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Alessandro Malaspina
Born November 5, 1754(1754-11-05)
Mulazzo, Italy
Died April 9, 1810
Pontremoli, Italy
Occupation Explorer, navigator, cartographer, politician

Alessandro Malaspina (November 5, 1754 – April 9, 1810) was an Italian nobleman who spent most of his life as a Spanish naval officer and explorer. Under a Spanish royal commission, he undertook a voyage around the world from 1786 to 1788, then, from 1789 to 1794, a scientific expedition throughout the Pacific Ocean, exploring and mapping much of the west coast of the Americas from Cape Horn to the Gulf of Alaska, crossing to Guam and the Philippines, and stopping in New Zealand, Australia, and Tonga.

Malaspina was christened "Alessandro". He signed his letters in Spanish "Alexandro", which is usually modernized to "Alejandro" by Spanish scholars.[1]


Early life

Malaspina was born in Mulazzo, a small principality ruled by his family. Today part of Tuscany, it was then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire. Alessandro's parents were the Marquis Carlo Morello and Caterina Meli Lupi di Soragna. During 1762-1765, his family lived in Palermo with Alessandro's great-uncle, Giovanni Fogliani Sforza d'Aragona, the viceroy of Sicily. From 1765 to 1773 he studied at the Clementine College in Rome. In 1773 he was accepted into the Order of Malta and spent about a year living on the island of Malta where he learned the basics of sailing.

Naval service

Malaspina entered the Royal Navy of Spain in 1774 and received the rank of Guardiamarina.[2].

Between 1774 and 1786 he took part in a number of naval battles and received many promotions. In January of 1775, aboard the frigate Santa Teresa, Malaspina took part of the expedition to relieve Melilla, which was under siege by Moroccans. Shortly after he was promoted to frigate-ensign. In July of 1775 he participated the siege of Algiers and in 1776 was promoted to ship's ensign.[2]

From 1777 to 1779, aboard the frigate Astrea, Malaspina made a round-trip voyage to the Philippines, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in both directions. During the voyage he was promoted to frigate-lieutenant. In January of 1780 he was in the Battle of Cape Santa Maria and shortly thereafter was promoted to ship's lieutenant. During the Great Siege of Gibraltar, Malaspina served on a "floating battery", in September of 1782. In December of the same year, aboard the San Justo, Malaspina participated in the fighting at Cape Espartel. He was soon promoted once again, to frigate-captain.[2]

In 1782 he was suspected of heresy and denounced to the Spanish Inquisition, but was not apprehended.

From March 1783, to July 1784, Malaspina was second-in-command of the frigate Asunción during a trip to the Philippines. As with his first trip to the Philippines the route went by the Cape of Good Hope in both directions. In 1785, back in Spain, Malaspina, on board the brigantine Vivo, took part in hydrographic surveys and mapping of parts of the coast of Spain. During the same year he was named Lieutenant of the Company of the Guardiamarinas of Cádiz.[2]


Spanish Landing Site, Bauza Island New Zealand

From September 1786 to May 1788 Malaspina made a commercial circumnavigation of the world on behalf of the Royal Philippines Company. During this voyage he was in command of the frigate Astrea. His route went via the Cape of Good Hope and, returning, Cape Horn.[2]

Expedition of 1789-1794

In September 1788 Malaspina joined forces with José de Bustamante y Guerra and together they approached the Spanish government to propose a scientific-political expedition that would visit nearly all the Spanish possessions in America and Asia. The Spanish king, Charles III, a promoter of science in the Spanish Empire, approved.

Two corvettes (a type of ship similar to the British sloop-of-war), were built under Malaspina's direction specifically for the expedition, Descubierta (meaning "Discovery") and Atrevida (meaning "Daring" or "Bold").[3] Malaspina commanded Descubierta and Bustamante Atrevida. The names were chosen by Malaspina to honor James Cook's Discovery and Resolution.[2] The two corvettes were constructed by the shipbuilder Tómas Muñoz at the La Carraca shipyard. They were both 306 tons burden and 36 metres long, with a normal load displacement of 4.2 metres. They were launched together on April 8, 1789.[4]

The expedition was under the "dual command" of Malaspina and Bustamante. Although in time the expedition became known as the Malaspina's, Bustamante was never considered subordinate. Malaspina insisted on their equality, yet Bustamante early acknowledged Malaspina as the "chief of the expedition".[5]

This map shows the route of Malaspina's ship Descubierta with the return to Spain from Tonga omitted. The route of Bustamante's Atrevida was mostly the same, but deviated in some places.

The expedition sailed from Cádiz on July 30, 1789. Thaddäus Haenke missed the boat, but joined in 1790 in Santiago de Chile after crossing South America by land from Montevideo.

The expedition had explicitly scientific goals, similar to the recent voyages of James Cook and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. Some of the leading scientists of the day accompanied Malaspina. The scientific data collected during the expedition surpassed that of Cook, but due to changed political circumstances in Spain Malaspina was jailed upon return and the reports and collections locked up and prohibited from publication. The expedition and its findings remained obscure and nearly unstudied by historians until the late 20th century.[6]

Malaspina stopped at Montevideo and Buenos Aires, investigating the political situation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. After rounding Cape Horn the expedition stopped at Talcahuano, the port of Concepción in present-day Chile, and again at Valparaíso, the port of Santiago. Continuing north, Bustamante mapped the coast while Malaspina sailed to the Juan Fernández Islands in order to resolve conflicting data on their location. The two captains reunited at Callao, the port of Lima. There investigations were made into the political situation of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The expedition then continued north, mapping the coast, 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 Malaspina to search for a Northwest Passage recently rumored to have been discovered. Malaspina had been planning to sail to Hawaii and Kamchatka, as well as the Pacific Northwest.[7] Instead, he sailed from Acapulco directly to Yakutat Bay, Alaska (then known as Port Mulgrave), where the rumored passage was said to exist. Finding only an inlet, he carefully surveyed the Alaskan coast west to Prince William Sound.[3]

At Yakutat Bay, the expedition made contact with the Tlingit. Spanish scholars made a study of the tribe, recording information on social mores, language, economy, warfare methods, and burial practices. Artists with the expedition, Tomas de Suria and José Cardero, produced portraits of tribal members and scenes of Tlingit daily life. A glacier between Yakutat Bay and Icy Bay was subsequently named after Malaspina. The botanist Luis Née also accompanied the expedition, on which he collected and described numerous new plants.

Knowing that Cook had previously surveyed the coast west of Prince William Sound and found no passage, Malaspina ceased his search at that point and sailed to the Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island.

Malaspina's expedition spent a month at Nootka Sound. While at Nootka, the expedition's scientists made a study of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka peoples). The relationship between the Spanish and the Nootkas was at its lowest point when Malaspina arrived. Malaspina and his crew were able to greatly improve the relationship, which was one of their objectives and reasons for stopping in the first place. Due in part to Malaspina's ability to bequeath generous gifts from his well-supplied ships about to return to Mexico, the friendship between the Spanish and the Nootkas was strengthened. The gaining of the Nootka chief Maquinna's trust was particularly significant, as he was one of the most powerful chiefs of the region and had been very wary of the Spanish when Malaspina arrived. His friendship strengthened the Spanish claim to Nootka Sound, which was in question after the Nootka Crisis and resolved in the subsequent Nootka Conventions. The Spanish government was eager for the Nootka to formally agree that the land upon which the Spanish outpost stood had been ceded freely and legally. This desire had to do with Spain's negotiations with Britain than over Nootka Sound and the Pacific Northwest. Malaspina was able to acquire exactly what the government wanted. After weeks of negotiations the principal Nootka chief, Maquinna, agreed that the Spanish would always remain owners of the land they then occupied, and that they had acquired it with all due properness. The outcome of the Nootka Convention depended in part on this pact.[8]

In addition to the expedition's work with the Nootkas, astronomical observations were made to fix the location of Nootka Sound and calibrate the expedition's chronometers. Nootka Sound was surveyed and mapped with an accuracy far greater than had previously been available. Unexplored channels were investigated. The maps were also 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 scale thermometer.[9]

After departing Nootka Sound the two ships sailed south, stopping at the Spanish settlement and mission at Monterey, California, before returning to Mexico.

In 1792, back in Mexico, Malaspina dispatched two schooners (or "goletas") to conduct more detailed explorations of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. These were Sutíl, commanded by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, and Mexicana, under Cayetano Valdés y Flores.[3] Both were officers of Malaspina's. The ships were to have been commanded by two pilots of San Blas, Mexico, but Malaspina arranged for his own officers to replace them.

In 1792, Malaspina's expedition sailed from Mexico across the Pacific Ocean. They stopped briefly at Guam before arriving at the Philippines, where they spent several months, mostly at Manila. During this period Malaspina sent Bustamante in the Atrevida to Macau, China.

After Bustamante's return the expedition left the Philippines and sailed to New Zealand. They explored Doubtful Sound at the southern end of New Zealand's South Island, mapping and carrying out gravity experiments. Then Malaspina sailed to Port Jackson in Australia, which had only been established by the British in 1788. Later the colony would become Sydney. He wrote a confidential report on the colony.[10]

Returning east across the Pacific Ocean the expedition spent a month at Vava'u, the northern archipelago of Tonga. From there they sailed to Callao, Peru, then Talcahuanco, Chile. The fjords of southern Chile were carefully mapped before the expedition rounded Cape Horn. Then they surveyed the Malvinas Islands ("Falkland Islands," in English) 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.[2]

During the five years of this expedition Malaspina fixed the measurements of America's western coast 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.[11] 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. Only one outbreak occurred, during a 56-day trip across the open sea. Five sailors came down with symptoms, one seriously. After three days at Guam all five were healthy again. James Cook had made great progress against the disease, but other British captains, such as George Vancouver, found his accomplishment difficult to replicate. It had been known since the mid-1700s that citrus fruit was effective, but for decades it was impractical to store fruit or fruit juice for long periods on ships without losing the necessary ascorbic acid. Spain's large empire and many ports of call made it easier to acquire fresh fruit.[12]

Political controversy and exile

In December of 1794 Malaspina 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.[2]

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.[3] In September of 1795 he began trying to influence the Spanish government with such proposals. Unfortunately Malaspina had lost the support he used to have at the royal court before his voyage and the political situation had changed radically, due in part to the French Revolution. Prime Minister Godoy had Malaspina arrested on November 23 on charges of plotting against the state. After an inconclusive trial on April 20, 1796, Charles IV decreed that Malaspina be stripped of rank and imprisoned in the isolated fortress of San Antón in A Coruña, Galicia. 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.[2]

Because of his political conflict with Spain, his seven-volume account of the 1789-94 expeditions was suppressed and remained unpublished until the late 19th century. A large portion of the documents meant to be used as source material for the publication of Malaspina's expedition remained scattered in archives to the present day. A significant number of documents are lost, and those that survive are often in a rough, semi-edited form. Alexander von Humboldt, an admirer of Malaspina, wrote, "this able navigator is more famous for his misfortunes than for his discoveries."[13]

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. He left for his hometown of Mulazzo via the port of Genoa, and settled in nearby Pontremoli.

Later life

In Pontremoli Malaspina concerned himself with local politics. In December 1803 he organized a quarantine between the Italian Republic and the Kingdom of Etruria during a yellow fever epidemic in Livorno. In 1805 he received the title of Advising Auditor of the Council of State of the Kingdom of Italy. The queen of Etruria received him at court in December 1806. Shortly afterwards he was admitted to the Columban Society in Florence with the title of Addomesticato.[2]

The first appearance of an incurable illness occurred in 1807.[2] Alessandro Malaspina died in Pontremoli on April 9, 1810, at the age of 55.[3]


Malaspina University-College in the Canadian city of Nanaimo, British Columbia takes its name indirectly from the explorer (although this name has been recently changed to Vancouver Island University), by way of Malaspina Strait, between Texada Island and the mainland, and the Malaspina Peninsula and adjoining Malaspina Inlet nearby, which are the location of Malaspina Provincial Park and are part of the Sunshine Coast region. There is also a Malaspina Peak and Malaspina Lake near Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, just southeast of the town of Gold River. In New Zealand, Malaspina Reach of Doubtful Sound in Fiordland, explored by him in 1793, has his name.


  1. ^ Kendrick, John (2003). Alejandro Malaspina: Portrait of a Visionary. McGill-Queen's Press. p. xi. ISBN 0773526528.  ; online at Google Books
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k John Black and Dario Manfredi. "A Biography of Alexandro Malaspina". Malaspina University-College. Retrieved 2008-02-05.  
  3. ^ a b c d e "Captain Alexandro Malaspina". Malaspina University-College. Retrieved 2008-02-05.  
  4. ^ Cutter, Donald C. (1991). Malaspina & Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792. University of Washington Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-295-97105-3.  
  5. ^ Cutter, Donald C. (1991). Malaspina & Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792. University of Washington Press. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-295-97105-3.  
  6. ^ Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2006). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 305–307. ISBN 0-393-06259-7.  
  7. ^ Kendrick, John (2003). Alejandro Malaspina: Portrait of a Visionary. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 52. ISBN 0773526528.  ; online at Google Books
  8. ^ Cutter, Donald C. (1991). Malaspina & Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792. University of Washington Press. pp. 105, 109. ISBN 0-295-97105-3.  
  9. ^ Cutter, Donald C. (1991). Malaspina & Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792. University of Washington Press. pp. 75–76, 108–109. ISBN 0-295-97105-3.  
  10. ^ Robert J. King, The Secret History of the Convict Colony: Alexandro Malaspina's report on the British settlement of New South Wales, Sydney, Allen & Unwin Australia, 1990. ISBN 0046100202
  11. ^ Caso, Adolph; Marion E. Welsh (1978). They Too Made America Great. Branden Books. p. 72. ISBN 0828317143.  ; online at Google Books
  12. ^ Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2006). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 297–298. ISBN 0-393-06259-7.  
  13. ^ Vaughan, Thomas; E.A.P. Crownhart-Vaughan; and Mercedes Palau de Iglesias (1977). Voyages of Enlightenment: Malaspina on the Northwest Coast. Oregon Historical Society. p. 16.  

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