Curious People: The History of Exploration

The Old Library at St John's College has many books, maps and letters that tell the story of how Europeans explored the rest of the world. These webpages will show you some of the highlights through the exploits of these travellers and their exotic destinations.

Explore the site using the links below to pages about people, places, or wider topics.

Copyright in the images used in this resource belongs to the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge. If you wish to reproduce them in any way please contact the Library for permission.

Find out more

Below are some books and websites to look at if you want to find out more about exploration. These are just suggestions – there are many more good resources on exploration out there. Try searching a library catalogue or online bookstore for words like ‘Polar regions’, ‘Explorers’, or ‘Discoveries’. Let us know if you have any ideas about books or websites that should be on our list.

General Exploration

Atlas of Exploration by Andrew Kerr and Francois Naude (Dorling Kindersley, 2008)
This is a colourful introduction to exploration with lots of pictures and maps.

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Oxford University Press, 2007) 
This book has an engaging narrator who tells the story of people, from around the world and across the centuries, who left their home communities to explore. A more challenging read than the Atlas of Exploration, it is well worth the effort.

The Oxford Book of Exploration edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Oxford University Press, 2005) 
This is a collection of exciting extracts from original sources by explorers and travellers. Get a taste of what it’s like to be an explorer or take it further and read the full version of your favourites.

How to be an Explorer by Dugald Steer (Templar Publishing, 2007) 
This is aimed at younger children but will be enjoyed by everyone, even adults. The best bits are the illustrations and pop-ups, which inspire intrepidity.

Polar exploration

Freeze Frame online resources from the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI)
Based on SPRI’s world-class collection of photographic negatives illustrating polar exploration from the nineteenth century onwards, this is a must see resource for anyone interested in exploration in the Polar Regions. It offers everything from expedition summaries through biographies of explorers to information about northern peoples and survival in extreme environments.

A Time to Speak by Sir Vivian Fuchs (Nelson, 1990) Read the autobiography of Polar Explorer, Sir Vivian Fuchs to find out how he became interested in exploration as a child and went on to lead the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955-1958).

African exploration

Blood River: a journey to Africa’s broken heart by Tim Butcher (Chatto & Windus, 2007)
Sent to Africa as a journalist, Tim Butcher becomes obsessed with the idea of recreating Victorian explorer, Henry Stanley's expedition along the Congo River. This book tells the compelling story of his resulting journey and the troubled country through which he travels.


The bibliography lists all the books and manuscripts that were used to make Curious People: a history of exploration. It directs people to the original sources so that they can check the facts and find out more about the subject. Each reference to a book or manuscript has some of the following elements laid out in the following order:

Author, with the surname first, Title of the work (Place it was published, Date it was published) Classmark - a code which says where the item is in the Library.


Books from the Library featured in the resource:

Bartholomew, John GeorgeThe advanced atlas of physical and political geography (London, 1917) Chapel Basement Oversize 16

Bellingshausen, ThaddeusThe Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas 1819-1821 (London, 1945) Chapel Basement HAK Ser.2, Vol.91-2

Bosman, WillemA new and accurate description of the coast of Guinea (London, 1705) Kk.8.29(1)

Cook, James, A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world (London, 1777) F.3.34-35

Cook, JamesA voyage to The Pacific Ocean (London, 1784) F.3.36-38

Coxe, WilliamAccount of the Russian discoveries between Asia and America (London, 1780) F.4.42

Dampier, WilliamA voyage to New Holland, &c. in the year, 1699 (London, 1703) Gg.13.37(2)

Geographical handbook series: Naval Intelligence Division B.R.522: The Belgian Congo (London, 1944) Garden Basement G 100.B4.c

Havergal, F. T. (ed.), Facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Hereford, 1869)

Holland, HenryHeroologia Anglica [English heroes] (Arnhem, 1620) Aa.1.55

Huttich, Johann (ed.), Nouus Orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitarum [The new world of regions and islands unknown to the ancients] (Basel, 1532) F.1.5(1)

L'Isle, Guillaume de, Collection of maps (c.1740) SL.1.23

Livingstone, DavidDr. Livingstone's Cambridge lectures (Cambridge, 1830) Garden Basement 11.11.53

Mercator, GerhardAtlas (Amsterdam, 1613) SL.1.49

Mulgrave, Constantine John PhippsA voyage towards the North Pole undertaken by His Majesty's command 1773(London, 1774) F.2.33(1)

Münster, SebastianCosmographia [Cosmography] (Basel, 1559) F.1.21

Ortelius, AbrahamTheatrum orbis terrarum [Theatre of the world] (Antwerp, 1592) SL.1.51

Palairet, JeanAtlas methodique (London, 1755) 2.61.12 super-oversize

Polo, Marco, Frere Hayton and Andreas MullerDe regionibus orientalibus libri III ... Historia orientalis ... De Chataja [Three books on the orient ... A history of the orient ... On Cathay] (Berlin, 1671) F.8.26

Pontanus, Johannes Isacius, Rerum et urbis Amstelodamensium historia [A history of the affairs and town of Amsterdam] (Amsterdam, 1611) F.2.23

Psalterium Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, & Chaldaeum [The Book of the Psalms in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Syriac] (Genoa, 1516) Tt.3.31

PtolemyGeographia [Geography] (Lyon, 1535) D.6.33

Robinson, Tancred (ed.), An account of several late voyages & discoveries to the south and north (London, 1694) A/G.13.19

Ross, JohnNarrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West Passage, and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833 (London, 1835) 8/W.1.11

Shackleton, ErnestThe Heart of the Antarctic: being the story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909(London, 1909) Garden Basement G 875.S4.A1

Sir Francis Drake Revived (London, 1653) A.2.13(2)

Smith, CharlesSmith's New general atlas (London, 1822) 2.34.5

Speke, John HanningJournal of the discovery of the source of the Nile (Edinburgh and London, 1863) Garden Basement 10.25.29

Stanley, Henry MortonIn Darkest Africa (London, 1890) DT 363.S7


Manuscripts from the Library featured in the resource:

William of Conches, Dragmaticon philosophiae [A dialogue on natural philosophy] (Canterbury, C13th) MS G.3, f.61r

Letter from Rosemary to T. R. Glover (6 October 1940) Glover.A.A1.11/4/24


Other sources used to create this resource:

Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe collected works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Lewis Patton et al. (London, 1971-2002) PR 4470.1971

Conrad, JosephHeart of Darkness (Boston, 1996) PR 6005.O4.H4.1996

Starkey, Dinah, Sainsbury’s atlas of exploration (London, 1993)

Stefoff, RebeccaThe British Library companion to maps and mapmaking (London, 1995) RBR GA 201.S7