Alejandro Malaspina, the Pacific Voyage of Discovery

By Ronald D. Quinn, PhD.

In 1810, Alejandro Malaspina died in relative obscurity. He was a Genoese navigator who explored the New World, and accomplished much in loyal service to Spain.  Yet, very few people would recognize his name, and fewer would have any idea what he did. Even though he was a world explorer, nothing is named for him except a few streets and schools in New Zealand and British Columbia, plus a glacier and mountains in British Columbia and Yukon Territory.  This paper outlines who he was and what he did, set in the context of 18th Century geopolitics, and the nature of his fall from royal grace. The story contains
all the elements of a good story; the characters exhibit idealism, ambition, loyalty, hubris, greed, treachery, all connected with the downfall of an exceptional person.

Spain on the World Scene
Five centuries ago Spain swiftly became a leading world power by assembling the first modern global colonial empire. The empire derived its wealth from New Spain (Mexico) and Peru, where enormous amounts of gold were looted from the conquered Aztec and Inca civilizations. This sudden influx of wealth led to El Siglo de Oro, which was literally and figuratively the Golden Century when Spain reached a zenith of world cultural and political power. A century later, after the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588,
the nation slipped into a long and relentless political decline while the strength of perennial rivals, England and France, grew.  As the gold played out in the colonies, Spanish monarchs propped up the government and military with a steady flow of silver mined in the northern portion of what is now Mexico. Protection of the northern frontier became an important element of colonial policy. By the mid-18th Century Spain was increasingly concerned about encroachment by Britain, Russia, and restless colonial
Americans upon land they considered theirs in Alta California, the entire Pacific Coast north to Alaska, as well as the great heart of the continent, the Louisiana Territory. These worries were the impetus for the overland colonization of Alta California and the securing of the frontier in Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, activities that occupied much of the life of Juan Bautista de Anza and his father before him. Spain also wanted a general assessment of its colonial empire around the Pacific, and its colonial competitors.  Alejandro Malaspina conceived, promoted and executed the Pacific study, arriving in Alta California 15 years after Anza.

Alejandro Malaspina was born in 1754 in the feudal enclave of Lunigiana in what has become northern Italy. He was the second son in family that was aristocratic on both sides, which had been politically and economically powerful in the region since the Middle Ages. His older brother inherited the title and other family possessions. Young Alejandro was exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment when he attended Clementine College in Rome. These modern ideas shaped much of his thought, and his future. In 1773, he was inducted into the Order of Malta, a venerable organization that had ruled the Mediterranean island of Malta for 300 years. A year later the young knight entered the Spanish navy, and by the age of 26 he was commanding ships in naval battles. He fought in the siege of Gibraltar in 1782, and from 1786 through 1788 he commanded a ship that carried freight to the Philippines, and circumnavigated the globe. It was on this sailing that he formulated the idea of a grand voyage of discovery to the Spanish colonial empire
of the Americas and the Pacific, with visits to the growing colonies of Great Britain and Russia. The purposes of the voyage were twofold. The first was to collect new and more accurate navigational information for naval charts, to gather broad scientific information about the biological and physical characteristics of all places visited, to collect samples of the flora, fauna, geology, and to gather information and collect artifacts from the cultures of indigenous peoples. The second purpose was to investigate the economic, social, and political conditions of the Spanish colonies, in the interest of modernizing and improving their stability and productivity.

Planning the Voyage of Discovery
When Malaspina returned from the voyage around the world he successfully persuaded his Bourbon King and Queen to authorize and finance a Spanish Voyage of Discovery. His thinking was influenced, indeed organized, by the ideals of the Enlightenment. He thought the path to improvement of human affairs was through direct observation of the world, which would then inform systematic thought and productive behavior. These beliefs were often in opposition to traditional beliefs and actions, which were rooted in
unquestioned acceptance of authority. When new discoveries and conclusions conflicted with old ways and beliefs, then enlightened thinkers would reject the old and accept the new. Among Spanish intellectuals of his time, and indeed even within the court of King Carlos III, the ideas of the Enlightment, La Ilustración, were influential. It was the perfect moment for Malaspina’s grand proposal. He had three justifications for the project. The first was that Spain needed to catch up with England and France, which had already completed and published the results of successful voyages of world exploration by Captains Cook and La Pérouse. The second reason was that he believed that Spain, in its own interest, must improve its governance of its colonies. The third reason was to snoop on the new and expanding colonies of the Russians and British in the Pacific, an ocean that had been the almost exclusive colonial domain of Spain. He thought that these new foreign colonies could become threats to Spanish interests.

Malaspina immediately busied himself building two new ships to his specifications, outfitting them with the most modern equipment available, and carefully recruiting a crew of seamen, officers and scientific specialists. He devoted careful attention to supplies, equipment, food, and the hygiene and welfare of the crew. Each corvette, a small and lightly armed war ship, was 120 feet in length, weighing 306 tons, carrying a crew of just over 100. He named them Descubierta (Discovery) and Atrevida (Daring, Bold), names that proclaimed he intended to go forth boldly where no explorer had gone before.

The Voyage
Malaspina’s ships departed Cádiz on July 30, 1789, bound south where they passed the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, and then the long crossing of the Atlantic to Montevideo. From this point forward for the duration of the voyage both ships made careful observations of the exact locations of sailing landmarks, river and harbor geography, ocean depths, and other geographical details that would be of importance for navigational charts. They rounded the Horn and proceeded north to Valparaiso and other destinations
in Chile. For the most part they closely followed the coastline north, gathering navigational data as they went, with prolonged stops in the Viceroyalty of Peru and then Acapulco, New Spain. They used the time spent in these two anchors of the Spanish Empire in the Americas for refitting and resupplying the ships and for examining colonial conditions and governance. They were, in effect, government inspectors.

While in New Spain Malaspina received extraordinary orders that he was to divert his voyage away from its planned course, which next included the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and instead proceed directly to the northwestern coast of the continent. The purpose was to search for the Northwest Passage, the legendary waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the northern reaches of North America. It seems extraordinary that after 300 years of searching, Europeans were still seeking a large geographic feature that was nonexistent. The original reason that Spain commissioned Columbus to cross the Atlantic was to find a direct oceanic route to Asia. Columbus was followed by many other intrepid navigators from Spain, England, Portugal and France, all sponsored by monarchs eager to gain advantage in the competition for the lucrative trade with China. Fame, and more importantly fortune, awaited the nation that found the route. Why did Spain take this action, on the flimsy weight of an account written 200 years earlier? They did so for the same reason that they sent explorers again and again into the American Southwest and other unexplored portions of North America in search of non-existent gold. They wished it to be true.

Malaspina moved far out from the coast of Mexico and turned directly north, proceeding all the way to Mulgrave (Yakutat) where they stopped for a few weeks to resupply and to take smaller boats to search for the Northwest Passage. They soon encountered a tidewater glacier, a wall of ice occupying the entire valley and calving off icebergs into the sea. They buried a bottle with a record of the visit, claiming the area for Spain, and returned to Mulgrave. There they had extensive contact with Tlingit Indians, from whom they collected information and cultural artifacts. Near the end of their stay, while Malaspina was away, there was a brief armed confrontation between the crew and Tlingit over a missing coat. Trouble was quickly diffused, but soon thereafter the ships departed even though not all planned tasks had been completed.  They continued westward as far as Prince William Sound, approximately the same latitude as present day Anchorage. The expedition then turned directly south, ahead of the waning summer and anchored at Nootka, a Spanish outpost on the outer shore of north Vancouver Island. After a brief stay,
they followed the coast southward to Monterey, mapping important navigational landmarks all the way.

The fortnight spent there was Malaspina’s only direct contact with the new colonies of Alta California, at the very place where Anza had brought the first civilian colonists 15 years earlier. Once ashore, they established an observatory for scientific measurements, and the artists and biologists busied themselves with collections. Thus we have drawings of the harbor, presidio, the Missión Carmelo, and detailed paintings of several distinctive California birds. Two of the signature trees of California, the Coast Live Oak and the Valley oak received scientific description. Malaspina, like millions of visitors who have followed him, was much taken with the natural beauty of coastal California. He wrote “We cannot abandon the description of the pleasant coasts of Monterey without a slight sketch of the beautiful appearance that nature gave it upon our first view of the port … when the sun’s brilliance and the leafy foliage of the surrounding country joined with the soft zephyrs of the sea breezes”. His visit also marked the first American who came to California to stay. Ship’s artilleryman John Green, a Presbyterian from Boston who had been ill with dropsy (edema) for some time, died there. He converted to Catholicism and was given Catholic burial at the presidio chapel. Missión Carmelo is the burial site for Fathers Junípero Serra and Juan Crespí, who were already at rest in the chapel at nearby Missión Carmelo.

When the two ships left Monterey they parted, with one sailing directly to Acapulco and the other to the Spanish naval shipyard in San Blas. Commander Malaspina had carried out the royal orders admirably, completing detailed naval charts from Alaska to Central America, and verifying that there was no passage to the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific. That put to rest for the last time 300 years of speculations, myths, and lies about North American geography. The naval charts were valuable because they provided greater understanding and security for the trans-Pacific route of the Manila Galleon and other commerce among the Spanish global empire.

There was no longer time for Malaspina to carry out his original plan of circumnavigating the globe and visiting the far eastern reaches of the Russian Empire. After completing his investigations in Mexico he sailed directly west across the Pacific to the Philippines, and thence south across the equator to the new British colonies of New Zealand and the convict settlements in what would come to be called Australia.  His final, exotic, stop in the South Pacific was the Tonga Islands. At that point, he was uneasy about the effect on his crew of their languorous layover in what must have seemed paradise, a resort for tired and yearning sailors. Malaspina felt that discipline was breaking down. He wrote, “Yet the clash of the commander with the subordinate officers had to be quite frequent, to say the least.”  He decided to proceed directly back east across the Pacific to Peru, there to replenish and reorganize, and then return to Spain as quickly as possible. The expedition had been out for more than four years, had accomplished a formidable list of goals, and it was time to go home. The ships arrived in Cádiz in September 1794, after 62 months away.

Malaspina and Court Politics
Before the Voyage of Discovery had returned to Spain, Malaspina had written to a friend, “I have finally been able to complete mi idea cabal of America”, meaning that he had arrived at a model for the comprehensive revision of organization and governance for the Spanish colonies in the New World. As we shall see below, he had sown the seeds of his destruction. He concluded that the vast Spanish Empire was too large and weak to be properly defended against rival colonial empires, and that some colonies were costing more than they were worth. He thought that the authoritarian system of governance was not only inefficient, but also destined to collapse under the grievances of resentful and hostile colonial people. Their complaints included the same ones as British colonial America; the necessity of sending all raw commodities to Spain, the requirement that all finished goods be purchased from Spain, and that there be no trade between colonies and any country other than Spain. He used the very recent American Revolution as an example of what could, and in fact did, happen to the Spanish Empire a short 15 years later.

When Malaspina arrived home, he was surprised and dismayed by the changes that had occurred in his absence. The French Revolution had happened next door, and France had declared war on Spain, because Spain had decried the overthrow and execution of Louis XVI. The government of Spain had changed too. Carlos III, who had supported the idealistic goals of the Voyage of Discovery, had died and been succeeded by his son, the indolent Carlos IV. Malaspina’s mood was dark when he asked permission to come to Madrid to report to the King. He wrote of “the sad destiny that surrounds us”. In the company of other members of the great voyage, Malaspina reported his discoveries and conclusions to the King and Queen. He had formulated plans to write a comprehensive report of his findings in seven volumes, divided by subject. He wrote later that the royals “were infinitely disposed to listen”, but that he was being obstructed by the King’s chief minister, Manuel Godoy, whom Malispina took to privately calling “The Sultan”.

Manuel Godoy had been recently appointed chief minister to the King. He had extraordinary influence over Carlos IV, apparently via his intimate relationship with Queen Maria Luisa. The lethargic new King had little interest in governing, but Maria Luisa was energetic and strong willed. The King was content to let her have her way, leaving him more time for hunting. Godoy, who was young and attractive, worked his unbounded ambitions on the King through the Queen. He quickly accumulated titles, power, and vast wealth, while managing the flow of information through the court.

Realizing that Godoy was obstructing him, Malaspina wrote to the King. He gave these papers, which apparently outlined his ideas about Spanish colonial policy, to the sympathetic Naval Minister, Antonio Valdés, and asked him to pass them on to His Majesty.  Valdés gave them instead to Godoy, who told Valdés to correct Malaspina and instruct him to burn the documents and confine his reports to naval matters and physical discoveries. The message was quite clear, keep your nose out of politics.

Malaspina did not get the message, or he chose to ignore it. Just two weeks later, he sent a letter directly to Godoy with his recommendations for a peace treaty with France. This was clearly Godoy’s business, a war he had strongly advocated, and which he was charged with ending. It is hard to imagine how Malaspina, with all his abilities and insight, could have been so obtuse to the court politics of the absolute monarch he served and professed to love. His writings, in his more optimistic moments, make it clear that his only interest was to improve the strength and general welfare of Spain and its colonies, and he was sure he was correct about the urgency of changing colonial policies. The ideals of the Enlightenment, that were such a powerful motive for the Voyage of Discovery, would have dictated an open examination of the facts that would inevitably lead to correct action. Perhaps for all his strengths he was at the core a naïve idealist. On the other hand, he was born an aristocrat, was well educated, and through his accomplishments quickly rose to positions of command in the navy. This background would foster good manners and tact, and others said as much about him. Head of Naval Affairs Valdés said, “By reason of his knowledge, his family, the nobility and elegance of his person and his manners, his self-
assured presence, affability, firmness of character and talent in moving in society, Malaspina was foremost in our armada, and the only one in command”. Perhaps he was just stubborn.

The Fall
As the months went by, he continued to write about disorder in the Spanish government, while his assigned business was to write narratives of the voyages. Even so, he wrote, “Without having discussed the position of our colonies, how can the determination of measures for their defense be attempted?  Finally, without knowing America, how is it possible to govern it?” He continued to stay near the court, even though that was unnecessary for him to write the voyage narratives. He began to think about retiring to his native Italy, and asked for and received a leave with pay to travel there. Perplexingly, at the same time he was given leave he wrote to the Queen and asked that the King replace the entire royal cabinet, including his nemesis Godoy. The person he chose to carry the letter to the Queen apparently gave it instead to Godoy. Four days later he was arrested, as were others who were implicated in the conspiracy to deliver the letter.  Five days later, the State Council decided unanimously that Malaspina would be stripped of his military rank and sentenced to ten years and a day in the prison of San Antón.  The proceedings were halted long enough to make it clear to the Council that His Majesty wished a unanimous decision. The entire thing took an hour. Commander Malaspina was shipwrecked on rocky shoals of his own making. San Antón is a gray, forbidding structure at La Coruña, located at the extreme north of the Iberian Peninsula. It is on an island in the city harbor, an area known as el fin del mundo, The End of the World.

In prison, Malaspina continued to be certain of his innocence, and was sure he could prove it if only given the opportunity. He continued to write about philosophy, economics, and Spanish prospects in the world. He had an interest in problems associated with exchanges made between different currency systems, and he wrote a treatise on the history of Spanish coinage from the time of the Carthaginians. That document was finally published in 1990. The epic volumes about the Voyage of Discovery that he was writing when he was arrested were suppressed, with many materials scattered or lost. Only one of the proposed seven volumes was published, and in that book Malaspina’s name was never used. Neither the political changes he sought, nor the prestige that would have come to him and Spain because of his voyage, were ever realized. Fortunately, many of the journals kept of the voyage were produced in multiple copies, and some of these that were taken out of the country survived. Some scientific and ethnographic material has been brought back to light in Spanish museums. A second volume about the voyage was edited and published in Spain in 1885. Over the past 20 years, interest in Malaspina and the Voyage of Discovery has increased, and scholars have discovered and organized enough information to publish a more complete picture of the man and his life.

Malaspina was released from prison after seven years by a reluctant Spanish government. By that time, Napoleon was exerting military and economic pressure on Spain, and it was Napoleon who secured Malaspina’s release. He was threatened with arrest if he ever set foot on Spanish soil, so he boarded a ship at La Coruña and circled the Iberian Peninsula by sea, past the familiar Straight of Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean to reach his Italian birthplace of Lunigiana. He lived a relatively quiet life there for another seven years until his death at age 57 in 1810. This final stage of his life was lived under Napoleonic rule. Less than a year after his death the revolt of the American Spanish colonies that he had foretold began in Mexico, and the empire dissolved.

Carlos IV, Maria Luisa, and Manuel Godoy all died in exile.

Andrew, David; Ferrnandez-Armesto, Felipe; Novi, Carlos; and Glyndwr Williams, eds., 2001. The Malaspina Expedition, 1789 – 1794; Journal of the Voyage by Alejandro Malaspina. V. 1; Cadiz to Panama. The Hakluyt Society, London, UK. 338 pp.

Andrew, David; Ferrnandez-Armesto, Felipe; Novi, Carlos; and Glyndwr Williams, eds., 2003. The Malaspina Expedition, 1789 – 1794; Journal of the Voyage by Alejandro Malaspina. V. 2; Panama to the Philippines. The Hakluyt Society, London, UK. 511 pp.

Cutter, Donald C. 1960. Malaspina in California. John Howell – Books, San Francisco, California. 96 pp.

Kendrick, John, 2003. Alajandro Malaspina; Portrait of a Visionary.  University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington. 200 pp.

Olson, Wallace, 2004. The Spanish Exploration of Alaska, 1774 – 1792. Heritage Research, Auke Bay, Alaska. 48 pp.

Vaughan, Thomas; Crownhart-Vaughan, E.A.P; and Mercedes Pauau de Iglesias, 1977. Voyages of Enlightenment: Malaspina on the Northwest Coast. Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon. 61 pp.