There are interesting parallels between the round-the-world expeditions of Alexandro Malaspina and his counterpart, James Cook. Both the Spanish and British 18th-century expeditions were made toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, that period of history when scientists and artists alike went forth into the world, notebooks at the ready, “...unfettered from the notion that ancient authority alone was sufficient to describe or explain the natural world.” But while Cook’s journals and discoveries were widely published at the time, the work of the Spanish was consigned to the archives, some of it to remain there until well into this century. Even Malaspina’s journal was not published until 1885, and a good English translation is still not to be had.
Both Malaspina in August 1791, and Cook in April 1778, visited Nootka for only a few weeks, yet their visits made an invaluable contribution to the history of the B.C. coast, isolated as it then was from the rest of the world. Cook’s visit was to be followed by that of George Vancouver, and Malaspina’s by that of Galiano and Valdes, both expeditions completing a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in 1792 leaving detailed accounts of their experiences.
Interest in Malaspina, now that his works are increasingly available, is growing. John Kendrick, the B.C. author, has recently published a book Alejandro Malaspina—Portrait of a Visionary and there have been several symposia in recent years on the Spanish visits. The most recent of these was the Inaugural Symposium of the Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre: Alexandro Malaspina — Enlightenment Thinker? held at the Malaspina University College in Nanaimo on October 22, 1999. The symposium was hosted by the new Research Centre, the Vancouver Spanish Pacific Historical Society, and the Office of Cultural and Scientific Relations of the Ministry of External Affairs in Madrid. In addition, at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, there was an exhibition of photographs of some of the work of Malaspina’s artists and cartographers (Nootka: Return to a Forgotten History). These are a gift from the Spanish government to the Mowachaht First Nation, and, to the delight of all present, members of both Chief Michael Maquinna's and Alexandro Malaspina’s families were at the opening.
Several books were presented to the Research Centre by the Spanish Government to start what promises to be a valuable resource for B.C. historians with links to a similar centre in Italy, the birthplace of Malaspina, and to the museums and archives in Spain. Papers presented at the symposium were by Donald Cutter (Sailing the North Pacific with Malaspina) and Eric Beerman (A Queen and the Fall of an Enlightenment Thinker). Regrettably, Ana Maria Donat (The Politics of 18th-Century Spain) was unable to present her contribution, but Patrick Dunae entertained, particularly us locals, with Malaspina: The Legacy and the Murals, his sad story of the wonderful murals that once adorned the walls of the Malaspina Hotel in Nanaimo.
The Inaugural Symposium was followed by a Research Centre planning meeting the next day and a visit for some participants to Nootka Sound. John Black at Malaspina University College, and a number of others, have done much to get the Centre up and running and are to be congratulated on their efforts. We look forward to hearing much more about Malaspina in the coming years.