Who Were the Famous British Maritime Explorers?

European explorers ventured to the oceans for knowledge, trade, and power from the early 15th century through the mid-17th century. The history of human exploration is about as old as civilization itself, and many of these explorers’ stories have become legendary through time. Also, if you’re interested, you can learn about some of the most important constellations for ancient navigators.

Britain’s island nation was always on the lookout for adventure on the high seas of history. Without these explorers, there would be no navigational equipment, modern ships, or knowledge of the entire globe and its inhabitants. Here are the most famous British maritime explorers.

John Cabot

close-up of a bronze statue of John Cabot

It’s inconceivable to fathom shrinking your knowledge of the globe and setting out into unexplored waters as John Cabot did with only almanacs, astrolabes, and nocturnals to guide you. 

In 1497, Cabot, an Italian-born trader, set sail from Bristol with 18 crew in pursuit of a westerly passage to Asia (faster than going east) in the hopes of obtaining spices, gold, and other luxuries. Success would boost England’s status as a core trading hub. He happened into Newfoundland and had no idea it would be in the course; Europeans had not yet grasped the concept of continental America.

Cabot became famous because of his exploits, and Henry VII awarded him an annual stipend. The following year, he sailed again and disappeared, his fate unknown.

Cabot wasn’t the first European to set sail for the New World, but he undoubtedly influenced others to do so. He also had a role in the historic growth of Bristol as a prosperous transatlantic port known for importing Newfoundland cod.

Sir Francis Drake

On the afternoon of July 19, 1588, as the Spanish Armada reached England’s shores, Francis Drake ended his round of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. That, at least, is the story. Buccaneering and swashbuckling come to mind when you mention Drake’s name: he embodied the spirit of an era when state-sponsored piracy coexisted with exploration and conflict.

What do we have when we strip away the legends? You can find some answers at Buckland Abbey in Devon. From 1582 to 1598, Drake resided in the monastery-turned-stately residence, and Journeys, a modern interactive gallery, can take you on a journey through his life.

Drake, a straight-talking Devon man of yeoman blood, sailed at a young age. His Protestant faith, passionate patriotism, and hatred of the Spanish, who had once ambushed him during an African slave-collecting mission, fueled his fire.

In 1577, he raided Spanish ports along the coast of South America on Pelican, which he renamed Golden Hinde on the route. Drake discovered Cape Horn, denied the existence of a continent reaching southward from Tierra del Fuego, and seized Nova Albion (California) for Queen Elizabeth I, making him the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

In 1580, he returned as a hero, laden with spoils, which the Queen shared. Drake received a knighthood and spent £3,400 on Buckland Abbey.

In 1587, he “singed the King of Spain’s beard” by sinking many of the king’s vessels in Cadiz harbor, and in 1588, he was instrumental in repelling the Armada. After that, things got out of hand: he was court-martialed for a botched campaign, and he died of illness in the West Indies in 1596.

You can find the drum he carried on his last expedition in the Treasures gallery at Buckland Abbey. It’s supposed that if England is threatened, it’ll beat on its own to bring the Elizabethan Sea dog back to life.

Captain James Cook

monument of Captain James Cook, tree, landscape, water, buildings

Captain James Cook made significant progress in the Pacific with three historical trips, charting the ocean and paving the path for subsequent settlement in Australia and New Zealand. He recorded previously unknown islands, significantly transformed conceptions of world geography, and raised the bar for maps for more than eight years.

If you want to track Captain Cook’s early life, there’s a 70-mile circle tour that visitors may follow around Captain Cook Country, from his birthplace museum in Marton, North Yorkshire, to Whitby’s Captain Cook Memorial Museum. The latter is at the harborside cottage where young James was a collier’s apprentice and trained as a seaman under shipmaster John Walker. Among the objects and information are Cook’s pioneering journeys and scientific studies of plants and animals.

When he was 27 years old, James Cook joined the Royal Navy and explored Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River to prepare for the siege of Quebec. His Pacific travels began in 1768 when he led scientists to Tahiti to view the transit of Venus aboard the Endeavour. He then circumnavigated New Zealand and surveyed Australia’s east coast searching the continent reported laying in the Southern Ocean.

Cook sailed the cold borders of the Antarctic, documented more Pacific islands, and traveled farther south than anybody before him on his second journey. This also tested a replica of John Harrison’s new marine chronometer, putting the myth of the enormous southern continent to rest.

Cook, known for looking after his men, kept scurvy at bay by feeding them a diet rich in pickled cabbage. He was also concerned about the people he encountered, making it ironic that islanders slew him in Hawaii. This happened during his final voyage in quest of the Northwest Passage that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.