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Review

Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams

By Barry Gough

November 4, 2013

Review By Daniel Clayton

The story of Greek mariner Juan de Fuca’s report to English merchant Michael Lok, in Venice in 1592, of the entrance to a waterway on the northwest coast of North America around the parallel 48ËšN that stretched across the continent — the fabled northwest passage, promising to cut the travel time between Europe and China dramatically — is perhaps the closest thing that non-Native British Columbia has to a foundation myth. De Fuca’s tale piqued British and Spanish interest in this remote region, and lent the beginnings of exploration, trade, and empire along the coast in the last quarter of the eighteenth century an air of legend and illusion. What Lok heard, and the attempt by a host of others to confirm or disprove de Fuca’s speculations, is here assiduously and lovingly re-told for a popular audience by historian Barry Gough. He is essentially right in suggesting that much of British Columbia’s early history can be told around the fallout of de Fuca’s story. He is also right that in order to fully understand this story it needs to be related to a longer and more expansive historical geography of imperial aggrandisement.

Part One of the book, tracing the story from the 1590s through to the late seventeenth century, and dealing with how Francis Drake, Samuel Purchas, Dr. John Dee, Martin Frobisher and other celebrated explorers, pundits, and privateers become linked to it, is the most original element of the work (35-71). Gough provides a stimulating synthesis of how the English, particularly, became fixated on what Juan de Fuca’s strait portended. He tracks how the elusive meeting between de Fuca and Lok opens out on to a global history of European rivalry, and a scientific and social history of national and imperial aspiration that revolves around a complex mixture of fact and supposition, truth-seeking and deception, and cartographic endeavour and error. Part Two takes the story through to the late eighteenth-century (and, to British Columbians, better known) exploits of James Cook, John Meares (and other fur traders), Alexander Dalrymple, George Vancouver, and Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés, and culminates in Vancouver’s “achievement” in disproving the existence of a northwest passage at this latitude whilst circumnavigating the island that bears his name and enabling the British to stake an imperial claim to a vast territory (215).

Juan de Fuca’s Strait is a well produced book, with more than forty black and white illustrations (including many rare historical maps), a glossary, and a full bibliographic apparatus of endnotes and references, although I am not sure why a Foreword, Preface, Prologue, and Introduction were all deemed necessary before the historical action starts, on page 35.

Gough acknowledges that his interpretation of this labyrinthine story is “guided” in many respects by Warren Cook’s 1973 Flood Tide of Empire (259). But he also draws on much (although by no means all) of the scholarship on this topic that has appeared since Cook wrote, including his own work. Gough knows the terrain and sources he is dealing with inside out, and for the most part writes about them evocatively. However, the narrative is a little recondite and repetitive in places; and Gough sometimes draws connections between actions and texts, and attributes direction to history, where matters are probably muddier. In all, I think, his writing and imagery reinforce the romance of the story he tells — as one of “forgotten dreams” — and perhaps with some adverse effects. Describing his subject as “a charming theme” that comes “out of the fog banks of history,” and in thus celebrating the exploits of Europeans as they navigate their way from parable to fact, the book is something of a throwback to a less politically correct time when Native history had a less exacting hold on how British Columbia history was conceived and written (17). Native people appear in Gough’s story, and prominently so at crucial points, such as at Nootka Sound in 1792. But by and large Native attachments to the lands around Juan de Fuca’s Strait, and the implications of European exploration and imperial rivalry for their position on their land, come second in a story that is basically one of European endeavour. As such, Gough’s book raises some important questions about the nature of historical origins, and why some historical narratives emanating from them become dominant and others don’t.

Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams
By Barry Gough 
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing. 2012  288 pp. 40 + b & w maps and illustrations. $32.95 cloth