Malaspina Expedition: The image of the Empire (1789-1794)


  • Mapping the coasts of America, the Sandwich Islands, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Writing reports on the territories visited and the layout of ports, statistics on commerce and production.
  • Ethnographic and Natural History studies.

On 30 July 1798, Alejandro Malaspina, an Italian sailor serving with the Spanish Navy set out from the port of Cadiz on a major scientific and political expedition.

His journey was an undertaking that had spent a long time being pondered over and prepared for. Several months earlier, on 10 September 1788 A. Malaspina had presented a project to the Naval Minster, Antonio Valdés, intended to be a "noble emulation" of the policies of the French and British crowns, following in the footsteps of "Messrs Cook and La Pérouse." Alejandro Malaspina did not envisage a solely scientific voyage. This would not have been possible for a crown whose grip on its vast colonial territories seemed to be in doubt among other European powers. Thus, in his letter to Minister Valdés, he set out a different series of objectives: firstly, the drawing up of navigation charts for the most remote regions of America, with navigation routes to guide inexpert merchant navy vessels safely; and secondly, investigating the political state of American, as regards its relationships with Spain and foreign nations.  

Royal assent for the expedition was given on 14 October 1788. As in the case of almost all expeditions undertaken during the illustration, the only public reason for the voyage was scientific; the political reports would be kept secret. Science and politics travelled together on all expeditions. But, like one of the many icebergs the travellers would meet on their way past the poles, only the science would be visible, while the political rationale would remain submerged beneath the waterline.

Once the undertaking had been approved, the government machinery was set in motion. Two new corvettes were built: the Descubierta and the Atrevida, both of which were launched at La Carraca in April 1789. The organisers asked who might have the necessary know-how and experience for ocean voyages. Two Spaniards, Antonio de Ulloa and Casimiro Gómez Ortega, two Frenchmen François de Lalande and abbé Raynal, an Englishman Sir Joseph Banks, and an Italian, Lazzaro Spallanzani gave their opinions on the instruments and scientific objectives –the only public objectives of the journey– and the Academie des Sciences, the Royal Society and the Observatorio de Cádiz also offered their opinions. As much information as possible was obtained from the state archives, the collections from the Indies were examined, as were documents from the expelled Jesuits and the Temporalidades collection. The scientific and technical instruments were purchased or constructed, in the workshops of London and Paris, and in some instances, Madrid, and of course, at the Observatorio de la Marina in Cádiz

And, with great care, the 204 men who were to take part in the journey were selected. They were under the command of two captains (Alejandro Malaspina and José Bustamante y Guerra), and comprised eighteen officers, two surgeons, two chaplains, a cartographer, three naturalists, (Antonio Pineda, Tadeo Haenke and Luis Neé), four pilots and six draughtsmen.

The route taken by the Malaspina expedition was not strictly speaking a circumnavigation, although that was the original intention. They first made landfall in the Americas in Montevideo, from where they continued their journey to Puerto Deseado, reconnoitred the Falkland Islands and the coast of Patagonia, rounded Cape Horn and sailed up the Pacific coast to San Carlos (Chile), the most southerly bastion of Spain's colonial possessions. The journey continued up the Pacific coast, and the ships called in at Concepción, Valparaíso and Coquimbo, then proceeded to El Callao, from where they sailed to the ports of Acapulco and San Blas in Baja California. While the naturalists undertook a study of the production of the rich viceroyalty of New Spain, the corvettes travelled up the coast, reaching 60º north in their search for the supposed "North-East Passage."

In the autumn of 1791 a detailed study was made of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a task carried out by the officers Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés over the course of the following year, and which kept them apart from the rest of the expedition while it was in the Mariana Islands and the Philippines. In February 1792 the corvettes reached the Island of Guam, the only stopping off point on a three-month crossing taking the expedition to the Philippine archipelago. The first dropped anchor in the port of Palapa and then in Sorsogón. The Atrevida chose to head for Macao and Canton, both of which were ports of great commercial importance, while the Descubierta reconnoitred the east coast of the Island of Luzon.

The two corvettes met in Manila Bay on 20 May 1792, remaining in the port until mid November. During this time the naturalists contacted Juan de Cuéllar, a botanist in the service of the Real Compañía de Filipinas (Royal Philippine Company) and explored the interior of the Island of Luzon.  It was while on one of these journeys into the interior the naturalist Antonio Pineda was to die, having fallen victim to a tropical fever. During the austral summer the corvettes sailed to New Guinea, the Salomon Islands and the New Hebrides. In late February 1793 they reached port in Dusky Bay. One month later they reached Port Jackson, and in April they reconnoitred Botany Bay. The expedition finished collecting data on the coast of Chile, reaching Tierra del Fuego, and returning to the River Plate and the Falkland Islands, having sailed back round Cape Horn, finally setting in to the port of Montevideo in February 1794.

On 21 September 1794, more than five years after their departure, the corvettes Descubierta and Atrevida dropped anchor in the Bay of Cadiz, where they were hampered by dense fog. During their voyage they had visited thirty-five ports, some of them, such as Acapulco, El Callao, Talcahuano or the Falklands, more than once. The expedition did not circumnavigate the globe, as did Cook and La Pérouse on whose voyages it was based, but it did achieve most of its goals. It built up a magnificent set of maritime charts; carried out interesting work on gravity and the earth's magnetic field; it inspected the richest mines of Mexico and Peru, evaluating their productive resources and systems of operation; the naturalists brought back with them a sizeable collection of herbarium sheets, some mineralogical samples, a not insignificant number of animals, a collection of ethnographical materials, and some accurate iconographical work by the draughtsmen. Almost a thousand images, including plants, animals, landscapes, ethnographic types, rites and traditions ... a huge album of the colonial territories of the Spanish crown. Above all, they compiled a huge amount of information on the commercial relationships and government of Spanish America.

After his arrival in Cadiz, Alejandro Malaspina was feted in a similar way to James Cook, and his name was mooted for the office of the Naval Ministry. However, a court intrigue plotted in the halls of the Royal Palace, against which the seafarer was unable to defend himself, resulted in Manuel Godoy's exiling him, in April 1796, to the castle of San Antón in La Coruña, alleging that his writings seemed "too prone to the maxims of anarchy and the Revolution." At bottom, the sailor's attitude annoyed the arrogant royal favourite. Malaspina would not complete the sentence of ten years and a day that were imposed on him, and after six years he was exiled to Lunigiana in his native Italy, where he died in 1810.


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