Malaspina, Alessandro, 1754-1809

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1754-11-05
Death 1809-04-09
Italians
Spanish; Castilian

Biographical notes:

Malaspina was an Italian ship captain who explored for Spain. Valdés was the Spanish Minister for the Indies.

From the description of Letters to Antonio Valdés, 1790-1791. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 78261192

Malaspina was an Italian ship captain who explored for Spain. Valdés was the Spanish Minister for the Indies.

From the guide to the Letters to Antonio Valdés, 1790-1791., (Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University)

The mariner, Alessandro (Alejandro) Malaspina, was born in Malazzo, Italy, and served under the Spanish crown.

Trained at the Departmento de Cadiz in 1774, he circumnavigated the globe in 1784. Inspired by the scientific voyages of Cook, Malaspina promoted and planned a similar expedition for Spain. The Malaspina expedition, co-commanded by José Bustamante y Guerra, left Cadiz July, 1789, traveled to Trinidad, continued to Chile, Peru, and Mexico, and reached the northwest coast of North America in the summer of 1791. The explorers went on across the Pacific to the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia, returning to South America and ending in Cadiz in September, 1794. Although the expedition's discoveries were substantial, little of it was published until 1849. Malaspina became involved in a palace intrigue, was jailed for eight years, and deported to his native Italy, where he died in 1810.

From the description of Malaspina expedition papers, 1789-1795. (Oregon Historical Society Research Library). WorldCat record id: 54353305

In 1784 as captain of the Spanish naval vessel Astrea, Alejandro Malaspina circumnavigated the earth, sailing westward. From this earlier experience he conceived the idea of a large scale scientific exploratory enterprise. His plan -- the most elaborate scientific expedition ever attempted in Spanish history -- was submitted to Antonio Valdés, Minister of Marine from 1787 to 1795, with the Indies portfolio to 1790, whose constant effort and enthusiasm were crucial to the success of the venture. Valdés's unstinting support, his ample arrangements, and the free hand he permitted his commanders, all facilitated the proper execution of what has been described as "probably Spain's greatest exploratory contribution to the age of enlightenment".

Accounts of the official expeditions sent out by Britain and France under Cook and La Pérouse fascinated European scientific circles and public alike, and the tragic fate suffered by both commanders served to enhance their fame. The political importance of such undertakings was obvious. The acclaim hailing Cook's accomplishments upon posthumous publication of his journal in 1784 made Madrid realize belatedly the importance of publicizing geographical discoveries. Spain's place in the first rank of European powers demanded that such feats be matched or surpassed. A carefully planned expedition with navigators and scientists of the highest caliber could do much to explore, examine, and knit together Spain's far-flung empire, report on problems and possible reforms, and counter the efforts of rivals to obtain colonial possessions at Spain's expense. It was hoped that the projected effort would result in new discoveries, careful cartographic surveys, important geodesic experiments in gravity and magnetism, botanical collections, and descriptions of each region's geography, mineral resources, commercial possibilities, political status, native peoples, and customs. The plan typified the encyclopedic impulse that was the very quintessence of the Enlightenment. The Malaspina expedition, as it would be called, would coincide with the apogee in territorial expansion of the Spanish Empire.

To begin with both Malaspina and his colleague, José Bustamante y Guerra, were apparently accorded equal status as joint commanders of the venture, but in the event Bustamante assumed the role of subordinate commander, his journal clearly indicating that Malaspina was indeed "chief of the expedition". Two corvettes, the Descublerta and the Atrevida, were especially constructed with a view of the demands of the task ahead. Their crews, each of eighty-six men and sixteen officers, were individually selected for their physical vigor, intelligence and "moral reputation". Among the contingent of scientists were the hydrogapher, Felipe Bauzá, the natural historian, Antonio Pineda, assisted by the botanists, Tadeo Haencke and Luis Née. As one authority remarks, "A calculated effort to surpass Cook's achievements motivated the careful planning and expense invested in the Malaspina expedition. The ministry hoped to accomplish a number of purposes by the effort, not the least of which was a proportionate measure of recognition for the Spanish navy".

Construction and preparations occupied many months, and the corvettes did not leave Cádiz until July 1789. Extended visits to Trinidad, the Río de la Plata, Chile, Peru and Mexico consumed two full years; the expedition reached the Northwest Coast of America in the summer of 1791, by which time plans to proceed to Hawaii were shelved in favor of heading further north to search for the Maldonado Strait, or Northwest Passage, the location and occupation of which would enable Spain to recapture some of her lost supremacy over the continent. In addition Malaspina was to investigate the conflict over Spanish and British territorial claims at Nootka Sound. The next stage of the expedition involved sailing to the Philippines, returning via Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Montevideo to reach Cádiz in September 1794.

Malaspina returned from America enthusiastic about making radical changes in Spain's colonial policy and removing all impediments to the development of rich overseas possessions. His recommendations concerning imperial policy were directly opposed to traditional methods -- indeed Malaspina favored abandoning efforts to sustain and expand Spanish dominion in North America by means of acts of possession, garrisons, missions and evangelism. His authority carried great weight in Spanish officialdom and he may be presumed to have influenced ministers such as Valdés and Floridablanca, and possibly the King himself, but his impatience for change led to his involvement in a palace intrigue to depose the prime minister, the powerful royal favorite, Manuel de Godoy, who was seen as the principal obstacle to reform. According to evidence presented at the time, Malaspina was to have assumed both political power as chief of state as well as the personal affections of the Queen, María Luisa, who wished to end Godoy's influence over her husband. Arrested in 1795, tried and convicted, Malaspina was imprisoned for eight years and was released on condition that he never set foot in Spain again. He died in his native Italy in 1810, aged fifty-five.

Malaspina's political fate explains why, in Humboldt's words, "this able navigator is more famous for his misfortunes than for his discoveries". His personal papers were seized, the documentation from his expedition for the most part confiscated, and his associates disbanded. The proposed seven-volume official account of the expedition, with seventy maps and seventy plates, which was intended to place its scientific accomplishments on a level surpassing the official publication of the findings of Cook's last voyage, was abandoned. Such papers and drawings as escaped seizure were hidden away by various of the scientists, many of them coming to rest in foreign repositories.

The first extensive printed account of the expedition appeared in 1849 as Diario del Viage Explorador, a narrative of the expedition by the ensign Francisco Javier de Viana, published in Montevideo by his sons. It was not until 1885 that Malaspina's papers in the archives of the Dirección de Hidrografia were edited and published in Madrid by Don Pedro de Novo y Colson as Viaje politico-científico alrededor del mundo . Needless to say, neither of these books has the comprehensiveness or ambitious format envisaged for the official account.

From the guide to the Malaspina expedition papers, 1789-1795, (Oregon Historical Society Research Library)

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Subjects:

  • Expedición Malaspina (1789-1794)
  • Voyages and travels-18th century
  • Scientific expeditions--History--18th century
  • Missionaries
  • Voyages and travels--18th century
  • Missions--Spanish--United States--California--History-18th century
  • Discoveries in geography
  • America--Discovery and exploration--Spanish
  • Voyages to the Pacific coast
  • Natural history
  • International relations
  • Science
  • Cartography--History--Sources
  • Voyages around the world
  • Nautical astronomy--History--Sources
  • Missions, Spanish--History--18th century

Occupations:

  • Explorers
  • Seamen--Spain

Places:

  • Northwest Coast of North America (as recorded)
  • Northwest Passage (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)
  • America (as recorded)
  • America (as recorded)
  • Pacific Coast (North America) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Spain (as recorded)
  • Pacific Coast (South America) (as recorded)
  • America (as recorded)
  • Pacific Coast (as recorded)