soon withdrew its sails, and the unfortunate crew was abandoned to fate.  This was the last time Henry Hudson was seen alive, in a small boat, in the bay that bears his name even today.

Gaspar Corte-Real
A Portuguese explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500, Corte-Real soon after embarked in the direction of Newfoundland or Labrador Bay. At some point, Corte-Real sent back three of his four ships (including one led by his brother, Miguel) and then disappeared into the sea forever. In 1502, Miguel made another trip to the area where his brother had disappeared but suffered the same fate. His ship, too, was lost to the cold northern sea. One theory based on a Latin inscription found in Massachusetts asserts that Miguel may have come ashore and lived at least nine more years in North America.

Naomi Uemura
Solitary and refined, Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to climb Mount Everest in 1970. They would have been the first Japanese team to reach the summit, had it not been for his courteously allowing one of his companions, an older man, to go ahead. An alpinist, Uemura had already conquered the highest peaks on five continents and was the first person to reach the North Pole alone while creating a legend of modern exploration. In 1984, Uemura set out on an expedition to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first man to climb that peak alone and during the winter. He’s known to have reached the summit, but he never returned. Some objects that had belonged to Uemura, including a diary, were found in a snow cave, but his body was never recovered, and the exact circumstances of his death have never been revealed.

Percy Fawcett
An English military officer, archaeologist, and explorer, Fawcett was one of the first to map the enormous Amazon rain forest. The expedition of his life though was realized in the 1920s when he sought the mythical lost city of El Dorado and which he’d nicknamed the “Lost City of Z.” In 1925, Fawcett, his son and a friend, entered the Brazilian region of Mato Grosso. A few days later, they sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one from Fawcett to his wife Nina and in which he said, “You need have no fear of any failure.” They were never seen again. The disappearance generated legends of the fate of Fawcett and his companions. Many said that they’d joined a tribe in the region, while others claimed they’d been killed and even that they’d found some mystical commune. The most credible explanation was by journalist David Grann, who in 2005 unveiled a legend still circulating among the Kalapalo tribe which recounted that Fawcett had arrived in the land but had ignored warnings of a hostile tribe in the area.

Ludwig Leichhardt
A famous German scientist and explorer, Leichhardt led several expeditions into the interior of Australia. On one occasion, he’d been declared dead only to return 18 months later, safe and sound, with a wealth of information about his discoveries. Leichhardt’s final and most ambitious expedition, in 1848, included seven men, 50 head of cattle, 20 mules, seven horses and sufficient supplies. He intended to cross the Australian desert from east to west. But the expedition never reached its destination. The only trace that was found of the trip was a small plaque bearing Leichhardt’s name and which had allegedly been attached to his rifle. Later, trees marked with an “L” (a custom by which the explorer marked his routes) were found, but nothing more. Leichhardt’s true destiny, like that of his men, will surely remain buried in the sands of the great Australian desert.


*Images: 1) Iván Aivazovsky, The Black Sea, 1881; 2) Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning, 1885 / Public Domain

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