Man has wanted to explore unknown or largely unknown territories ever since the beginning of human history. During classical antiquity, it was mainly the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans that went on expeditions and voyages of discovery. In the Middle Ages, there were significant journeys between Europe and Asia, and travelers such as Marco Polo became world famous. However, with the decline of the Mongolian Empire came a reduction in the territory explored by Europeans.
At the beginning of the 15th century, however, the Portuguese prince Henrique Navegador’s voyages started a new chapter in the history of exploration, sending ships south along the African coast. After Henrique’s death, Portuguese voyages of discovery continued: Bartholomew Diaz sailed round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama completed the journey around Africa on the first sea voyage from Europe to India.
Other countries, too, were actively exploring at the end of the 15th century, such as Christopher Columbus from Genoa in Italy who, in the service of Spain, set foot on Caribbean soil in 1492. In the 16th and 17th century, the English and Dutch became increasingly active in the area of expeditions.
Thanks to the art of printing, the home front could be kept well informed of the latest news during this heyday of exploration. The Utrecht University Library has a fine collection of old printed works elucidating the voyages of discovery of this time. A range of atlases and maps also evidence the urge to explore new territories at the time.
When the Geographical Institute was established in 1908, the growing collection was given a great boost. In particular, professor at the time J.F. Niermeyer spent a large proportion of the acquisitions budget on cartographic documents that demonstrated the role of Dutch expansion overseas and Dutch voyages of discovery, as, at the time, Dutch exploration formed an important component of education in geography.