Forgotten Voyage: You May Not Find His Name on the Map, but Alejandro Malaspina Is Finally Being Recognized for His Rigorously Scientific Exploration of the Americas in the 1700s

By Werner, Louis | Americas (English Edition), September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Forgotten Voyage: You May Not Find His Name on the Map, but Alejandro Malaspina Is Finally Being Recognized for His Rigorously Scientific Exploration of the Americas in the 1700s


Werner, Louis, Americas (English Edition)


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Alejandro Malaspina has the dubious distinction of being the world's greatest explorer no one has ever heard of. An unfamiliar name except to aficionados of eighteenth-century naval, adventure, Malaspina led a five-year Spanish expedition around Cape Horn and up the western shores of the Americas to Alaska, then deep into the South pacific and finally back around Cape Horn to Spain.

Malaspina and his men roamed tens of thousands of miles of coastline on both sides of the equator over two, "great oceans before finally coming home in-1794. And then, at what should have been his finest hour, the explorer was rewarded not with a laurel wreath but rather a prison sentence that lasted a year longer than he had spent at sea. As if to add insult to injury, his jail cell, which measured the size of his cramped captain's quarters, had an ocean view.

The scientific fruits of his voyage were more bountiful than any previous European expedition: 300 journals and diaries; .450 notebooks of hydrographic and * astronomical data; 183 nautical charts; 361 topographical views; hundreds of botanical, zoological, and ethnographic drawings; tribal artifacts that now fill museums from Madrid to Prague; and over 10,000 plant specimens, some still in the collection of Spain's Real Jardin Botanico.

But this accumulated knowledge--some 3,000 items in the most recent bibliography of his expedition's documents--was soon to be dispersed far and wide, and for almost a century remained unknown and unpublished. The painstaking work of his mapmakers, natural historians, draftsmen, and sketch artists was locked away in cabinets for none to see. Only in the last decade have critical editions of this material, sponsored by the Museo Naval in Madrid, finally appeared.

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The Italian-born and Jesuit-educated Malaspina, baptized with the name Alessandro to a prominent family of the Duchy of Parma, modeled his expedition after that of the British Captain James Cook (1728-1779), the first sailor-scientist of the European Enlightenment, whose route Malaspina initially planned to trace and whom he hoped to outshine in both seamanship and science. Arguably, he did.

Malaspina and his scientists dedicated twice the time as Captain Cook to onshore research. Once at sea, Malaspina ran into none of the troubles--snapped masts, snarled rigging, damaged hulls--that typically bedeviled other commanders on long voyages. He studied Cook's journals and invoked Cook's ships Discovery and Resolution in the names he gave the two specially designed three-masted corvettes under his own command, Descubierta and Atrevida.

With Spain and England vying for imperial supremacy in the late eighteenth century, and neither facing the domestic unrest that was soon to topple the French monarchy, the chance for the Spanish Crown to out-sail and out-science the British was a tempting challenge. It was Malaspina's idea to mount the Crown's first purely scientific expedition, with the twin goals of mapping shipping lanes and anchorages for the royal fleet and studying the practicalities of colonialism around the globe.

Alexander von Humboldt, another great explorer-scientist of the same century, said of Malaspina that he was, sadly, more famous for his misfortunes than for his discoveries. Humboldt's own expedition to the Americas sailed from La Goruna in the third year of Malaspina's imprisonment in an unheated cell (tough punishment indeed for a man newly returned from the torrid zone) in the Gastillo San Antonio, on the chilly, rain-shrouded headland of that very same Galician city.

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The two never had the chance to speak, but Humboldt certainly knew of his fame. "Our eyes remained fixed on the castle," he wrote as Iris ship left harbor, "where the unfortunate Malaspina languished, on my way to visit, the lands that this illustrious traveller had explored so fully. …

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Forgotten Voyage: You May Not Find His Name on the Map, but Alejandro Malaspina Is Finally Being Recognized for His Rigorously Scientific Exploration of the Americas in the 1700s
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