Great Britain, a nation of explorers

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Over the centuries, Great Britain has proved to be a nation of explorers. This yearning for travels can be explained by many reasons, either political, commercial, or scientific. Discovering the world early appeared as essential for this island nation.

I. Exploring in the name of the ruler

1) Exploring to expand territory and power

Britain has a long tradition of explorers and navigators. Elizabeth I (1558-1603), first British monarch supporting maritime explorations, commissioned many sailors including Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake, to find new trade routes and lands so as to establish trading outposts and colonies.

18th century Britain knew a growing interest in travel narratives responding to the public’s appetite for more accurate descriptions of lands and peoples of distant regions. Captain James Cook’s diaries were published in 1784. After his expeditions in the South Seas, he brought back maps, log books (journaux de bord), and paintings to the homes and imaginations of British people.

2) Developing trade and imposing British culture

David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and one of the greatest explorers of Africa. He opened up the interior of the continent allowing European nations to explore it. His best-selling Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) was widely read and translated. Convinced that the introduction of Christianity, commerce and civilisation would free African peoples from slavery, he spent his life exploring that continent.

And yet, the nation’s missions in the colonies were not praised by all. In 1899 Joseph Conrad, both sailor and writer, published his short story The Heart of Darkness. It can be read as a political critique of Western imperialism which was “just robbery with violence” for him. It was not an exchange of resources, but an unfair usurpation of the wealth of the weaker party by the stronger.


Imperialism is a system in which a country rules over others, sometimes using force to get power over them.

II. Exploring in the name of science

1) Broadening scientific knowledge

The 19th century saw the birth of science as a profession; the term scientist was coined (inventé) in 1833. Among the most influential ideas of that period were those of Charles Darwin.

He was an English naturalist who decided to embark on a five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle to study exotic wildlife. As a result of his observations, he proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection in the book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.


Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that all species evolve through the survival of the fittest.

Challenging the beliefs of that time, his ideas first created controversy in Victorian society. But his work was soon considered as one of the most important science books ever published.

2) Pushing one’s limit

At the turn of the 20th century, the Antarctic was still an uncharted (non cartographié) area. Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was one of the numerous British adventurers who allowed greater access to the continent and its occupation by scientific stations. He published his expedition account, The Heart of the Antarctic in 1909 and toured the country to popularise his polar journeys.

In 1914, Shackleton led the Trans-Antarctic Expedition and managed to rescue all his crew after his ship was crushed by ice. He rapidly became a role model for leadership as one who, in extreme conditions, kept his team together and pushed the limits of physical endurance.