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30 July 1789: Malaspina expedition sets sail from Cadiz

Malaspina set sail from Cadiz with an elite crew.
Malaspina set sail from Cadiz with an elite crew. / SUR
  • The voyage collected more scientific data than James Cook in his travels, but most of his discoveries were not published for a century

It was one of the most ambitious Enlightenment voyages yet remains one of the least known. On 30 July 1789, Tuscan explorer and Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina set sail from Cadiz with an elite crew of astronomers, surveyors, cartographers, artists and writers. The expedition, which had been sanctioned by King Carlos III two months before he died, strove to enhance scientific knowledge and construct maps of various regions under Spanish dominion.

The first point of call for Malaspina's ships, Atrevida and Descubierta, named in honour of James Cook's Resolution and Adventure, was the Canary Islands, followed by South America, where they mapped much of the Chilean coast. Then in Mexico, the expedition took an unexpected turn that would lead to some of its most fascinating findings. Hearing of the alleged discovery of a Northwest Passage, Carlos IV ordered Malaspina to sail north. His voyage took him to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where he improved relations with the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, who had been distrustful of the Spanish since their assertion of territorial rights there in the 1770s, as well as to Yatuka Bay, Alaska, where they conducted studies of a native matrilineal tribe.

Malaspina journeyed to the Philippines and then Australia, which he believed posed a threat to Spanish security. Malaspina stated that it would be easy for "two or three thousand castaway bandits", referring to the Australians, to cross the ocean with regular troops and invade Spanish territory.

After a final few stops in South America, the expedition returned to Cadiz on 21 September 1794. During their five years at sea, Malaspina and his crew had explored gigantic glaciers, including one later christened the Malaspina Glacier, and outlined plans for the construction of a possible Panama Canal. Nonetheless, the captain did not enjoy renown upon return but was accused of conspiring against the Crown and the Prime Minister for suggesting that Spain should free its colonies and form an international trade confederation. Malaspina received ten years imprisonment and later exile, while almost all the expedition data went unpublished for nearly 100 years. Not all glorious undertakings end in glory; and as the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt later put it, Malaspina went down in history "more famous for his misfortunes than his discoveries".