For nearly two centuries, countries from all over Europe participated in a series of exploratory trips overseas to previously-settled territories. This period of time in European history is known as the Age of Exploration, also commonly referred to as the Age of Discovery. In total, five European nations would throw their hats into the exploration ring in an attempt to find trade routes, merchant opportunities, and – ultimately – lands to conquer. These nations were Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands.

From Portugal hailed two explorers, Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama. Dias was appointed by then-King John II of Portugal to explore possible trade routes to Asia. In 1488, Dias became the first European explorer to open up that very trade route; his path took him round the Cape of Good Hope – located in what is today South Africa – and through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. His actions paved the way for another ground-breaking exploration from fellow Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama. da Gama followed in Dias’ footsteps and chartered an exploratory trip round the Cape of Good Hope. Making various stops along the way, including in what is present day Mozambique and Kenya, da Gama and his men finally arrived in Calicut, located in India. He was thus successful in providing a sea route from Western Europe to Asia.

Exploring on behalf of Spain, there were Christopher Columbus, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and Ferdinand Magellan, although not all of these gentlemen were Spanish born. Christopher Columbus was of Italian origin, yet he was commissioned by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to explore for them. In his attempts to reach Asia, he landed in the Caribbean islands in 1492. Throughout his time, he would make four total voyages and helped to claim land for the Spanish throne. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was as much a conquistador as he was an explorer. He was tempted by the myth that throughout the New Mexican territory, he would eventually find the famed “Seven Cities of Gold”. He would become the first European to see the Grand Canyon and the American Southwest, eventually claiming land north of Mexico for Spain. Ferdinand Magellan, originally of Portugal, was commissioned by Spain to forge a route to the East Indies, which is today known as Southeast Asia. Although Magellan died in April of 1521 and thus before the completion of the route, he is remembered for aiding in the very first circumnavigation of Earth, meaning a complete sailing trip around the world.

England and France both contributed two navigators apiece. From England, there were Sir Frances Drake and John Cabot. John Cabot, who was originally from Italy, was sent by England to find a route to Asia. Instead, he explored the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in 1497. Cabot would claim land for England and would make three voyages in total. Drake had made a name for himself as a sailor who had been to the West Indies, and was soon tasked by Queen Elizabeth I in 1577 to sail to various Spanish ports in South America to steal some of their imports, such as silver and gold. He later became the first explorer from England to circumnavigate the globe.

Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, sailed up the St. Lawrence River in the eastern part of Canada to look for a northwest passage. He is remembered for having claimed and named Canada for the French in the mid-1500s. All in all, he made three voyages to Canada. Giovanni da Verrazzano, originally from Italy, was tasked by France with the exploration of the East Coast of North America, up which he travelled from what is modern-day Florida to New Brunswick in Canada in 1524. The New York Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is named after him.

The Netherlands contributed an explorer of their own by the name of Abel Tasman, who successfully sighted Tasmania, Tonga, New Zealand, and the Fiji Islands (which are all close to Australia) in 1642. He would make two important voyages: one in 1642 and the second in 1644.