No matter the age or era, travel literature has always been popular reading with the literate segments of society. Ancient readers, safe in their homes or libraries, thrilled to trek across the Near East to India with Alexander the Great. Medieval audiences couldn't get enough of Marco Polo's adventures over trackless deserts and towering mountains to China. People love reading about voyages to strange lands, filled with exotic plant and animal life, and fascinating native lifestyles. It was natural, then, that Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage would cause a sensation among European readers.
Europeans were fascinated enough by tales of Japan, where Columbus thought he was headed when he set sail from Palos, Spain in 1492. When the theory started circulating that perhaps the "Indies" Columbus found weren't the Spice Islands at all, but an entirely new continent, European intellectuals were stunned. They wanted news of this New World; they demanded first hand accounts of the natives, the animals, the plants, and the potentially profitable raw materials. Luckily, churchman and sometime diplomat Peter Martyr was there to give them what they wanted. He published several works on Columbus' discoveries, based on reports from Spanish soldiers and sailors who had seen the New World with their own eyes.
With Martyr began a tradition of publishing the stories of those who had braved the seas, encountered other humans who knew nothing of Europe, contracted dreadful tropical diseases, and in general faced dangers that most European readers wanted to know about, without actually facing themselves. Exploration literature served several purposes: it instructed, entertained and educated the curious, most of whom would probably not venture more than several hundred miles from their homes over the course of their lifetimes.
Some of the following writers experienced first hand the rigors of life on the frontier of European geographic knowledge. Men like Bernal Diaz del Castillo and William Dampier led lives filled with violence and danger, and returned home or settled down to tell their stories, which still make for fascinating reading today. Others, like Peter Martyr or Samuel Purchas, did not write about their own travels because they hadn't taken part in any voyages of exploration. Instead, they served their audience (and later historians as well) by collecting the stories of those who had traveled. They pulled the narratives together, edited them and streamlined them and made them accessible to the curious and literate masses. Men like Mendes Pinto may not be as famous as the explorers who "discovered" and conquered vast swaths of land for European empires, but they produced wonderfully detailed reports on sea voyages, foreign cultures and exotic locales that kept the readers at home enthralled and amazed.