Who was Juan de Fuca?

A tale of a ‘real’ traveller and some information about his name

For those of you who live in the Pacific Northwest, or have done any traveling there, you will be familiar with the body of water called Juan de Fuca Strait, between the state of Washington, and Canada’s Vancouver Island.  This ‘travel tale’ is not directly about my wanderings, but about this body of water and one of history’s most important travellers, Juan de Fuca.             

I have travelled both the north and south shores of this body of water, as well as on it in both sailing vessels and cruise ships.  With today’s technology, nautical charts, GPS and other navigation aids, it is an easy task to explore these waters.  Not so back in the 1500’s and 1600’s, and even later when nothing was known about this wild area.

Early Italian map mentioning ‘Strait of Anian’ from author Ian Kent
Early Italian map mentioning ‘Strait of Anian’

This large strait was at one time referred to as the “Straits of Anian”, a suspected passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic, sort of a ‘Northwest Passage”.  The term “Anian” most likely came from ‘Ania’, a Chinese province mentioned in a 1559 edition of Marco Polo’s book, first appearing on a map issued by Italian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi in about 1562. 

1791 Spanish chart first mentioning “Entrada de Juan de Fuca” from author Ian Kent
1791 Spanish chart first mentioning “Entrada de Juan de Fuca”

Now, it is called the “Juan de Fuca Strait”, named by British Captain John Meares in 1788, after he had learned about it from a diary of an English officer in Venice by the name of Michael Lok.  Apparently, this diary recorded a narrative by one Apostolos Valerianos, a Greek pilot who had worked for the Spanish.

‘Apostolos’ or ‘ Apostolis’ (Αποστόλης) was a common Greek male name.  He was born in the village of Valerianos, on the Ionic Island of Kefalonia in Greece . . . hence the use of his name attached to his village name.  He was born in 1536 into a noble family of Kefalonia, during a time when the island was under Venetian control.  His common name was Ioannis Phokas ( Φωκάϛ ), or John Fokas.   In 1550, he joined the Royal Spanish Navy, and became a captain and was sent to the West Indies.  During this time, the Spanish were searching the west coast for a shorter route back to Spain from South and Central America. 

The Spanish revised his ‘John Fokas’ name to the Spanish version, ‘Juan de Fuca’.  Later, the regent of New Spain (now Mexico), Luis de Velaso, assigned him the task of searching for this shorter route and in 1590 he set off with three ships from Mexico towards Canada. Unfortunately, the expedition failed because of a mutiny off of California, and the Spanish kingdom never paid him or renewed their contract with him.  He left the service, but remained a sailor until he returned to Kefalonia, and eventually died in 1602.  John Fokas was a brilliant navigator, and spent many successful years in the service of the Royal Spanish Navy.  We are hoping to visit his birthplace of Valerianos on Kefalonia in a few months time, and possibly trigger some more ‘travel tales’.

 A lot of this information was researched and mentioned in two books in my Westcoast Series, both ‘Westcoast Legacy’and ‘Westcoast Bounty’, as the characters sail the Strait, and research the information in later generations.

Modern Map of area. from Author Ian Kent
Modern Map of area.

Many of the early explorers attempted to find this prize of the ‘Northwest Passage’ . . . little did they know they had to go a lot further north, as some did much later, only to perish in the brutal winters of the Arctic Ocean.

Any time I read accounts of these early ‘travellers’, I admire how they risked everything, venturing into unknown territory with little or no real knowledge of the area.  Remember, some of these guys still thought it was possible to sail off the edge of the world!  Most of us now realize this cannot happen . . . except for those members of the ‘Flat Earth’ Society.  I suppose they are still wondering!

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