The Straits of Anian

4 Oct

Juan de Fuca had a clear image in mind of what he was hunting for and what he was going to find once he entered the Northwest Passage to Asia.

The year was 1592 and he was pilot in chief of a Spanish vessel that had left Baja California with the mission of exploring the unknown coast to the north.

Juan was absolutely certain what he was going to find: a channel that led to the oriental land named Anian by the Italian traveler Marco Polo.

The confident navigator looked out at the approaching sound his ship was about to enter. I was someone else before I became the Spaniard Juan de Fuca. Born on the eastern island of Cephalonia as Ioannis Phocas, my origins were Greek ones. I traveled at an early age to the lands of Italy, then Spain, to become a skilled, experienced navigator able to pilot vessels into unknown waters in the search for new lands and sources of wealth.

Past what in time to come would become the states of California, Oregon, and Washington sailed the Spanish vessel, entering Puget Sound. Juan commanded a turn into what he calculated from charts was the opening into the the Anian Strait. His certainty as to where they were was unquestioned. They were advancing toward the lands that Columbus had set out to locate.

In one direction was the future Olympic Peninsula, on the other Vancouver Island.

Rain forests containing fir, spruce, hemlock, and elder spread out on both sides. Lush underbrush of ferns and lichens, black and yellow slugs, and gigantic bark burls were visible from the ship as it proceeded out of the Pacific. On the beaches, hundreds of tree carcasses lay. Huge seastacks pointed into the pure blue sky.

Juan and his crew gazed in wonder at the snow-capped mountain peaks behind the rich forest. This had to be the gate to the channel between the Northwest of North America and Northeastern Asia. The wealth of China and Japan lay ahead for them.

The Viceroy of New Spain always had two men in charge of an official ship sent out for the purpose of geographic exploration. A military Captain, Jose Navarez, was in charge of the commanding the execution of the mission assigned the vessel. Juan de Fuca served as navigation master and piloting expert under that executive superior.

Captain Navarez, always wearing his dark blue uniform with its golden epaulettes and braid, took his post extremely seriously. He came up behind Juan as the pilot scanned the shores of the forested shores of the sound that they were sailing into.

‘Is it possible for us to be certain that we are moving into the Anian Strait that the map-makers and geographers are convinced is a road by sea to the lands of Asia?” said the tall, muscular military officer, his voice strong and low.

Juan, much shorter and lighter than the Captain, turned and spoke to him with no sign of doubt or hesitancy. “The charts are absolutely correct about this important channel, although they different to some degree on exact details and locations. We are at the moment at the door to the Orient. I have no doubt in telling you that our hunt for it has been blessed with success.”

“What about the lands on the two sides of this strait?” demanded Navarez. “What do we know about them or their inhabitants? I am considering whether we should send a scouting party onto dry land and find out what lies behind these thick, imposing forests.”

Juan all at once frowned. “I would advise that we proceed on and not linger about the gate of the Anian Strait. Don’t you also wish to learn if there are cities such as those described by Marco Polo and other travelers in Cathay and Jipango. It will take us days and weeks to reach those known countries of the East. I think sailing on makes the greatest sense.”

The Captain grimaced. “I prefer my own idea of what is important right now. It will not take me long to put together a small squad to venture into the vast forest. I think it best to take the north side of the channel. It would certainly help us to have you along, Juan. I am sure you will find much to whet your curiosity in this terra incognita.”

“Yes, I shall join the group climbing ashore,” said the navigator with a sigh.

Juan, Navarez, and a small number of the latter’s guards armed with pistols and swords left the ship in a landing boat once the exploration vessel was anchored in the wide river.

The Captain thought it best that they make for a narrow beach that was free of dead trees and visible rocks. Once on dry land, Jose Navarez surveyed the interior of the thick, high forest for a few minutes before choosing a direction for their advance. “It is wisest that we stay on high ground, in case their are hostile natives who attack and harm strangers they cannot recognize or identify.”

“Yes, that would be the best way to advance,” noted Juan with a slight shadow of doubt in his voice.

Since there was no trail evident anywhere, the group walked upward carefully and slowly, on the look-out for obstacles and natural barriers.

A small herd of lean deer was alarmed by their sudden presence and rapidly scampered away. The explorers slowed their pace of walking even more.

The sun to their south reached its noon zenith and began descending into the Pacific to their west. Captain Navarez, in the lead with Juan immediately behind him, kept to the highest elevation possible as they progressed deeper and deeper into the thick stands of high trees.

Not a single member of the survey party realized what it was they were endangered by.

The shrill cry of a screaming voice, loud and rough, startled the Spaniard platoon. Everyone stopped in their tracks and searched in all directions for the source of the high human voice.

One brightly-colored figure, then two more appeared in front of the two leaders, blocking their way forward. Then several more persons in steel armor and red and black clothing stepped out on all sides. Wherever the intruders looked, they saw men with long, ornate swords in their hands. There was something Asiatic in their body armor and what was visible of their warrior costumes. These strangers had noiselessly surrounded the Europeans from all sides.

The two groups stared at each other a considerable time. The party of explorers realized they were outnumbered by the Asiatics with armor and huge weapons. What could anyone do except wait for the captors to speak or act.

A large man with a Fu Manchu moustache came up to the head of the line of foreigners from elsewhere and began to bark orders to Jose, Juan, and the others. No one understood a word of what were obviously orders to proceed under guard by the native force of warriors. The two groups followed in the wake of this huge commander with an elaborate helmet on his large head. Ornaments of steel protruded on the front, the back, and the sides of the intricate headgear.

His prisoners could see that this leader had on a black tunic with fancy red cuffs beneath his heavy body armor. The sash belt he wore had multicolored figures of dragons upon it. His armor was also brightly colored, as was the heavy, elaborate helmet on his head.

None of the captured explorers knew that these warriors were samurai like those of the Jipango Islands, from where their ancestors had migrated many centuries before.

The two languages spoken by the two sides had not a single word in common. The prisoners grew as frustrated as their captors.

The destination to which the two groups marched turned out to be a surprisingly large town consisting of small wooden structures. The Nipponese in charge ordered the captured men with pale skins taken to a round building that proved to be the community prison. Juan, Jose, and several of the soldiers were placed into a large chamber with a thick, heavy door of wood with a latch apparatus that served as a kind of semi-lock.

Captain Navarez summoned Juan to his side in order to confer about the perilous situation they were in.

“These savages were clever enough to take all our pistols and swords immediately. But who and what are they? Their skin is bronzed and yellowish, so I think that they deserve to be named Asiatics. But how did they come to live on this continent where we have created our New Spain? It seems that they reside quite far from their native home. What do you think?”

Juan considered what was safest and best for him to say.

“I have spent a lot of time studying old charts and reading books of travelers and geographers. It seems evident to me that this race of people are not the same as those of the Kingdom of Cathay, which was visited over two hundred years ago by the famed Marco Polo of Genoa. But while there, he mentions that he learned of an island kingdom called Jipango, to the east. It seems reasonable to me if we assume that our captors are descendants of that land at the extreme end of Asia, from the isles beyond that continent.”

“Then we must have come very near the Great Eastern Ocean beyond the Strait of Anian,” said Jose. “But what are they to do with us now? That is the important question for those of us they have captured.”

Juan scratched his chin. “We are in enormous danger if we remain where we are. There must be some way to liberate ourselves from what might happen to us by these strangers whom we cannot even speak with.”

As the chamber within which they were kept grew darker, the leader of the group that had taken them prisoner entered with three servants carrying kettles containing food for them. “At least they are feeding us,” said Jose with a degree of surprise. “I hope that is a good omen of their intentions.”

The chief of the men armed with swords tried once again to address words to the Spaniards, but again failed to be understood.

“In time,” whispered Juan to Navarez, “we may learn each others’ tongues, but that seems a very distant prospect, and it depends upon our hosts not exterminating us out of hatred or fear.”

After the prisoners had all finished eating, the leader and his servants departed with the paper lanterns that they had brought along with them. The prison chamber fell into nearly total darkness.

The Spaniards all lay down on the bamboo mattings that formed the floor, hoping to obtain rest from their traumatic ordeal that day.

None of them could envision any way out of the circumstances that enveloped them.

Only one individual did not sleep that night. Juan stayed awake in endless thought on how to escape these people from an Asia greater than any of them had ever imagined possible.

As a bright day dawned over the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound, the prisoners who had been asleep awakened to the unknown they faced.

Once again, the Japanese leader appeared with servants carrying food for the Spaniards. The latter finished the strange breakfast provided them, then waited expectantly to find out what their fate might be.

All of a sudden, a small figure dressed in a long yellow robe appeared in their chamber. The man, bald and walking with small, slow steps, was obviously a person with some sort of religious function among the Asiatics. He knelled down at the center of the room and started to chant in a language unlike the one spoken by the captors. No one was knowledgeable enough to identify the Hindu prayers being chanted by the Buddhist priest who was now in their midst.

His yellow robe seemed to glow with an unworldly yellow hue that none of the Europeans had ever viewed before in their lives.

The enigmatic priest did not attempt to speak to any particular person among the prisoners. When he was finished with his praying, he rose and left the chamber without a single word of his own to anyone there.

Jose Navarez turned to Juan and muttered “Wasn’t that an odd performance?”

Another sleepless night followed for the navigator of the Spanish craft. He was the only man away in the period just before dawn when the door to their room opened with a creak and a squeak.

Who could it be at this hour? Juan asked himself in bewilderment.

The priest in his bright yellow robe, holding a paper lantern, slowly entered and looked about at the slumbering crew. After several seconds, he noticed that one person had raised his head and was staring at him. The Buddhist moved toward the spot where Juan lay on the bamboo matting.

The Asiatic started to make silent hand signals to the prisoner with energetic effort. He thrown his arms out and made horizontal circles, looking outward with his dark eyes. He is obviously indicating the outside beyond this building, decided Juan.

But then, the priest pointed at all the sleeping Spaniards and Juan himself, then toward the door of the holding chamber.

He is signaling to me that all of us can make an escape from here if we hurry and move quickly. That is the urgent message that the priest is transmitting with his arms and hands, decided the excited ocean pilot.

The first task he faced was to wake up Jose Navarez, then the other Spaniards.

He shook the Captain by the shoulders. Once he was awakened, Juan pointed to the priest in yellow and whispered what the little man had communicated to him through hand signals.

Jose looked a moment at the Buddhist, then turned to Juan and nodded yes.

“We must carefully awaken all the others, without any noise,” said the Captain.

It took several minutes to accomplish this task. Once it was done, Jose his crew of six to line up in a single file. He nodded to Juan that the group was now ready to move out of the structure.

Into the dewy air of the Japanese colony moved a column of European captives. There were no guards visible anywhere around. The priest led the explorers out of the sleeping town rapidly and noiselessly, with conscious success.

When the soundless, unseen parade was well beyond and outside the community, the priest in yellow made a few good-bye and fair-well signs to Juan and the group, then turned away to return home to the Asiatic community.

Juan and the Captain led the way toward the river shore as best they were able. They had the good fortune to emerge onto the shore within visible distance of the small boat that had carried them from their ship.

They pushed off into the water and rowed back to the home vessel that had brought them to the Strait of Anian.

The announcement of the geographical discovery of the Asiatic settlement startled New Spain and then all of Europe. The Kingdom of Japan possessed the channel leading to the Orient. It was soon understood that North America was not to be fully open to Spain and its rivals from the continent across the Atlantic.

An end came to the continuation of European exploration and power expansion in the direction of the Anian Strait. What had been at first thought of by Juan de Fuca as an opening and beginning finished as the last chapter in a promising adventure into new, unknown territories.


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