Alexandro Malaspina to Paolo Greppi [1]  

Acapulco, December 20, 1791


      How unusual and also how agreeable it is to see, after an absence of three years and at so great a distance, the charming and pure friendship which is rekindled to such an extent in all your letters. Yes, my dear friend, there is nothing on earth that can comfort me more, nothing that can better revive my spirits - sometimes disgusted, sometimes overwhelmed by both the past and the future - than the approval of my friends and their sharing in all circumstances that surround me.

       Four of your letters reached me here, the first three from Madrid on the eve of your departure for Vienna, the fourth from Paris, in the middle of the most striking spectacle that the vast sweep of the history of nations can bring to our minds. It will not be easy for me to express to you in writing the extent to which all of our small fellowship send you their thanks, as much for the lively interest you take in our fate, as for the very interesting news that you send me at the same time. We have created a depository under the careful oversight of an officer. During crossings we browse through them and, examining by turns the history of the day and what ancient history promises to reveal to us about the character of man and all his passions, we dare to make pronouncements about what must follow in its turn. This makes for a naval school of politics, which is lacking, admittedly, in many things that could cast brilliant light on its deliberations, but on the other hand it is not suffused by a quantity of extravagant ideas and, in particular, rests on the simplest basis, but also the truest, namely the study of man, the influence of his passions on his decisions and the influence of education, climate and national power on his passions. There you have, my dear friend, all the facts which, in my solitude and surrounded by savages, make me believe that France is currently living a valetudinarian dream, that she would have arranged her finances very well if she had not preferred to attempt to establish human rights such as one reads of in Rousseau; in short that while trying to diminish royal authority, through pitiless ridicule, she degrades man, be it in the people's hatred or in the King's apathy; no more does she elevate him in the most elegant speeches of her Assembly. Call me, therefore, if you still wish, a poor reasoner, call me a man wallowing in his own misery, but let me believe that the legislators of France have only brought about her ruin, because they would like man to be as he is in books, without paying attention to what he has actually been and what he will always be. The English history of the time of Cromwell is going to be repeated soon. Cursed be he who would like to make of the populace so many philosophers; he will create nothing but fanatics, and philosophy will take the place, among men, of the religion of old, so that they will continue to slaughter one another until the end of time. For the good of France, I wish nothing but the only truly philosophical act a man can make: to abandon self-love, even one's life, for the good of one's fellows. A generous act on behalf of the Assembly would bring in its train many others, and I am sure that the Third Estate would obey the only King just as well as it obeys, or says it obeys, the Assembly. 

     But perhaps I have already bored you with my fancies, while refusing to applaud those of others. For man it's always the same: he has only the past from which to learn, by which to judge the present and not get tangled up in the future, and all he wants is to get tangled up in this last concern, abandoning the others that would be much better for him. Let's come therefore to our voyage.

       My letter of the 13th October from San Blas will have told you all about the previous leg of our voyage. A few days later I reached Acapulco, where Bustamante had been since the 16th, and I made all arrangements necessary for continuing the voyage. I had need of money so as not to be at the mercy of the rather impoverished treasury in Manila; I had need of flour, since it is very scarce in Manila; and finally I had to join up again with the two detachments led by Pineda and Galiano, which had continued to work in this country while I sailed to the north; and, what was worst, I had to worry about the fever that is very common here at the beginning of the dry season. In any case, we succeeded in containing the fever, and, to make it short, three days will not have passed before I am again under sail to the Marianas and from there to the Philippines and Canton. That done, and leaving a small detachment behind in Manila, I shall depart the latter colony for New Holland, to sail along its west coast and to conduct gravity experiments in its southernmost parts. I shall repeat these at Dusky Bay in New Zealand, and perhaps, if the season permits it, I will visit Botany Bay to rest and restore the crew; from there, as the winter of 1793 approaches in the southern hemisphere, I shall go down to the Society Islands [2] , where I shall remain until the month of October, then to come back to our coasts of Chiloé to complete, in the vicinity of Cape Horn and the two coasts of Patagonia, our discoveries of the first year; and finally, after a respite at Montevideo, we shall return to Europe in the summer of 1794. But these are not the only labours that will be presented to the public. First, two schooners, under the command next year of Galiano and Valdés, will spend the whole summer in the famous Strait of Fuca, not only to undeceive Europe about what was put forward by the English captain Meares, but also finally to lay the whole question to rest, so that there is no further dispute about the [existence of a Northwest] Passage, except in so far as it refers to the glaciers, of which however my previous voyage will already provide some very different ideas. Then these same officers, or rather the two subalterns, will be charged in the following favourable season with reconnoitring with the greatest accuracy the two isthmuses of Tecoantepeque, to the East of Acapulco and Veracruz, and of Papagallo, opposite the lagoon of Nicaragua; this same lagoon will be charted along with its debouchment by the river of San Juan [3] , so that we have it all for our return to Europe.

        I am delighted to note, my dear Greppi, that without the least increase of expense and by nearly the same time that I had in the end determined for my return in Europe, we have more that doubled the promised benefits of the expedition.

        All Spaniards will be able to study the situation, the rights, the advantages and the health of this rightful corner of the Monarchy. The government will discover a system for national defence and for reforming a constitution which is stale and still infected with all of the difficulties of the century in which it had been formed; in short Europe will see what our true resources are and how much she has been deceived in everything that has been trumpeted in perhaps a thousand volumes. In truth I can hardly recount the astonishment into which I have been plunged while considering to what extent Europe has until now believed an infinite number of absurdities, which one could not make true even if one expressly wanted to.

       Our friends Pineda, Haenke and the botanist Neé have also made extremely rich contributions regarding natural history; what they have discovered may fill perhaps a dozen volumes, and certainly our botanical collections from North America, our comparisons of the richest mines of Mexico and Peru, all the singular machines used to exploit them, and everything that contributes to filling up the boring void of the maritime description, will not be indifferent to the curious eye of Europe.

        The two painters worked out very well; I write to our friend Melzi that his choice speaks very well of his knowledge and, as for Ravenet, although he seems rather insipid, he is extremely amenable and works with great skill. I thank you infinitely for your care in this matter. It was well worth it, since without their help the descriptions of the voyage would be extremely weak. The mail was extremely late this last month. So I leave without knowing anything further about the outcome of your journeys, in which I am constantly with you in spirit. I should like to know if the excellent quinquina, [4] of which the President of Quito made me a present, has found its way to your hands; here we try its powers almost daily.

          I almost forgot to tell you that the arrival of the Manila galleon made me aware of the lively silver trade with China. It comes to 42 pesos fuertes per quintal (net) to Manila. Already about 3000 quintals have been received and there could be a lot more of it, particularly in return for otter skins. Bustamante, Valdés, Galiano, Espinosa, Viana etc... are well.

       The small natural history collection from Lima has already left last May. You will now have another by way of Mexico that I have sent to Cádiz. I shall finish, my friend, for today. Good things to our friends and especially to Trotti and Carmichael, and never forget how great is the attachment for you of your dear                                                     


[1] Original in ASMi / Greppi (cart. 194, n. 80); Caselli, pp. 179-184; Manfredi 1999, pp. 292-296.  [Editing Criteria]

[2] Instead he visited the Island of Vavau.

[3] Since the time of Cortés this area had been examined with interest, in view of the possibility of cutting a canal through the isthmus, which would have allowed ships to avoid the dangerous rounding of Cape Horn.

[4] He means quinine wine, of which both Paolo Greppi and his father Antonio partook frequently.

Original French text courtesy of the Centro di Studi Malaspiniani, Mulazzo, Italy; notes by Dario Manfredi; translation by John Black, with assistance from Teresa Winthuysen Alexander.


Updated: January 13, 2018