STRAIT OF ANIAN
Also known as Strete of Anian
Willem Barentsz’s landmark 1598 map of the Arctic region, drawn from his observations made during his 1596 voyage. It is decorated with sea monsters, ships, whales and the mythical ‘Estrecho de Anian’ in the top right corner.
One of the greatest obsessions in the history of European exploration was the search for the Northwest Passage. Uncovering a trade route through the crushing pack ice of the Arctic to reach Asia and her endless riches – as an alternative to the gruelling and dangerous route around South America – would bring incalculable wealth to the nation that found the way. For centuries such a way was purely theoretical, willed into mythical existence through sheer mercenary desire. It wasn’t until 1850 that a true Northwest Passage was discovered by Robert McClure, and until 1906 that the sea route was successfully navigated by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. But, in the centuries before this, a variety of legendary inlets and waterways potentially leading to this crossing were rumoured, depicted and pursued at great cost. The grandest of these was the Strait of Anian.
Rumours of this strait between northwestern North America and northeastern Asia (similar to the Bering Strait) that could possibly be the western end of an Arctic passage began to appear on maps in the mid-to late fourteenth century, and inspired voyages by explorers including John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Gaspar Corte-Real, Jacques Cartier and Sir Humphrey Gilbert. The name ‘Anian’ is thought to originate from the thirteenth-century stories of Marco Polo: in Chapter 5, Book 3 of his Travels
, the explorer mentions a gulf that ‘extends to a distance of two months’ navigation along its northern shore, where it bounds the southern part of the province of Manji, and from thence to where it approaches the countries of Ania, Tolman and many others already mentioned’. He describes its geography in detail, before concluding: ‘This gulf is so extensive and the inhabitants so numerous, that it appears like another world.’
The earliest printed map to focus solely on North America, and the first to show the Strait of Anian (Streto de Anian), separating America and Asia. It was by Paolo Forlani and Bolognino Zaltieri, Venice (1566).
Here Polo is referring to the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of northern Vietnam, and, although clearly suggesting it to be located a good deal farther south, it is easy to understand how cartographers searching for information on the area grabbed the name ‘Ania’ to fit reports of a strait in the general vicinity. It first appeared in a work by the Italian cosmographer Giacomo Gastaldi in 1562, and was then adopted by the mapmakers Bolognini Zaltieri and Gerardus Mercator in 1567. The dream of the Strait of Anian was held onto tightly by explorers and cartographers over the next few hundred years, because of its theoretical instrumentality in finding the elusive Northwest Passage. European trade with Asia was booming but it was a demanding task, for goods had to be carried over land or sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. The latter, an especially terrible risk to shipping, was originally named ‘Cabo das Tormentas’ (‘Cape of Storms’) by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.
Adam Zuerner’s Americae tam Septentrionalis quam Meridionalis in Mappa Geographica Delineatio (c.1707), with the ‘Fretum Anian’ drawn just below the cartouches of the Native American hunters.
The Greek seaman Juan de Fuca (1536–1602) was one of several men who claimed to have sailed the Strait of Anian. Under the orders of the viceroy of New Spain, de Fuca launched two expeditions to find the fabled way. The first, consisting of three ships carrying 200 men, is recorded as failing in the early stages when the crew took the ship to California after a mutiny over the captain’s ‘malfeasance’.
A second attempt was made in 1592, when the viceroy ordered de Fuca to return to the region with two ships; it was supposedly more successful. According to the merchant Michael Lok, de Fuca:
came to the Latitude of fortie seven degrees, and that there finding that the land trended North and north-east with a broad inlet of sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of Latitude; he entered thereinto, sayling therein more than twenty days, and found . . . very much broader Sea than was at the said entrance, and that he passed by divers lands in that sayling . . .
De Fuca recorded the opening of the strait as guarded by a large island with a towering rock spire; he then returned jubilant to Acapulco in the hope of gaining a reward for his findings, but none was offered.
Decorative example of Ortelius’s map of the Tartar kingdom in 1598, with the ‘Stretto di Anian’ drawn just east of centre.
Cornelis de Jode’s 1593 depiction of the west coast of North America.
Because the sole written source for de Fuca’s travels is that of Lok, an Englishman who claimed to have met the sailor in Venice (and who was a keen promoter of the search for the passage), there is some doubt as to whether de Fuca ever actually existed – some scholars have deemed him as legendary as his findings. And yet, if he was fictitious, there are curiously accurate elements to his geography. In 1787, a fur trader named Charles William Barkley discovered a strait on the west coast of North America at Cape Flattery and, although a full degree (roughly 69 miles/111km) farther north than de Fuca had claimed, he recognized it as the waterway de Fuca had reported by spotting the pinnacle the sailor had described (which is now known as the De Fuca Pillar). De Fuca’s alleged discovery of the Anian Strait was backed up by the Spanish navigator Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado, who claimed to have sailed the waterway in the opposite direction in 1588, four years before de Fuca. (Although Maldonado’s account is clearly fabricated, and achieved little recognition at the time, its rediscovery in the late eighteenth century gave the strait renewed fame.) This waterway that Barkley discovered was named the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but it was merely a 95-mile (153km) long passage that functions both as the Salish Sea’s outlet to the Pacific and as the starting point of the international boundary between America and Canada.
The desperate hunt for a transcontinental passage meant that the Strait of Anian haunted maps for hundreds of years. A 1719 map by Herman Moll suggests it as a bay 50° north of the Island of California (see relevant entry here
). The 1728 edition of a map by Johannes van Keulen also places it here, accompanied by the note: ‘They say that one can come through this strait to Hudson Bay, but this is not proven.’ In 1772, Samuel Hearne travelled over land from Hudson Bay to Copermine River and back – an extraordinary voyage of more than 3600 miles (5800km) – in search of the channel, but no Strait of Anian was found. For all but the most hopeful, this was sufficient to lay the myth to rest.
Also known as Antilia, Isle of Seven Cities, Ilha das Sete Cidades, Sept Citez
In 711, the Islamic Moors of north Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded the Iberian peninsula. Led by the general Tariq ibn Ziyad, this massive force waged an eight-year campaign, crushing the Visigothic Christian armies and bringing most of modern Spain and Portugal under Islamic rule. The Moors continued their rampage across the Pyrenees, eventually falling to the Franks led by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732; but before that a strange legend emerged from the rubble of their Spanish invasion. It told of a group of seven Christian bishops who managed to flee the Muslim forces by ship across the Atlantic, eventually taking refuge on a distant island known as ‘Antillia’. There, the holy men decided to set up residence, and each built for himself a magnificent golden city. This gave the island its other name: ‘Isle of Seven Cities’.
How the bishops fared on the island is unknown, for no mention of Antillia is made for another seven centuries, until it began to appear on maps such as the c. 1424 portolan (sailing instructions) chart of the Venetian cartographer Pizzigano, which shows several of these legendary Atlantic Islands. Here, Antillia is depicted as a large, rectangular block, with seven cities adorning its coasts: Asay, Ary, Vra, Jaysos, Marnlio, Ansuly ...