On 30 July 1789, several hundred enlightened Spaniards embarked on a journey around the world to gather scientific, economic and social knowledge in what became one of the largest expeditions in history
In a world in transition due to the French Revolution and the independence of the future United States of America, two Spanish ships with astronomers, hydrographers, cartographers, botanists and draftsmen began in 1789 one of the largest scientific expeditions in history. Led by Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante, it would travel the coasts of America, the Philippines and Oceania, gathering not only scientific and ethnographic knowledge of those territories, but also evaluate the political and social state of the former Spanish Empire.
This incredible feat undertaken by Malaspina and Bustamante, managed to surpass the scientific findings of the English and French such as Cook, La Pérouse and Bougainville but which, nevertheless, has come to occupy second place in universal historiography. Just 231 years after the beginning of the adventure, we remember some of the key events in this extraordinary journey.
The intense exploration of the Pacific by the English and French in the late 18th century soon provoked a reaction among the Spanish intellectuals of the time, who soon wanted to emulate the voyages of Cook and La Perouse.
Among them, captains Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra, who proposed a great expedition to be undertaken by the Royal Navy with the aim of finding out more about the scientific and political climate. Thus, on 10 September 1788, they sent a letter to the Minister of the Navy, Antonio Valdés, who a month later confirmed the authorisation of King Carlos III.
The King, Carlos III, was extremely interested in science and technology and during the last decades of the 18th century, approved a great number of scientific expeditions around the Empire. In fact, according to historians, the Spanish monarchy at the time devoted a much larger budget to scientific development than other European nations.
The expedition was very well documented and planned and had two ships built for the occasion: La Atrevida and La Descubierta. Led by Bustamante and Malaspina, respectively, both set sail from Cadiz on 30 July 1789, with an important representation of Spanish intellectuals of the time: the astronomers and hydrographers Juan Gutiérrez de la Concha and Felipe Bauzá; sketch artists such as José del Pozo, José Guío, Fernando Brambila and Tomás de Suria; the botanist Luis Née; and naturalists such as Antonio Pineda and Tadeo Haenke.
During the next five years, Malaspina and the crew of the La Descubierta travel through the Canary Islands; they travel along the Brazilian coast; the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo and Buenos Aires; Patagonia and the Falkland Islands; Cape Horn; Chiloé and the Chilean coast, from where they turn towards the island of Juan Fernández; Callao and Lima; Panama -where he envisioned the possibility of building a canal to join the Atlantic and the Pacific; the Californian coasts of Mexico and the incipient nation of the United States; and the Canadian territories of the west and present day British Columbia to Alaska. Again, he returns to Mexico, to the Mariana Islands and sets sail for the Philippines.
On the other ship, the La Atrevida, under Bustamante’s command, they set sail for Macao, to learn about the commercial relations between this Portuguese colony and China, which had made the Spanish viceroy of the Philippines uncomfortable.
The expedition also reached New Zealand and Port Jackson, in Australia; the Vavao archipelago; from there, it travelled back to the Peruvian coast and, finally returned to Spain travelling east, through Tierra del Fuego, the Falklands and Montevideo.
On 21 September, 1794, the expedition returned to Spain with an immense heritage of knowledge about natural history, cartography, ethnography, astronomy, hydrography and medicine, in addition to the political, economic and social aspects of the territories visited. In total, more than one million pages of information, hundreds of marine and land charts; thousands of plants and geological samples; a multitude of astronomical notes and measurements; plus notes on the ethnology of the areas visited; and studies on how to combat diseases. In addition, the report ‘Political and Scientific Journey around the World’ included a confidential document, with critical observations of a political nature and in favour of granting broad autonomy to the territories of the Empire.
However, the Spain that Malaspina and Bustamante had left in 1789 was not the same as at that time. The French Revolution had dampened reformism in Spain, provoked a reaction from the Church and made Manuel Godoy’s rise to power unstoppable. So, although the first months the expeditionaries were received with applause, this response soon changed and resulted in ignoring the feat and its heroes.
Failing to receive the recognition he longed for, Malaspina began to conspire in order to overthrow Godoy’s government and plan an alternative government in which the illustrious Melchor Gaspar de Jovellanos would play a prominent role. When the so-called ‘Malaspina conspiracy’ was discovered, and after a short trial, he was condemned to ten years’ imprisonment in a castle in A Coruña. After more than six years of imprisonment, during which he wrote several books, Malaspina was released on the condition that he would never return to Spain.
He arrived in Genoa in 1803, where his work was duly recognised and he was held in high-esteem. A few years later, in 1810, he died at his home in Pontrémoli, near his hometown, Mulazzo, without ever seeing the work of his immense expedition published.
The Malaspina expedition today
Despite the fact that during the Malaspina process in 1795 the intention was to eliminate the materials from the expedition, these were preserved by the Directorate of Hydrography of the Ministry of the Navy in Madrid. But the bulk of the work remained unpublished until 1885, when Lieutenant Pedro de Novo y Colson published ‘Viaje político-científico alrededor del mundo de las corbetas Descubierta y Atrevida under the command of Captains Alejandro Malaspina and José Bustamante and Guerra from 1789 to 1794′.
Today, most of the collections are kept in the Naval Museum of Madrid, the Royal Observatory of the Navy, the Royal Botanical Garden and the National Museum of Natural Sciences, where they are still being studied by historians and biologists.
Likewise, in recognition of the expedition’s contributions, several Spanish institutions launched a major scientific circumnavigation and multidisciplinary research expedition in 2010, which was named Malaspina, focusing on climate change and ocean biodiversity.