MALASPINA, ALEJANDRO (ALESSANDRO)

1754 - 1810 from Italy (also Spain)


Spanish naval officer, was born on 5 November 1754 in the tiny hamlet of Mulazzo in NW Italy, the younger son of the Marquis Carlo Malaspina and Catarina Meli Lupi di Soragno di Parma. As he was unlikely to inherit either the family lands or title, Malaspina was forced to look elsewhere for a career. In 1765 he enrolled in the Collegio Clementino in Rome, perhaps destined for the church, but he decided instead to enlist in the Spanish navy, not unusual in those days for Italians with military ambitions. He entered the navy as a guardiamarina in 1774, promotion soon followed and in June 1786, he was appointed as a capitan de fregata in command of the frigate Astrea, in which he visited ports on the east and west coasts of South America and Manila in the Philippines before returning to Cadiz via the Cape of Good Hope. On his return to Spain, Malaspina and his friend José BUSTAMANTE drew up a plan for a scientific and political voyage around the world, partly modelled on that of Captain COOK. The aim of the expedition was to produce hydrographic charts for parts of the Americas under Spanish jurisdiction and to investigate the political state of Spanish possessions, recording their trade, natural resources and defence. The plan was submitted to Spain's Minister of Marine on 10 September 1788 and approved by King Carlos III one month later.

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225 Gravity observations at Port...
The Scientific Expedition

Although only thirty-three years old, Malaspina was given command of the expedition, with full powers to chose its officers and scientific staff. Two specially designed corvettes, named the Descubierta and Atrevida, were built in Cadiz during the following nine months. At the same time the necessary instruments were purchased abroad, principally in London, while a comprehensive team of scientists and artists was assembled. The expedition sailed from Cadiz on 30 July 1789 with Malaspina in command of the Descubierta and Bustamante in command of the Atrevida. Malaspina anchored off Montevideo on 20 September, where the next seven weeks were spent on a variety of tasks, including surveys in the River Plate. On 15 November the expedition left Montevideo, calling first at Puerto Deseado, where Malaspina rated his chronometers. He then made for Port Egmont, in West Falkland, in order to rate his chronometers again, to water ship and survey this spacious harbour.

The Falkland Islands

On 17 December Malaspina sighted the Jason Islands and at once began to carry out various hydrographic tasks, comparing his findings with those obtained by Captain John McBRIDE in 1766, whose track in the Jason was depicted on 'A Chart of Hawkins's Maidenland' in the published account of Cook's first voyage, which was held on board the Descubierta. Passing well to the south of Sedge Island to avoid a dangerous rock shown on McBride's chart, Malaspina anchored in Port Egmont on 18 December opposite the site of the first British settlement on Saunders Island. A sumaca (a small sailing coaster) named the San Juan Bautista, which had arrived a few days previously from the Spanish settlement in Puerto de la Soledad, in today's Berkeley Sound, was already at anchor in the harbour.

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226 On return to Spain; Brigadier de...

An officer was sent ashore to ascertain the whereabouts of the watering place, finding near a ruined jetty a stream with crystal clear water. Nearby Wild Celery (Apium australe) and European Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia officinalis) were growing abundantly, which were collected and taken on board the corvettes as both were excellent antiscorbutics. A portable observatory was set up near the jetty where two officers were left to take the necessary observations to rate the chronometers and obtain the geographical position of the observatory. Meanwhile a chain of survey marks, whose positions were fixed by triangulation, was established around the harbour, which was then surveyed.

Two days after their arrival, Malaspina allowed the greater part of both ships' companies to land for recreation. Some of the seamen, however, set fire to a pile of peat and soon the whole of the nearby hillside was alight. Although firefighters were landed, they were unable to bring the fire under control, causing damage to the local ecology, while the smoke also affected the astronomical observations and survey operations.

During the visit the expedition's botanist, Luis Neé, collected a substantial number of plants, some of which were drawn on the spot by the artist José Guio. These included six new species of plants, including the beautiful Native Pansy or Yellow Violet (Viola maculata), Scurvy Grass or Vinaigrette (Oxalis enneaphylla) and Arrow-leaved Marigold (Caltha sagittata details of all six plants were published shortly after the expedition's return to Spain by Antonio José de Cavanilles, Director of the Spanish Royal Botanic Gardens.

The Americas and the Pacific

On leaving Port Egmont on Christmas Eve, Malaspina worked his way up the west coast of South America, calling at Puerto San Carlos, in the island of Chiloe, Talcahuano and the Juan Fernandez Islands, before reaching Valparaiso on 17 March 1790. Malaspina next called at Coquimbo to rate his chronometers, before visiting the isolated island of San Felix to fix its position, eventually reaching Callao on 21 May, where he remained for four months, enabling him to visit the archives in Lima and the naturalists to explore the hinterland. Malaspina next visited Guayaquil, spending most of October there, before making for Panama, which he reached on 16 November. Malaspina next called at Realejo, in present day Nicaragua, from where it took him two months to reach Acapulco, due to adverse currents and unseasonable weather.

From Acapulco Malaspina made an overland visit to Mexico City to call on Viceroy Conde de Revillagigedo, staying there for several days to arrange for various members of the expedition to travel throughout Mexico to obtain information on the natural resources of the region. While in Acapulco Malaspina received fresh instructions from Madrid to search for a strait, opening into the Pacific in 60°N, supposedly discovered in 1588 by Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado. In addition he was to call at Nootka Sound, on the NW coast of Vancouver Island, to investigate the controversy that had arisen there over conflicting Spanish and British territorial claims. On 21 April 1791 two experienced officers joined the expedition from Spain, bringing with them a special pendulum to carry out observations to determine the force of gravity. By timing the oscillations of the pendulum a value for the force of gravity could be calculated. If sufficient observations could be obtained at various latitudes both north and south of the equator the shape of the earth could then be calculated. The first of such observations was made at Acapulco and thereafter at every subsequent place visited by the expedition.

On 1 May Malaspina set off from Acapulco to explore the NW coast of North America, anchoring on 27 June in Yakutat Bay on the south coast of Alaska, where he hoped to find the entrance to Maldonado's supposed strait, since the bay was situated in roughly 60°N. Finding the head of the bay blocked by ice, Malaspina continued his exploration to the west, but on reaching the entrance to Prince William Sound, he was by now convinced that there was not even a sizeable river along the coast he had examined and that Maldonado's strait did not exist. He therefore altered course to the south for Nootka Sound. Malaspina entered Nootka Sound on 13 August, anchoring off the Spanish establishment in Friendly Cove. The fifteen days Malaspina spent at Nootka was a period of great activity The observatory was landed for astronomical and pendulum observations, native customs were observed, botanical collections made and the surrounding inland waters surveyed. Continuing to the south Malaspina called first at Monterey and then at the naval establishment at San Blas, to obtain supplies and rate his chronometers, before continuing to Acapulco, which he reached on 19 October.

After a stay of two months, Malaspina set off across the Pacific on 20 December. After calling at Guam and various islands in the central Philippines, Malaspina finally anchored off Manila on 26 March 1792. Except for a break of ten days while he was examining the west coast of Luzon, Malaspina remained at anchor off Manila for over eight months During this time Bustamante was sent to the Portuguese settlement at Macau, while the scientists made expeditions in Luzon. On completion of his work in the Philippines, Malaspina made for the SW tip of New Zealand's South Island in order to take observations for gravity at Dusky Sound, which had been visited by Cook in 1773. Gale force winds, however, forced him to abandon this idea and so he made for the British convict settlement in Port Jackson, on the east coast of New South Wales, where he was warmly welcomed and where the observations were made instead. Malaspina remained in Port Jackson for almost a month, before setting off across the Pacific once more. Malaspina spent ten days in May 1793 in the Vava'u Group at the northern end of the Tongan archipelago, which had not been visited by Cook, before continuing across the Pacific. On 23 July the two corvettes were once again at anchor off Callao, where they remained for almost three months. November was spent in Talcahuano where the two corvettes separated, Malaspina heading once again for Port Egmont to carry out further gravity experiments, while Bustamante made for Puerto de la Soledad in Berkeley Sound, to report on the Spanish settlement there.

Port Egmont

On entering Port Egmont on 2 January 1794, Malaspina sighted two brigs at anchor, which displayed the American flag in response to that of Spain. Later that afternoon the two American captains came on board the Descubierta and told Malaspina they were from New York and were visiting the Falklands to obtain oil and seal skins. They also told him that there were many other American vessels at anchor in various harbours in the vicinity, whose sailors were dispersed to the adjacent islands, keeping in touch with their parent vessels by launch, bringing to one vessel as many as 20,000 seal skins and a large number of barrels of oil, before continuing to China and the NW Coast of America. These disclosures made Malaspina realise the extent of the loss of revenue which he felt should accrue to the Spanish crown. Since his knowledge of the current state of Europe was very confused and out of date he decided not to take any hasty steps for the time being. Communication between the two parties was, however, not very frequent as Malaspina had anchored two miles from the American brigs.

To achieve the best possible accuracy in the pendulum experiments Malaspina set up his observatory on the edge of the harbour some 400 yards from the previous site, where it was less exposed to the prevailing westerly winds. The foundations for the astronomical quadrant, which was set up in one tent, and for the pendulum, which was set up in an adjacent tent, were constructed of stones firmly stamped into the ground. Two chronometers were placed in the same tent as the pendulum, well above the ground to protect them from rising damp and frost. Although the weather interfered with the observations to some extent, in the end they were concluded satisfactorily. The site of the observatory was less satisfactory for rating the chronometers, the observations being frequently interrupted by hailstorms and SW winds.

On arrival Malaspina was very concerned with the health of his crew, many of whom were extremely debilitated, which he hoped could be alleviated by recreation and relaxation on shore. He therefore erected an awning close to the landing place, where the crew could eat and shelter. Once again wild celery was collected to combat scurvy, while fishing parties were successful in catching a large quantity of a species of "cod", (probably the Falklands mullet) which proved to be excellent eating. As a result the health of the crew gradually improved.

On 9 January a small American schooner entered Port Egmont, seeking supplies for her parent ship, which had been anchored off Westpoint Island for fourteen months in a disabled condition. Malaspina supplied the schooner with all the naval stores and ship's biscuits that her parent ship required. Although Malaspina did not name this ship in his journal it was the 80 ton brig Mercury of Providence, Rhode Island, Captain William Barnet, which had lost a rudder off Cape Horn, forcing her to make for the Falklands in distress. After sailing from the Falklands, Barnet called at Port Jackson, bringing with him welcome news to many of Malaspina's friends there that he had encountered the Descubierta in Port Egmont. He also informed them, that when he offered to pay for the ship's biscuits in any manner that the Spanish might require, Malaspina refused payment, saying that he was pleased to assist a vessel, whether English or American, which spoke the language of those gentlemen from whom he and his officers had received such attention and hospitality when in Port Jackson.

Meanwhile, the launches of the American vessels were being sent away almost every day to search the nearby islands for seals. Realising that further delay would merely increase the slaughter of the seals, Malaspina came to the conclusion that he was empowered to act against the Americans, although he saw the need to do so with tact. He therefore summoned on board the captains of the two brigs and Captain White, who was in command of the small schooner, to show them papers, which he considered gave the Spaniards title to the islands. He then gave the Americans orders to leave the islands as soon as possible, although he realised that they could easily transfer their activities to a nearby harbour with impunity, particularly as he was due to sail himself in no more than twelve days time. The captains asked for a delay until their boats returned, to which Malaspina readily agreed. Some trading then took place, but Captain White, having no negotiable money or useful items to exchange, agreed instead to take his schooner on a seven-day excursion, with one of Malaspina's junior officers, Piloto Juan de Inciarte, to examine various harbours as far as Cape Percival and to look for a much easier entrance and exit for vessels proceeding from Port Egmont to Peru and the Pacific.

Malaspina gives very little detail in his journal of what Inciarte achieved, beyond saying he was well entertained by Barnet off Westpoint Island. During his enforced stay Barnet had raised some excellent vegetables, some of which Inciarte brought back with him together with some pigs and rabbits from an adjacent island. One of Malaspina's manuscript charts, however, shows what is probably Inciarte's track, first approaching the southern end of Carcass Island and then passing through Woolly Gut, separating Westpoint Island from the mainland of West Falkland. He next visited one of the anchorages on the east side of New Island and the excellent anchorage under Beacon Point at the northern end of Weddell Island, before finally returning to Port Egmont through Woolly Gut. On his return Inciarte was accompanied by a launch crewed by six English sailors, who had been left in the Falklands, with ample provisions, seven months earlier by an English ship to hunt for seals. Having apparently felt they had been deserted, they had eventually handed over their skins to an American sealer sailing for China for selling there. Three of them asked for and were granted a place on board the Descubierta.

Having completed all his tasks and with the health of his crew much improved, Malaspina prepared to get under way, but first he collected some wild celery and some birds, presumably Upland Geese. However, a succession of gales prevented him sailing until the morning of 20 January. By midday he was clear of the harbour entrance and, after passing between Wreck Reef and Port Egmont Cays he set a course for Santa Elena on the coast of Patagonia in order to survey this anchorage and to carry out further gravity observations, finally anchoring off Montevideo on 14 February 1794, where he was joined by Bustamante two days later. Bustamante, having completed his examination of the Spanish settlement in Puerto de la Soledad, had attempted to locate the Aurora Islands, supposedly sighted to the east of the Falkland Islands by a Spanish vessel of that name in 1762.

Back to Spain

Because of the outbreak of war with France, Malaspina was forced to remain in the River Plate for four months before he could join a convoy of merchantmen back to Spain. In consequence it was not until 21 September 1794 that the expedition finally arrived back in Cadiz after an absence of five years and almost two months. The return of the expedition to Spain was greeted with great enthusiasm and work was begun at once to publish the results. On 24 March 1795 Malaspina was promoted to brigadier de la real armada, but on 24 November of the same year, having fallen foul of Manuel Godoy, the first minister, he was arrested and imprisoned in Castillo de San Antón in the harbour of La Corunna where he remained until 15 March 1807, when he was released on agreeing never to set foot in Spain again. He died on 9 April 1810 in northern Italy in the little town of Pontremoli, not far from his birthplace.

With the suppression of the projected publication of Malaspina's voyage, the considerable achievements of his expedition were largely forgotten for almost a hundred years, until an edited version of his journal was published in Madrid in 1885. Enthusiasm for Malaspina's voyage has now been rekindled in Spain, culminating in the publication of the most authentic version of Malaspina's journal in Madrid in 1990, with eight further volumes covering various aspects of the voyage. A fully annotated translation of Malaspina's journal has now been published by the Hakluyt Society, making his voyage available to a wider audience.

Authors

Andrew David