Juan de Fuca (1536-1602) was born on the Ionian island of Cefalonia as Ioánnis Phokás. He is better known by the Spanish transcription of his name, Juan de Fuca. De Fuca was a maritime pilot in the service of Philip II, the King of Spain. In 1555 de Fuca claimed Philip had made him pilot of the Spanish navy in the West Indies, a title he held for 40 years, though no record of the appointment is available.
He is best known for his claim of having discovered and explored the Strait of Anián, the Spanish equivalent of England’s Northwest Passage. The strait lies between Vancouver Island and Washington State and is now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Before his famous trip up the northwest coast of North America, de Fuca had sailed to China, the Philippines, and Mexico.
According to de Fuca, he undertook two voyages under orders from the Viceroy of New Spain to find the fabled Strait of Anián and fortify it against the English. The first saw three small ships and 200 soldiers under the overall command of a Spanish captain, with de Fuca as pilot and master, fail due to the captain’s malfeasance. The soldiers mutinied and returned home to California.
The second voyage, in 1592, was a success. He returned to Acapulco aboard a caravel and in the company of a pinnace, claiming to have found the strait at around 47 degrees north latitude. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is in fact at around 48 degrees north. de Fuca noted a “high pinnacle or spired rock,” which may have been Fuca Pillar, a tall, almost rectangular rock on the western shore of Cape Flattery, the north-western tip of Washington at the entrance of the strait – though de Fuca noted it as being on the other side of the strait.
de Fuca never received the rewards he claimed were his due. After two years, on the Viceroy’s urging, de Fuca travelled to Spain to make his case to the court in person. Unsuccessful and disgusted with the Spanish, the aging Greek determined to retire to his home in Kefallonia but in 1596 was convinced by an Englishman, Michael Locke, to offer his services to Spain’s archenemy, England’s Queen Elizabeth. It is through Locke’s accounts that the story of Juan de Fuca entered into English letters.
Because the only written evidence for Fokás’s voyages lay in Locke account, and because researchers couldn’t find records of the expedition in Spanish colonial archives, there has long been controversy over his discovery and, indeed, whether he even existed.
Though the first European visitors to present-day British Columbia sailed for the Spanish crown, several early scholars dismissed Juan de Fuca as being a fictitious entity. Yet later English exploration and settlement of the area seem to bring credibility to de Fuca’s claims.
In 1787 the English Captain Charles William Barkley, sailing the Imperial Eagle, (re)discovered the strait de Fuca had described: he named it the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1859, an American researcher, with the help of the U.S. Consul in the Ionian Islands, was able to demonstrate not only that de Fuca had lived, but also that his family and history were well-known on those islands.