Alessandro Malaspina (“Alejandro” in Spanish) was the complete 18th-century mariner: a consumate navigator, adventurer, warrior, diplomat and scientist. Though he cirumnavigated the world twice, explored from Alaska to New Zealand, and brought back more scientific information than Captain Cook, he never received the recognition he deserved. As soon as he returned to Spain in 1794, he was entangled in a political plot against the Spanish government and was jailed for six years. When he was released he returned to his birthplace in Pontremoli, Tuscany, where he died on April 9, 1810, at the age of fifty-five. The expedition and its findings remained obscure and virtually unstudied by historians until the late 20th century.
Born of Italian nobility and educated in Sicily and Rome during the period when Spain, under Charles III, ruled Sicily and Naples, Malaspina joined the Spanish navy. During a brilliant military career–between 1774 and 1786 he took part in many naval battles and received numerous promotions. He made his first circumnavigation of the worl as, a commercial venture on behalf of the Royal Philippines Company.
On that trip he met in February 1787 in Concepción, Chile, the Irish-born military governor of that Spanish colony, Ambrose Higgins. Just six months previously Higgins had recommended to the king that Spain organize a scientific and diplomatic expedition to the Pacific similar to those led by La Pérouse and Captain James Cook. It was Malaspina and his friend, José de Bustamante, who were commissioned to carry out that mission, in which they were co-equals, though Bustamante deferred to Malaspina, after whom the expedition was eventually named.
Two frigates, the Descubierta and the Atrevida (meaning “Discovery” and “Daring”) were built under Malaspina’s direction specifically for the expedition, by the shipbuilder Tómas Muñoz at the La Carraca shipyard in San Fernando (Cádiz). They were both 306 tons burden and 36 metres long, with a normal load displacement of 4.2 meters. They were finished in less than two years and launched together on April 8, 1789. The expedition, characterized as “political and scientific,” had two main missions. The first was to visit all the Spanish possessions in Asia and the Americas. The second was to permit a team of distinguished Spanish scientists to make observations and collect biological and botanical samples during the trip, which lasted five years from 1789 to 1794.
These were the times in which the Spanish crown dedicated more treasure to scientific research than any other European country. Spanish King Charles III had more than a purely scientific interest, however, in sponsoring the Malaspina Expedition. Competition for colonies in Asia and the Americas was heating up ever since Magellan crossed the Pacific, discovered the Philippines and claimed them for Spain, who had already conquered nearly the entire New World for their empire. Both the British and French had recently ventured into waters which had been considered Spanish seas for the previous two-and-a-half centuries. Malaspina’s expedition was a political statement as well as a scientific exercise.
After crossing the Atlantic Malaspina put in at Montevideo and Buenos Aires, inquiring as to the political situation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. After rounding Cape Horn the expedition stopped at the port of Concepción in present-day Chile, and again at Valparaíso, the port of Santiago. The expedition then split up, with Bustamante mapping the coast while Malaspina sailed to the Juan Fernández Islands to resolve conflicting data on their location. The two captains reunited at Callao, the port of Lima. There made inquiries into the political status of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The expedition then continued mapping the coast northwards, to Acapulco, Mexico. A team of officers was sent to Mexico City to investigate the archives and political situation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
By the time Malaspina reached Mexico it was 1791, and there he received a dispatch from the king of Spain ordering him to search for a Northwest Passage allegedly recently discovered. Malaspina was planning to sail to Hawaii and Kamchatka on the east coast of Russia. Instead, he sailed from Acapulco directly to Yakutat Bay, Alaska in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. He found only a humble inlet, the home of the Tlingit tribe, members of which were sketched by the expedition’s artists. A glacier located between Yakutat and Icy Bays was subsequently named after Malaspina.
Malaspina then sailed to the Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island where the expedition spent a month. The diplomatic relationship between the Spanish and the Nootkas was at its lowest point when Malaspina arrived, so he distributed generous gifts from his ships’ hold to the Nootka people. It was important to gain the trust of their chief Maquinna, as he was one of the most powerful and wary chiefs of the region. His friendship strengthened the Spanish claim to Nootka Sound and resolved in the subsequent Nootka Conventions, confirming Spain’s legal right to the base they occupied there.
In addition to the expedition’s work with the Nootkas, they made astronomical observations to fix the location of Nootka Sound and calibrate the expedition’s chronometers. The maps they made there were linked to the baseline established by Captain Cook, allowing calibration between Spanish and British charts. Botanical studies were carried out, including an attempt to make a type of beer out of conifer needles that was hoped to have anti-scorbutic properties for combating scurvy. The expedition ships took on water and wood, and provided the Spanish outpost with many useful goods, including medicines, food, various tools and utensils, and a Réaumur thermometer.
The following stages of the expedition took them to the Spanish outpost at Monterrey, California, on to Mexico and then across the Pacific, with stops at Guam and the Philippines before reaching New Zealand. They explored Doubtful Sound at the southern end of New Zealand’s South Island, mapping and carrying out gravity experiments before moving on. (Though Malaspina’s expedition spent only one day in New Zealand the Kiwis have commemorated him with a Mount Malaspina (the sister, perhaps, of another one in the Yukon Territory in Canada.) Then Malaspina sailed to Port Jackson (Sydney) on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, which had been established by the British just four years earlier, in 1788.
Malaspina’s impressions of Australia show his practical business sense. Having seen carts and even ploughs being drawn by convicts for want of draft animals in the colony, and having eaten meals with the colonists at which beef and mutton were regarded as rare luxuries, Malaspina saw the trade in Chilean livestock as the key to a profitable commerce. He proposed that an agreement be signed with London for an Association of Traders and for an agent of the colony to reside in Chile. Conscious that the policy he was proposing was a bold one in the face of Spain’s traditional insistence on a national monopoly of trade within her empire, Malaspina declared that “this affair is exceedingly favorable to the commercial balance of our Colonies”, and it would have the advantage of calming and tranquilizing “a lively, turbulent and even insolent neighbor….not with sacrifices on our part but rather with many and very considerable profits.”
The expedition’s route home took them, via Tonga, Callao in Peru, then Talcahuanco, Chile, through the fjords of southern Chile which they mapped before the expedition rounded Cape Horn. Then they surveyed the Falkland Islands (“Malvinas” in Spanish) and the coast of Patagonia before stopping at Montevideo again. From Montevideo Malaspina took a long route through the central Atlantic Ocean to Spain, reaching Cádiz on September 21, 1794. He had spent 62 months at sea.
During the five years of this expedition Malaspina fixed the measurements of the west coast of the Americas with a precision never before achieved. He measured the height of Mount Saint Elias in Alaska and explored gigantic glaciers, including Malaspina Glacier, later named after him. He demonstrated the feasibility of a possible Panama Canal and outlined plans for its construction. In addition, Malaspina’s expedition was the first major long-distance sea voyage that experienced virtually no scurvy. Malaspina’s medical officer, Pedro González, was convinced that fresh oranges and lemons were essential for preventing scurvy.
Despite the Malaspina Expedition’s considerable achievements, both diplomatic and scientific, his return home was somewhat less than happy. In December of 1794 he met with King Charles IV and Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy. At first all was well and Malaspina was promoted to fleet-brigadier in March of 1795. But In his examination of the political situation in the Spanish colonies Malaspina had decided that Spain should free its colonies and form a confederation of states bound by international trade. In September of 1795 he began trying to influence the Spanish government with such proposals.
He soon found himself forming part of a conspiracy to overthrow Prime Minister Godoy. Arrested on November 23 on charges of plotting against the state he was given a quick trial with a predictable verdict. On April 20, 1796 Charles IV decreed that Malaspina be stripped of rank and imprisoned in the damp and isolated fortress of San Antón in La Coruña, Galicia (Spain). Malaspina remained in the prison from 1796 to 1802. During his incarceration he wrote a variety of essays on topics such as aesthetics, economics, and literary criticism. Francesco Melzi d’Eril and Napoleon campaigned for Malaspina’s release. He was finally freed at the end of 1802 but was exiled from Spain and returned to Italy and historic oblivion.