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Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Trade, Travel on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about Alexander Mackenzie first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.
Mackenzie and his party setting off to find a route due West to the Pacific Ocean, crossing rocks and rapids by Graham Coton
It was the year of 1788, and winter had closed in on the little fur trading post of Fort Chipewyan in the far North West of Canada. Imprisoned in their log huts by the cold, the little colony had settled down to sit out the long months and pass the time as best they could. One could play cards, or one could read or one could gaze out of the window at the falling snow piling up steadily against the other log cabins. There was alcohol, of course, but not enough to numb the senses as it was strictly rationed. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that everyone on the station was already bored to death.
Well, almost everyone.
There was one exception, a young Scot from the Outer Hebrides named Alexander Mackenzie. He was not bored because he was obsessed with a dream that had occupied his mind for some time. The dream was to find a route to the Pacific coast of Canada, which would then give the fur trading company a direct access to China, the greatest fur market in the world.
Knowing that there were no tracks across the forest-clad Canadian interior, Mackenzie dreamed of finding some great river flowing ever westwards until it finally emptied itself in the Pacific. It was a dream not entirely rooted in fantasy. According to Captain Cooke who had voyaged along the Pacific coast some ten years before, such a river probably existed. The problem was how to find it amid the thousands of miles of uncharted territory that made up the great tracts of Northern Canada.
Mackenzie had only one clue to work on. A group of Red Indians who had visited the trading company had spoken of a great inland sea known as The Great Slave Lake. From there, they claimed, a big river flowed westwards. It was Mackenzie’s plan to make his way there with a small band of men and three canoes when the Spring came. In the meantime, Mackenzie dreamed and planned.
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Posted in Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Thursday, 6 March 2014
This edited article about Mungo Park first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.
Mungo Park was exhibited in a market place as a sideshow and forced to dress and undress many times a day to show the tribesmen his strange white skin and odd-buttoned clothes, by Angus McBride
“Nothing can be more beautiful than the views of the immense river; sometimes as smooth as a mirror, at other times ruffled with a gentle breeze, but at all times sweeping us along at the rate of six or seven miles an hour.”
So wrote Mungo Park about Africa’s mystery river, called by the inhabitants the “Joliba” – the “Great Water.” In 1805, when Park went to Africa, no one knew where the Niger rose nor where it terminated. Geographers believed it ran to waste in the burning deserts. Park himself believed it to be a tributary of the Congo. But he was in Africa determined to trace it, and wherever it went – he was going.
Mungo Park was the son of a Lowland Scots farmer. As a boy he was known for “the gravity and decorum of his manner.” Apprenticed to a surgeon, Thomas Anderson, whose daughter Alison he was to marry, and whose son Alexander he was to whisk away to his death in Africa, Mungo was “passed at Surgeons’ Hall” in 1791.
He was twenty-three when he received an offer to explore the Niger for the African Association, which had already sent three unsuccessful expeditions. In June, 1795, he landed at Jonkakonda on the Gambia River, dressed in cotton breeches, a blue coat and a waistcoat with brass buttons. The last of these buttons was to save his life in the wild interior of Africa.
All that Mungo wrote about that first journey showed him to have been a humane, kindly man who looked upon the Africans as equal human beings with whom he made many friendships. He was young and inexperienced, so that often he was robbed and cheated unmercifully, but he took it in good part, until he came to the “Moors.” These were people of mixed descent, Arab and African, who lived on the southern fringes of the Great Desert. According to him, they were a vicious people who terrorised and robbed the Africans, considering them only good for slavery. Fanatical Moslems, they viewed Christians as devils in human form whose destruction would be rewarded in Paradise.
Into their hands, Mungo naively delivered himself, penniless, alone except for a servant boy and unarmed. They seized him and enslaved his “boy.” Mungo, they subjected to insult and indignity. He was exhibited in the market place as a side show, and forced to undress and dress forty times a day to display his strange white skin and odd-buttoned clothes. For three months, he was the prisoner of King Ali, dragged out to amuse the tribesmen, otherwise kept in a hut with barely enough food or water to sustain life. Had it not been for Queen Fatima, who looked favourably upon the handsome young Scot and interceded with Ali on his behalf, he knew he would have been murdered out of hand.
In the confusion of a tribal war, Mungo finally escaped. A fugitive, followed by Ali’s men, he still pressed on, using his last brass button to buy a few days’ food. Reaching the Niger at Sego, he fell on his knees, to drink the water and give thanks to God. Only then did he turn back, joining a slave trader’s caravan which at last brought him safely to Gambia and a ship to Britain.
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Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 March 2014
This edited article about polar exploration first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.
Lieutenant Cagni saves a sled from disappearing into the Arctic sea
The expedition had begun well enough. Their whaler, the Polar Star was safely at anchor among the ice floes of Terplitz Bay, and already their cargo had been put ashore, a formidable collection of sledges, skin boats, sleeping bags and provisions, to say nothing of the hundred barking dogs straining at their leads in the hold of the ship. It was the year of 1899, and a party of Italians under the leadership of Luigi Amadeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, had just invaded the polar regions, where they intended to live for a year, while sledging parties explored the region. Ultimately, they would make a dash to the North Pole, which the Norwegian explorer, Nansen, had attempted to reach in 1895.
It had been their intention to use the Polar Star as their main base, but that implacable enemy of all ships, the ice-pack, soon made this an impossibility. Within a few days of their arrival, the ice had packed in so tightly against the sides of the whaler, that she was now held in a vice-like grip from which there was no escape. The ultimate collapse of part of her hull resulted in the ship being so badly flooded that everyone was forced to abandon her. Hurriedly landing the dogs and the remainder of their cargo, Amadeo and his crew set up their tents on the desolate shores of Prince Rudolph Island.
It took them a month to repair the Polar Star. By then they were well into the month of November, the time of permanent night which would last for another three months before they could set off for the North Pole. All they could do now was to wait.
In the meantime, the dogs had to be exercised, and a few short sledge journeys were made. It was one of these simple and seemingly safe forays which was to cost Amadeo the leadership of the party.
Having set off one day with his right hand man, Lieutenant Cagni, Amadeo lost his way. By the time a rescue party had found them, the Duke’s fingers had become so frost-bitten that two of them had to be partially amputated. Faced with the bitter knowledge that he was no longer fit to lead the team on what was bound to be a gruelling expedition, Amadeo handed the command of the main expedition over to Lieutenant Cagni.
The expedition that finally set off was split into three groups, each consisting of three men in charge of four sledges. Everything had been carefully planned down to the last detail. The men had been fully rehearsed in the handling of their sledges, and the rations had been worked out, almost to the last ounce, so that they could travel as lightly as possible. Following the grim example that Nansen had set them on his expedition, they planned to feed the dogs on the flesh of the others which were not needed for the return trip.
But there was one thing that the expedition could not control, and that was the weather. Shortly after they had set off, the cold became so intense that they could feel their breath freezing on their lips. One dog froze to death in the first night, and one of the men was stricken down with an acute attack of frostbite. Halted, finally, in their tracks, with a driving sleet that slashed incessantly at their faces, they realised that they had no other alternative but to turn back. Three days after their departure, they stumbled back into the base camp, more dead than alive, with their clothes frozen to their bodies.
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Posted in Exploration, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 1 March 2014
This edited article about Willem Barentsz first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.
Barentsz and his men became prisoners of the Polar ice by Clive Uptton
They had made their house mainly from driftwood, and they had thatched the roof with sailcloth and seaweed. It was a poor enough shelter against the Arctic winter, but at least they were under cover and provisions were abundant.
Outside, the sun had just risen, but it was little more than a half disc above the horizon. The bears had disappeared and now there were only foxes, miserably snuffling the icy soil, barren of any trees or bushes. In time, those foxes were to be their salvation, providing flesh to eat and skins which could be made into caps and mittens.
It was the November of 1596, and Willem Barentsz and his companions were stranded on the ice off the Russian islands of Nova Zembla.
The voyage that had brought Barentsz and his companions there had started more than six months ago when they had all left Amsterdam with a companion ship, to seek out a north-east passage by water to the Indies, via the polar regions. It was an idea which had been in the mind of the Dutch since 1514, and Barentsz had already made two attempts to find it, and on both occasions he had been forced to turn back. His third attempt had proved to be even more disastrous than the others.
The voyage had been successful enough until they had arrived at Nova Zembla where the two ships had been accidentally separated. Shortly afterwards, Barentsz’s ship had become trapped in the drifting ice, and no efforts on their part could release her. The ice continued to pack even more tightly around them until the ship began groaning and heaving under the pressure. It was at this point that they had all agreed to leave the ship and build themselves a house upon the land.
The building of the house had proved to be something of a nightmare. Working in a cold that was so extreme that the skin peeled from their hands whenever they touched a metal object, they had painfully struggled backwards and forwards from the ship dragging provisions ashore. Snow storms had frequently interrupted their work on the house, and they had been attacked by bears on several occasions. One man who had been pursued by a bear had only been saved from death when the bear had paused in its tracks to examine another bear which the sailors had killed and left to freeze.
But now Barentsz and his men were settled in their house at last. Even so, the prospect before them was grim enough. Dried-fish and salt meat were abundant, but there was only half a pound of bread a day for each man. The beer, freezing in its caskets had become as tasteless as water. The chimney would not draw and the room was filled with a blinding smoke which everyone had to endure or die of the cold. To make matters worse they could hear the cracking and groaning of the ice as it tightened its grip on their ship. The same question was in everybody’s minds. Would the ship still be seaworthy after it had been subjected to such pressures?
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Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Nature, Science on Friday, 28 February 2014
This edited article about Charles Darwin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.
Aboard the 10-gun brig, H.M.S. Beagle, a regular feature of Sunday afternoons, as she sailed round the world on a scientific and surveying voyage, was her captain’s entertaining his officers by reading extracts from the Bible.
Captain Robert FitzRoy, only 23 years old and descended from Charles II, was a deeply religious young man, as well as being hot-tempered, eccentric, brave as a bull, just, strict and given to fits of deepest gloom. Like many religious people at that time – the Beagle sailed in 1831 – he firmly believed in the Genesis story of the creation of the world, with Man being made on the sixth day.
Not only that, FitzRoy and millions of others believed that the world was made at 9 am on 23 October, 4,004 B.C., a date worked out by an Irish Anglican archbishop of the 16th century called Ussher. All the ship’s Bibles, like countless others of the day, had a note to that effect. But on board the Beagle was a young naturalist, dressed as a civilian among all the naval officers, who was later to prove that the good archbishop was wrong by millions of years. His name was Charles Darwin.
Darwin, born in 1809, was one of the mildest of revolutionaries, who, in most Victorians’ opinions, was later to break the rules of decency in the most spectacular way by daring to challenge the Book of Genesis.
His beginnings were not spectacular. Though he came of a brilliant family, with a Shrewsbury doctor as a father, a poet and scientist as a grandfather and a mother who was the daughter of the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, he was rather a dunce at school, was a poor medical student at Edinburgh, and, at Cambridge, seemed destined to become an obscure country parson, a strange beginning for a scientific genius.
It was at Cambridge, however, that he met botanists and scientists, who transformed his outlook on life. One of them, the Rev Professor Henslow, recommended him to FitzRoy as the ship’s naturalist.
When they met, FitzRoy disliked him on sight, mainly because he disapproved of the shape of his nose. It was not the nose, it seemed, to endure the hardships of a trip round the world. But after talking to the keen young naturalist, who was anything but the stuffy-looking Victorian his later photographs suggest, FitzRoy decided that Darwin would do, even with his nose!
On the great voyage, which lasted from 1831-6, Darwin did everything from climbing volcanoes in South America to studying the social life of ants. All of creation fascinated him throughout his life from tiny insects to the fossils of prehistoric monsters, and it was all triggered off for him by the voyage of the Beagle and, especially, the creatures he saw on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.
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Posted in Animals, Dogs, Exploration, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Roald Amundsen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer, spent Christmas Day 1911 in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic. On December 14th at 3 o’clock in the afternoon he had become the first conqueror of the South Pole. Amundsen and his men unfolded the Norwegian flag. Five cold weatherbeaten hands gripped the flagpole as Amundsen proclaimed, “And so I plant you, our beloved flag, on the South Pole, and name the plateau on which it lies, King Haakon VII’s Plateau.”
There was no champagne, and they were cold, exhausted and worried about the long perilous journey home. That evening in their tent they celebrated by eating a small piece of seal meat in addition to their meagre rations.
The early 1900s are among the most dramatic and eventful in the history of Polar exploration. In 1905 Amundsen discovered the elusive North West Passage. It took him three years of hazardous adventures to find this maritime route through the Arctic regions from the Atlantic to the Pacific which navigators had been seeking for hundreds of years. Now the struggle to reach the North and South Poles was reaching a climax.
On 9th August 1910 Amundsen set sail from Norway in the Fram, apparently on his way to the North Pole. When he arrived at Madeira he released the sensational news that he was going to the Antarctic and would try to reach the South Pole. He now became a serious rival to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the great British explorer, whose expedition was at that moment in an Australian harbour putting the final touches to preparations before setting out for the Antarctic. It now became a race between these two men to reach the South Pole.
Both explorers had had considerable experience in the Antarctic, but the British expedition seemed to have a great many advantages. Scott was returning to familiar ground in the McMurdo Sound, and full details of the route from here to within two degrees of the Pole were available. Amunsden based his expedition entirely on sleigh dogs. He believed it was essential to take a large quantity of provisions, and he planned to go by another route across vast tracts of unknown territory. Eminent polar explorers, among them Scott, considered it was impossible, because of the extreme cold, to reach the South Pole with a large team of dogs still alive. He intended travelling light and using skis for the final stages of his journey.
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Posted in Adventure, America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Trade on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Henry Hudson first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.
Henry Hudson discovered Jan Mayen Island around which so many whales could be seen that he realised the profitability of setting up whaling stations in Spitsbergen, by Severino Baraldi
They had been set adrift in an open boat somewhere in the vast expanse of Hudson Bay. There were nine of them, including the great navigator, Henry Hudson, and his son John, abandoned by the mutineers who had taken over their ship, the Discovery.
There was only one possible fate left open to them, to perish miserably. No one will ever know what finally happened to them. Like so much of Hudson’s life, these last days of his remain shrouded in mystery, for the bodies of the nine were never found. The harrowing picture of that open boat on a limitless sea has haunted the imagination of seafarers and landlubbers alike ever since.
Henry Hudson, who perished in 1611, was born, so scholars believe, before 1570. Not until 1607 does he definitely appear in recorded history, when he set out on a voyage sponsored by the Muscovy Company. This had been founded by English merchants to find a route to China and the Indies by way of the seas north of Russia, though it gradually became a company trading with Russia. In Hudson’s time the dream was to find the short cut westwards to China, the longed for North-west Passage.
It was a reasonable idea at the time. Though Magellan’s and Drake’s expeditions had sailed round the world in the previous century, and though Spain had colonised much of Central and South America, no one as yet knew just how vast a mass of land barred ships from sailing to China.
There was always the hope that one could cross the mysterious North American continent by water, or sail around its northern extremities. It was then Henry Hudson’s mission in life to find such a route.
Incredible though it may seem, his first expedition was supposed to be across the North Pole. From the maps that existed such a course did not seem impossible, but it must have been an awesome sight for Hudson when he first set eyes on the great sheet of ice. The treacherous conditions made life intolerable and he and his crew of ten, were forced to return home. Yet he was able to bring back stories of the islands he had discovered and of the many whales he had seen around Spitsbergen. His sponsors were later to make vast amounts of money from whaling in those icy waters. A second attempt was made a year later – this time round the north of Europe – but ice blocked him again. So he turned westward toward America. But once more his mission was ill-fated. Gale winds drove him off course and he had to head for home.
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Posted in America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Legend on Friday, 21 February 2014
This edited article about Ponce de Leon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 561 published on 14 October 1972.
The heat of the summer nights in the West Indies was unbearable and Ponce de Leon couldn’t sleep. The air was alive with mosquitoes and as if that wasn’t enough there was something on Ponce’s mind.
Ponce de Leon groaned and twisted and turned. But still he couldn’t sleep. What had that Indian said? Those Indians all spoke such barbarous languages. How could a Spanish nobleman like Ponce hope to understand them, however hard he tried.
“The Fountain of Youth,” muttered Ponce de Leon over and over again until at last he dozed. “The Fountain of Youth on the fair island of Bimini,” was that really what the Indian had been trying to say?
Every Spaniard living in the newly conquered lands of America knew about a fabulous fountain that gave eternal youth to anyone who drank from it, but nobody knew quite where it was. Some even said that it was a legend, but most believed that such a fountain existed, somewhere. Ponce de Leon believed in the fountain and he was far from being an ignorant or superstitious sailor. He was a man of breeding, a man of great experience and courage who had won fame as a worthy successor to the great Columbus.
Now it seemed that Ponce de Leon had been given a chance to discover something that could shake the world, just as Columbus had shaken the world by reaching the Americas only a few years beforehand. Ponce had only to find Bimini and search out the fantastic fountain, the fabled Fountain of Eternal Youth.
So started Ponce de Leon’s fanatical hunt throughout the islands and coasts of what is now Florida and the Bahamas. He had a great deal of experience to draw on. Ponce de Leon had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493 when still a young man.
Nine years later he had sailed with Ovando, the first Royal Governor of the Indies. In the cruel rivalry that had then sprung up between Ovando and Columbus, Ponce de Leon had sided with the Royal Governor. It had been a hard life. Endless wars with the fierce Carib indians, disease and even starvation made sure that only the toughest and luckiest survived.
Perhaps Ponce de Leon’s dream of discovering Bimini and the Fountain of Youth would never have got off the ground if it had not been for those vicious jealousies that flared up between Spaniard and Spaniard in the West Indies. For years Ponce de Leon served his leaders faithfully, putting down Indian revolts in the north of Hispaniola, the present day Dominica, until he had been rewarded by being made Governor of that region.
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Posted in Africa, Discoveries, Exploration, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 20 February 2014
This edited article about Burton and Speke first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 560 published on 7 October 1972.
The Ancient Egyptians, who farmed the banks of the Nile over 6,000 years ago, regarded the mighty African river as sacred. They did not know where it flowed from, but believed it must be from some earthly Paradise in the centre of Africa. Even the learned members of the Royal Geographical Society in the middle of the 19th century did not know the answer.
In 1857, when the Society decided to send an expedition to discover the great lakes of Darkest Africa in order to try to find the source of the Nile, they realised that only someone of the nature of a superman could be considered to lead such a hazardous mission.
The nearest approach to a superman they could think of was Richard Francis Burton. His talents were staggering – soldier, explorer, inventor, archaeologist, author, linguist (he could speak 29 languages as easily as his own), anthropologist and student of religions. No swordsman in all Europe could stand against him with a rapier.
Burton had made a hazardous journey through Somaliland in East Africa and was the first European to enter the forbidden city of Harar where he stayed for ten days in deadly peril and then rode across the desert, running the gauntlet of Somali spears all the way. He had also disguised himself as an Indian Moslem, being one of the first white men to take part in the great pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the sacred Moslem cities of Arabia.
Yet, if his father had had his way, Burton would have spent his life as an English clergyman. With his heart set on an Army career, young Richard had been an unwilling student at Oxford and within a year had managed to have himself expelled. The jubilant young man had departed from university in triumph, driving a specially-hired horse-tandem. Whether by accident or design, he drove the tandem across one of the college’s finest flower-beds!
Realising that it was useless to battle with his son any longer, Richard’s father reluctantly agreed to a military career and obtained for him a commission in the Bombay Native Infantry And so began Burton’s remarkable, exciting life of adventure.
It was on June 17th, 1857, that Burton set out from Zanzibar to explore the uncharted lakes of Africa and to seek the source of the Nile. His second-in-command was an old friend of his Army days, John Hanning Speke, a giant of a man and seasoned traveller, but lacking many of Burton’s talents, particularly a knowledge of languages.
They differed in temperament, too. As time went on, and the hardships of the expedition increased, these differences in temperament resulted in the two men becoming increasingly intolerant of each other, and this was to have disastrous consequences.
They were now in the depths of humid jungle, where every step was an effort, the stench of rotting vegetation overpowering, and the torment of insects unbearable.
Burton became so ill with fever that he had to be carried on an ass and supported by bearers.
To add to the nightmare of the journey, they encountered slave caravans stricken by small-pox. Their trails were marked by dead and dying and vultures were feeding off the corpses. Then fever gripped Speke and he could only walk by being supported on both sides. One night, he became so deliriously violent that his weapons had to be taken from him.
On December 14th, 1857 after resting at Tabora they set off towards Ujiji, 200 miles away where, people believed, there was a gigantic lake called Tanganyika. If it existed, no white man had seen it. They had not gone far when some jungle fever struck Burton and in a few hours he had lost the use of his limbs. A week later Speke was struck by an eye infection which made him almost blind. He had to be carried on a donkey whilst Burton, unable to walk had to be carried in a hammock. To add to their troubles. Speke’s donkey collapsed and died of exhaustion.
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Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Ships, Trade on Wednesday, 12 February 2014
This edited article about the East India Company first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 549 published on 22 July 1972.
The East India Company was sanctioned when the Mughal Emperor Akbar received Sir John Mildenhall, Queen Elizabeth I's ambassador, 1599
Diamonds, silk, pepper and cinnamon – these and a thousand other riches lay locked in India. If only the merchants of Britain could establish a trade link with this treasure house the key to prosperity would be theirs
It was the last day of 1600. Outside, the snow was falling heavily, covering everything with a blanket of white, but inside the dining room a roaring log fire threw warmth and a flickering light into the far corners of the room. Twelve men sat around the table, all prosperous London merchants, but their minds were far from the weather or the glasses of Madeira wine in their hands.
Time and time again their talk returned to the fabulous riches of the East – diamonds, silk, pepper and cinnamon. Travellers’ tales of the great Mogul Empire in India, twenty times as large and as rich as Britain; the Spice Islands, where a fortune could be made from a single voyage; mysterious and forbidding China, hardly visited since the great Marco Polo. None of this was new but today they would know whether all their ambitious plans for exploiting the wealth of the East were to be realised.
The sound of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles outside brought all conversation to an abrupt end and everyone glanced towards the door. Seconds later it burst open and the messenger, looking like some dramatic ghost from the windswept snow that still covered him, announced triumphantly “Her Majesty has signed the Charter!”
Late that night lights still burned all over the house as men came and went and preparations were made. The Honourable East India Company was beginning to take shape and the rest of the 125 partners had to be notified. There was money to raise, ships, stores and men to be found, and ahead of them the dreams of excitement and riches.
None of these Elizabethan merchants can ever have dreamt, however, of what eventually lay in store. They had created what was to become the most powerful trading company in the world, a Company which sold tea but maintained huge armies; which carried a sword in one hand and a ledger in the other. Now their eyes were set only on the prospects for trade but in time they founded an Empire and owned a continent. The Honourable East India Company would eventually become one of the most colourful and dramatic concerns in British history.
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