THE NORTH WEST PASSAGE
As usual, it was the Greeks who were the instigators of speculation and desire. For it was they who first postulated the existence of a vast land far to the north of the globe, Hyperborea. That land, in defiance of all empirical climatic evidence, whose name denoted “Beyond the North Wind,” was supposed to be perfect, and it is fascinating that, considering the well known phenomenon of the Midnight Sun during the Polar Summer, the sun was said to shine in Hyperborea, twenty-four hours a day. As Pindar gushed in his Tenth Ode, it was a veritable musical Paradise:
“Never the Muse is absent/ from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry/ and everywhere maiden choruses whirling./ Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed/ in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.”
In light of future developments, it was also interesting that the ancient Greeks held Hyperborea to be a land in which gold existed in large quantities. As such, the exact situation of the country was of some concern to ancients and moderns alike.
Since Herodotus places the Hyperboreans beyond the Massageate and Issedones, both Central Asian peoples, it appears that his Hyperboreans lived in Siberia. Heracles sought the golden antlered hind of Artemis in Hyperborea. As the reindeer is the only deer species of which females bear horns, this would suggest an arctic region. Following J.D.P. Bolton's location of the Issedones on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains of Turkestan, Carl Ruck places Hyperborea beyond the Dzungarian into northern Xinjiang, noting that the Hyperboreans were probably Chinese. Hecataeus of Abdera however, clearly places the Hyperboreans in the British Isles.
It just may be though, that the Hyperboreans lived far more north and west than originally thought. Under the US Library of Congress classification system, the letter subclass PM includes “Hyperborean Languages”, a catch-all category that refers to all the linguistically unrelated languages of peoples living in Arctic regions, such as the Inuit, previously known as the Eskimaux.
Having this in mind, it is not without coincidence that the famed British sea-farer and explorer Sir Francis Drake sailed to America in 1579 on a ship whose name commemorated Heracles’ voyage ot the Hyperboreans, the “Golden Hind.” In years to come, the mythical land of Hyperborea would first become a hindrance and then would be wished out of existence all together by the acquisitive yearings of colonial powers, who sought away to circumvent its cumbersome legacy, in the quest for imperial and commercial gain.
Though in the vernacular of the Antipodes, the phrase “North-West Passage” ingeniously connotes fundamental orifices, variously anatomically situated, it also generally refers to the sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America via the Candaian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Between the end of the fifteenth century and the twentieth century, various colonial powers, notably Britain, Spain, France and Russia dispatched explorers in an attempt to discover a commercial sea route north and west around North America. It was the British who first named the hypothetical route through the extreme North, the Northwest Passage, though it was also called the Strait of Anian. The desire to establish such a route motivated much of the European exploration of both coasts of North America. When it became apparent that there was no route through the heart of the continent, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters.
Over the years, while armchair navigators postulated theories as to an ice-free passage through a vast Hyperborea to the north of America (too much ice at the pole would cause the world to collapse otherwise) various explorers actually claimed to have found the coveted Passage. Their spurious stories served to inspire those who had a vested interest in the discovery of such a passage to agitate for further exploratory expeditions. One such agitator, for whom a nagotiated passage through Hyperborea verged upon obsession was British Member of Parliament Arthur Dobbs, who prevailed upon the House of Commons to finance a number of expeditions. In 1744, he published his “Account of Hudson’s Bay”, as part of his campaign to raise funds for a further discovery expedition. In it, he reproduced a report first published in Samuel Purchas’ Haklytus Posthumus, or Purchase Hils Pilgrimes (1625) describing the 1592 voyage of Juan de Fuca, also known as Ioannis Phocas or Apostolos Valerianos.
Ioannis Phocas, a ship’s captain was born in 1536 in Cephallonia, the son of refugees fleeing a beseiged Constantinople. In 1595, after forty years in the service of Spain in the West Indies and the South Sea, he met an English merchant and finanier of the Frobisher expedition to find the North West passage, Michael Lok, in Venice. Phocas has a dramatic story to tell Lok:
“He said, that he was the pilot of three small ships which the viceroy of Mexico, armed with oe hundred men, soldiers, under a captain, Spaniards, to discover the Straits of Anian and to fortify in that strait, to resist the passage through those straits into the South Sea. And that by reason of a munity which happened among the soldiers, for the sodomy of their captain, that voyage was overthrown, and the ships returned back from California coast to Nova Spania, without any effect of thing done in that voyage. ..
“Also he said, that shortly after the said voyage was so ill ended, the said viceroy of Mexico sent him out again anno 1592 with a small caravel.. for the discovery of the same Straits of Anian, and the passage thereof into the sea, which they call the North Sea. And that he followed his course in that voyage west and northwest in the South Sea, all alongst the coast of Nova Spania and California and the Indies, now called North America (all which voyage he signified to me in a great map, and a sea-card of my own, which ilay before him) until he came to the latitude of 47 degrees, and that there finding that the land trended north and northeast, with a broad inlet of sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of latitude, he entered thereinto, sailing therein more than twenty days, and found that land trending still sometime northwest and northeast, and north and also east and south-eastward, and very much broader sea than was at the said entrance, and that he passed diverse islands in that sailing. And that at the entrance of this said strait, there is on the northwest coast thereof, a great headland or land, with an exceeding high pinnacle, like a pillar thereon.
“Also he said, that he went on land in divers places, and that he saw some people on land, clad in beasts’ skins; and that the land is very fruitful, and rich of gold, silver, pearl and other things, like Nova Spania.
“And he also said, that having he bing entered thus far into the said strait and being come into the North Sea [Atlantic] already, and finding the sea wide enough anywhere, and to be about 30 or 40 leagues wide in the mouth of the straits, where he entered, he thought he had now well discharged his office, and done the thing which he was sent to do; and that he not being armed to resist the force of the savage people that might happen, he therefore set sail and returned homeward again towards Nova Spania, where he arrived at Acapulco, anno 1592, hoping to be rewarded greatly of the viceroy for this service done in this said voyage.”
The main thrust of the narrative is that Phocas did not get the reward he expected from the Spanish Crown and it was for this reason that he offered his services to Queen Elizabeth I, imploring Lok to obtain a ship for him, from her. The tale is undoubtedly tall; no record of any Spanish discovery expedition exits in the sixteenth century, which sailed as far north as Phocas claimed. Nor does Phocas’ description of the strait leading to countries ‘rich of gold, silver, pearl’ and then to the North Sea, correspond with reality. It is most intriguing that in the late eighteenth century, an opening near the latitude described by Phocas revived speculation that his account was true, and the channel between Vancouver Island (Canada) and the Olympic Peninsula (Washington State), is still named the Strait of Juan de Fuca in his honour. As if that was not enough, the Juan de Fuca Plate, a tectonic plate subducting under the northerly portion of the western side of the North American Plate along the coasts of Oregon and Washington, is also named in his honour.
The publication of Phocas’ account caused explorers, who had hitherto approached Hyberborean America from the Atlntic, to switch to the Pacific, thinking that a passage in temperate latitudes through America could be found. In 1776, Captain Cook was dispatched with orders to retrace Phocas’ supposed journey, on what would prove to be his last voyage.
When Cook arrived at the latitude of Phocas’ claimed North West Passage, it was not there: “It is in this very latitude where we now were, that geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca. But we saw nothing like it; or is there the least probability that ever any such a thing existed.” As he sailed further north, he came upon various inlets around Anchorage and realised that a cursory exploration of them could be misleading and that if Phocas had in fact preceded him, he may have been the victim of a misapprehension:
“If I had not examined this considerable inlet, it would have been… assumed… as a fact that it communicated with Baffin’s and Hudson’s Bay to the east; and marked… with greater precision … than the invisible, because imaginary, Strait of de Fuca.”
Remarkably, Captain Cook’s wild goose chase after Phocas determined the Alaskan coastline as far North as Bering Strait. Instead of finding the pinnacle of rocks or the prosperous and temperate land (though gold was later to be found in Alaska in vast quantities) Phocas had described, Cook was forced to turn back owing to the massive, impassable ice floes he encountered. He turned back, only to be killed a few months later on the voyage home, in Hawaii, in February 1779 while attempting to recover a stolen ship’s cutter.
Ioannis Phocas, who also gave his name to the Juan de Fuca Ridge, teller of tall tales is if nothing else, an Odysseus of his time, whose story, though questionable, remains tantalizingly plausible and infinitely inspiring. Today, given that the Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate and the North-West Passage seems to be commercially viable as a result, causing interested country's to scramble for sovereignty and sea rights, Fuca's legacy is more relevant than ever.
We leave you this week with Julien Green’s sensitive new age aphorism:
“The greatest explorer on this earth never takes voyages as long as those of the man who descends to the depth of his heart.” With a yo ho ho and a bottom of rum.