Society for the History of Discoveries


David, Andrew and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Carlos Novi, Glyndwr Williams eds. Introduction by Donald Cutter. The Malaspina Expedition 1789-1794: The Journal of the Voyage by Alejandro Malaspina, Volume I, Cadiz to Panama. London: The Hakluyt Society ( Series III, Volume 8) 2002. ISBN 0904180727.

In the annals of scientific exploration, the Malaspina expedition (1789-1794) is widely recognized as Spain’s ambitious effort to better understand the flora and fauna of her possessions worldwide. Partially eclipsed by Alexander von Humboldt’s later expedition to the Americas a decade later, Malaspina’s effort got mixed reviews. Von Humboldt himself noted that Malaspina’s expedition was more famous for its misfortunes than its successes, perhaps because Malaspina himself came to grief politically; Malaspina’s arrest and imprisonment by Spain on charges of sedition marred the expedition’s reputation. And yet, as historians have shown, the Malaspina expedition did reveal much about the flora, fauna, and native inhabitants in the areas it traversed.

Although several fine books have already been written about Malaspina’s expedition, this one is a very different. Whereas those books generally address the expedition’s scientific accomplishments, the volume currently under review represents the expedition from Malaspina’s perspective. Translated carefully — no small feat given Malaspina’s tendency to write long, rambling sentences in flowery prose — this volume provides an important voice that has not often been heard: Malaspina’s own. Donald Cutter’s fine introduction places both Malaspina and the expedition in context. In setting the scene, Cutter reminds us of an important point: “The Malaspina voyage was more than an expedition of scientific exploration, for it had another important, perhaps overriding, purpose — that of imperial inspection.” (p. xxix). This helps explain why the Malaspina expedition spent considerable time in ports — more so than Captain James Cook’s expedition, for example. The Malaspina team often mapped or charted harbors as a way of verifying and endorsing Spain’s territorial claims.

This volume is very well organized, effectively illustrated, and supplemented by maps showing the expedition’s route. It is broken down into Malaspina’s various “books,” each of which is further subdivided into chapters. Each chapter contains Malaspina’s day-by-day account of the expedition’s progress. Given SHD members’ interest in exploration, this review will briefly describe each book and chapter. Book 1, Chapter 1 — From Cadiz to Montevideo — reveals Malaspina’s concern about keeping the expedition’s two corvettes, the Descubierta (Discovery) and Atrevida (Daring), from becoming separated. Their similar dimensions helped keep both vessels in contact. This chapter confirms the importance of careful observations and calculations at sea, including the relatively new use of chronometers and more traditional celestial measurements. Chapter 2, At Montevideo, addresses how the observation station there was established and how the shorelines were charted. A chart or “Plano del Puerto de Montevideo ….” reveals the numerous soundings and delineation of the harbor.

In Book 2, Malaspina rounds the southern portion of South America from Montevideo to Puerto San Carlos de Chiloé (Chile). Chapter 1 describes the eastern coast of South America. Things go well enough, although Malaspina describes “[a] strange mirage similar to that suffered by [Commodore John] Byron in these waters [which] deluded us into thinking, soon after noon, that we could see land extending as far as WNW.” (p. 80). Chapters 2 and 3 find the vessels exploring the coast and the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands; in Chapter 4 Malaspina describes the “choice of two routes” to round Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn). Compared to many such passages, Malaspina notes that after fighting some stiff westerly winds, “. . . the rounding of Cabo de Hornos became as pleasurable as if in the tropics rather than the arduous passage anticipated both in this vessel and by [earlier] navigators.” (p. 118). Chapter 5 recounts events at Puerto San Carlos de Chiloé, where considerable surveying was done and where “[h]unters from both corvettes made themselves busy collecting every possible variety of bird for the study of natural history.” (p. 139). Here, as in some other ports, the expedition lost several seamen to desertion.

In Book 3, Chapter 1, the expedition sails northward, entering Talcahuano and Bahia Concepción (Chapter 2) where considerable “geodetic work” was done and a map prepared. After more desertions, the expedition continued to sail northward from Talcahuano to Valparaíso, charting the coast. At Valparaíso and Santiago (Chapter 4), they met up with naturalist Don Tadeo Haenke, who had trekked across southern South America after narrowly missing the voyage on two separate occasions — first in Spain, and later in Montevideo. Haenke’s overland adventure ranks as one of the most energetic and ambitious natural history explorations of all time, and Malaspina recounts it beautifully if succinctly. Chapter 5, from Valparaíso to Coquimbo, provides an opportunity for more reconnaissance. Here Malaspina reports “[e]xcellent progress had been made in botany, mineralogy and knowledge of the interior ….” In Book 4, Chapter 1 (From Coquimbo to Callao) and Chapter 2 (At Callao and Lima), the expedition helped chart the coastlines, collecting and illustrating specimens. In Book 5, From Callao to Acapulco, the expedition crosses the equator, and in Chapter 2 (At Guayaquil), the expedition observed the new town and its inhabitants. Chapter 3 covers from Guayaquil to Panamá, noting the manner in which soundings were taken by the Atrevida. In Chapter 4, Malaspina reveals the international political instability that at times threatened the expedition’s progress. On departing Guayaquil, Malaspina hinted at the political storms brewing. Because “. . . all the most recent news from Europe led us to believe that the present disputes in the north and England’s increasing naval armament might lead our court to break off relations,” Malaspina notes that “. . . it seemed best to do nothing about our scientific observations until I had certain knowledge of the true current state of Europe ….” After apprehensions about 

“. . . an imminent outbreak of hostilities ….” were dispelled (p. 291), the expedition resumed its scientific work. Malaspina’s entries about natural history observations are very revealing, for they shed light on how the expedition’s scientists collected and illustrated specimens, including how Haenke and Neé “. . . increased their extremely rich plant collections with important acquisitions ….” (p. 296). This part of Malaspina’s journal describes the northwestern coast of South America, concluding with the expedition’s arrival in another intermediate point on the long Journey, Panamá.

Appendices feature 1) significant correspondence between Malaspina and Antonio Valdés y Bazán Ministro de Marina (which further clarifies the expedition’s original goals and Malaspina’s qualifications), and 2) a discussion of Malaspina’s survey methods. An informative world map in the book’s endpapers shows the proposed versus actual routes of the expedition, 1789-1794. The Malaspina Expedition is a welcome addition to the literature of exploration generally, and an essential source for all serious students of natural history, American exploration, and Spanish colonial history. The Hakluyt Society deserves our thanks for translating and interpreting this valuable record of an important expedition. This reviewer anxiously awaits the continuation of Malaspina’s expedition in subsequent volume(s) that will explore western North America and the Pacific Islands from the Philippines to New Zealand and Australia.

Richard Francaviglia
The University of Texas at Arlington


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