September 13, 2008


By Werner, Louis

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of his expedition's documents-was soon to be dispersed far and wide, and for almost a century remained unknown and unpublished.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.

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 Atreuida.

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 Coruna 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 Castillo San Antonio, on the chilly, rain-shrouded headland of that very same Galician city.

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 his ship left harbor, "where the unfortunate Malaspina languished, on my way to visit the lands that this illustrious traveller had explored so fully." It is unlikely however that he knew of Malaspina's jail mate, the Twelfth Duke of Veragua, who was, ironically, the direct descendent of an even greater New World explorer, Christopher Columbus.

Malaspina's name is still largely missing from the pages of atlases, where by all rights it should be. Cook's toponym is ubiquitous all along his route-from Tierra del Fuego's Bahia de Cook to Alaska's Cook Inlet, and including Mount Cook, Cook Strait, Cook Islands, and Cooktown. Humboldt, too, is widely remembered by geographers, most famously in the Humboldt Current and also in bodies of water and heights of land from south to north. Malaspina's memory is invoked more sparingly: here a strait in British Columbia, there a shrinking glacier in Alaska or a flyspeck of a town on the Argentine pampa. Mount Malaspina, a volcano in the Philippines, has been rechristened on newer maps as Mount Canlaon.

On shore or at sea, Malaspina was always on the lookout for areas of scientific inquiry. When he learned that caterpillars had infected his ships' store of flour, he ordered his zoologist to dissect and sketch one to prove to his men that they were edible. On the Isla Mas Afuera, off the coast of Chile, he wrote in his diary that, after many attempts involving much risk to his crew's life and limb, "we succeeded at last in lassoing one of the many seals and it immediately fell victim to our enthusiasm for natural history."

The determination of his chief naturalist, a Czech-born, Vienna- educated "doctor" of science named Tadeo Haenke, is a case in point. Haenke was so eager to join Malaspina at short notice that he hurried, half-packed, to Cadiz, from where the fleet was to depart, but arrived two hours late. The ships had already sailed. He booked the next passage to Montevideo, the expedition's first scheduled port of call, but was shipwrecked en route and lost his scientific instruments. He finally arrived eight days after Malaspina left for Cape Horn, so he decided to travel overland to Valparaiso, where finally, almost a year late, he joined the crew with 1,400 plant specimens already in hand.

Malaspina's personal journal of the voyage, now published in three volumes in English by the Hakluyt Society, exists in three versions in manuscript, each one aimed at a different learned readership. That the journal was first published in Russian, in an unauthorized 1829 edition meant to serve the tsar's strictly commercial interests along the Alaskan coast, was a blow to the explorer's more scholarly ambition. By the time his expedition's zoological and botanical studies finally came to light, these contributions to the advancement of science were deemed obsolete.

His botanists were the first to describe and collect the world's tallest tree, the mighty California coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), whose saplings they later planted in gardens at the Alhambra and El Escorial in Spain. But because their studies were not published in a timely manner, none contributed to the Linnaean system of botanical nomenclature. The only plant named for him is the rare Senna malaspinae, found in Peru, of the same family from which a common laxative is made.

The expedition's ethnographic studies are of particular relevance today. While progress moves onward and upward in the natural sciences, its march on native peoples and their customs, dress, and oral traditions is most often destructive. Thus the diaries and drawings that Malaspina and his crew kept of their first encounters with indigenous peoples in Patagonia, Chiloe, Vancouver Island's Nootka Sound, Alaska's Yakutat Bay, and the Tongan Island of Vava'u, where later Western contacts permanently deformed local culture, are key anthropological documents.

These writings have now been collected in a special volume in the Museo Naval series. Although ethnology did not exist as a science in Malaspina's time, many crew members recorded cultural data with scientific rigor. Expedition artist Tomas de Suria, Atrevida's second-in-command Antonio de Tova, and chief scientist Francisco Viana all wrote important ethnographic reports. Tadeo Haenke's musical training came in handy for transcribing and notating songs and chants in a manner used by ethnomusicologists today.

The expedition's first encounter with indigenous Americans occurred over several days at Puerto Deseado in southern Argentina, across the Golfo San Jorge from what today is the town of Malaspina. When a group of 40 men approached menacingly on horseback, Malaspina instructed his men first to record their vocabulary-in order to study their customs and religion-before preparing to defend themselves. Their portraits were painted by shipboard artist Jose del Pozo.

Malaspina also decided to prove or disprove the claim-repeated to the point of absurdity ever since Ferdinand Magellan-that Patagonians were gigantesque. "Their height was not in proportion to their build but they were tall," he wrote in his journal. "The cacique Junchar who was carefully measured was found to be six Burgos feet and ten inches in height and almost twenty three inches broad from shoulder to shoulder."

A visit to the Malvinas and rounding Cape Horn were uneventful, and in February 1790 the ships arrived in Puerto San Carlos on the IsIa de Chiloe, where the Spanish had maintained a presence for many years. Relations with the largely assimilated Chilota and Pehuenche tribes were normal, but Malaspina was eager to contact the more warlike Huiliche people. He recorded the speech of their Chief Catiguala verbatim and prepared questionnaires for standardized interviews with tribal informants. This coastline was well known to Spanish mariners but the interior was not. On their way north to Acapulco, the ships stayed four months in Lima and a month in Guayaquil, permitting Haenke and his French colleague Louis Nee to botanize and zoologize inland to their hearts' content. Upon reaching Mexico, orders came from Madrid to make a roundtrip voyage to Alaska in search of a Northwest Passage. This allowed naturalist Antonio Pineda in the meanwhile to go ashore there to make a yearlong tour of New Spain.

In June 1791, the ships reached their northernmost point at Port Mulgrave, now called Yakutat Bay, in the shadow of Mount Saint Elias, which had first been visited by the English Captain George Dixon in 1787. There, the crew encountered a group of Tlingit people that Malaspina-ever careful about maintaining proper cross-cultural relations- noted was sufficiently large "to be studied without fear of disturbing their customs." To make certain the Tlingit should know whom to address if they had complaints about crew misbehavior, he instructed his officers to wear red hat ribbons.

Again, Malaspina began by studying the local vocabulary. Tomas de Suria, showing something of an anti-royalist streak, noted that their language was very harsh and "abounds greatly in KKs and HHs. On board there are some who assert that it seems to be the tone of a monarch shouting wildly and in an arrogant and fearful tone."

Once when members of an, unknown indigenous group arrived on the beach, the Tlingit Chief Ankau asked Malaspina to. stand by with loaded guns in case of hostilities. Instead, the two parties greeted each other in a ceremony of song, which Haenke transcribed and titled "Canto de la Paz," and de Suria and Tova described in detailed performance notes. Anthropologist Federica de Laguna, a modern expert on the Yakutat Tlingit, later used these documents to determine that Malaspina had in fact witnessed a friendly reception tied to potlatch culture and not a peace-making ritual.

At the ships' departure, they witnessed a minipotlatch ceremony in its own right. An indigenous woman and crewmen were making last- minute trades of otter skins for trinkets for her child. Wrote Malaspina: "The woman, far from giving way to the constraints of poverty or her natural liking for adornments, preferred to compete with us in generosity, giving us now one thing and now another in the child's name as our presents were received, continuing with determination until she was entirely divested of the skins that covered her."

Having proven beyond a doubt that a Northwest Passage was not to be found in these waters, Malaspina turned south to visit Nootka Sound, on the ocean side of Vancouver Island, where the small Spanish outpost of Santa Cruz-since renamed Yuquot-had been established among the Mowachaht people. There was general unease when he arrived-strife between the English and Spanish over land claims, and lingering anger about a Spaniard who had killed Chief Callicum two years before. When the two ships came to anchor, the indigenous residents had reason to believe that Spaniards were on the attack once again.

Something even more sinister lurked in the shadows, however. When Captain Cook had first visited Nootka Sound some years earlier, he reported that indigenous people there practiced cannibalism on war captives. The Spaniards were thus understandably much relieved when they were welcomed, on behalf of Chief Maquinna, with entreaties of peace.

When Malaspina's men finally came into contact with Maquinna, he was indeed found to keep human bones, which other tribesmen assured were unrelated to cannibalism or human sacrifice. With the record thus set straight, Malaspina asked his countrymen to stop the practice of buying Mowachaht war captives simply in order to free them from this imaginary fate. By flooding the tribe with trade goods, he reasoned, the local economy had been artificially inflated and the native peoples had only been encouraged to wage more wars for more captives.

From Nootka, the ships returned to Acapulco via the Franciscan mission on Monterey Bay, in presentday California, which had been founded in 1770. Incredibly, the most dangerous and uncharted leg of their expedition-a two-year test of navigation and extreme seamanship for all hands on deck-was yet to come. From Mexico, the two ships sailed across the Pacific Ocean via Guam to the Philippines, with a side trip to Macao, and then south to Australia, New Zealand, and the Tonga Islands, before heading back to Peru.

During their absence in the South Seas, a side expedition led by Dionisio Alcala Galiano, one of Malaspina's seconds-in-command, sailed back north aboard the locally outfitted ships Sutil and Mexicana to map the straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia, which separate Vancouver Island from the North American mainland. Ironically, the account of this voyage-a minor footnote to the main expedition-was the first to be published, in the year 1802. It did, however, produce wonderful drawings by the 23-year-old cabin boy- turned-artist Jose Cardero.

The ships' return to Spain in the early fall of 1794 was met by a troubled Spanish monarch, facing war with France and unrest at home. While Malaspina boasted that "as a result of this expedition, unlike other such ancient and modern journeys, all the tribes and people visited will bless our memory," few paid heed to the homecoming hero. It took months for him to be received at court, and soon he was caught up in intrigues against Prime Minister Manuel Godoy. As a friend wrote, "Malaspina has sailed the seas and lost sight of land."

Barely a year after returning from his voyage, he had been sentenced to life in prison for trumped-up political crimes. Separated from his expedition journals and charts, he had no chance to prepare them for publication. Instead, he wiled away his time writing letters and literary works on aesthetics, one of which he gave the mellifluous title "Philosophical Meditation on the Existence of an Essential and Invariable Beauty in Nature"-a far cry indeed from the guttural word lists and war chants of the Tlingit people.

Malaspina's sentence was commuted to life in exile in 1802, when he returned to his family estates in northern Italy and there lived out his remaining eight years as a man of leisure. He was buried in the local cemetery in a grave that is now unmarked. A simple wall plaque records his name, which was to be nearly forgotten in Spain until some of his expedition diaries were published there in 1885.

Happily, a boom in Malaspina studies occurred on the occasion of his voyage's bicentennial. Academic symposia, critical editions, and exhibitions of the expedition's artifacts and drawings have appeared in the years since. Research centers in Italy and in Canada are now dedicated to his name. And, fittingly, the thawing of his memory has extended also to the world of nature. Measurements of Alaska's Malaspina Glacier show that it too is on the move.

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

A portrait of forgotten explorer Alejandro Malaspina, painted by Jose Maria Galvan, is housed at the Museo Naval de Madrid, above, along with a scale model of the three-masted corvette Atrevida, opposite


A painting by Fernando Brambilla, right, shows Buenos Aires in Malaspina's time. The expedition focused on zoological and botanical studies, opposite top, and the crew collected scientific data about the expedition's first encounters with indigenous peoples, top


Atrevida sails between icebergs east of Cape Horn, above. Malaspina's crew respected the cultures of the native people they encountered, top and opposite bottom. They also made drawings of the local fauna, opposite top, such as this blue heron and raccoon


Below, a watercolor by Juan Ravenet depicts Malaspina with colleagues conducting gravity experiments in Port Egmont, in the Malvinas Islands, as part of his scientific exploration, which also included the study of insects, above

Louis Werner is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City and a frequent contributor to Americas. All historical images are from the Museo Naval de Madrid.

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