Alexandro Malaspina to Gherardo Rangoni (*)

[Cádiz, October 1788]

    Plan for a scientific voyage around of the globe

    For the last twenty years both the English and French nations, in praiseworthy mutual emulation, have undertaken voyages as a result of which navigation, geography and the humanities have undergone rapid progress. The history of human society has been advanced by the most ingenious investigations, and natural history has been enriched by innumerable discoveries.

    Finally, the understanding of the preservation of the individual, so useful and necessary to a maritime nation in the different climates encountered during long navigations, where one is beset both by fatigue and by incredible risks, has been the most interesting advance gained through navigation. These benefits will similarly be acquired by anyone who, with constant commitment, follows in the wake of Cook and Lapérouse. However, a voyage undertaken by Spanish navigators would neatly comprehend two other goals: first, the creation of hydrographic charts of the more remote parts of America and of a derrotero (1), or set of instructions for navigation, that could be used safely to guide the somewhat unexperienced Merchant Marine; second, an investigation of the political state of America, as it relates to Spain and to foreign nations.

    The state of commerce in every province, and indeed in every kingdom, its natural resources and manufactures, the facility or difficulty with which it could withstand a hostile invasion, or organize its forces to move against the same enemies, the situation of the harbors most apt to facilitate reciprocal commerce and, finally, the parties involved in construction, or in naval production, are so many other points, the cautious, secret and disinterested examination of which will be far from useless to the government. This work of ours will be divided into two parts, one of them public, which, in all its historical and hydrographical aspects, will include a potential cornucopia of curiosities for natural history collections and botanical gardens, to which end we shall have to be accompanied by two scholars, who may easily be met with in Madrid, experienced and educated in natural history and botany (2); and two draughtsmen (painters will be equally easy to find in the capital (3)): four persons only who will not with certainty be able to take part in commanding the Corps of Marines. The other part, secret and hidden, is that which is directed towards the political speculations of the Cabinet. Given all this, therefore, it is essential that the two corvettes, with all equipment and supplies deemed to be necessary, depart from Cádiz on the 1st of July, 1789 (4).

    They will sail first for the River Plate, and in Buenos Aires the clocks and chronometers will be recalibrated, and as many astronomical and hydrographic tasks and investigations into natural history as possible will be carried out. Here, too, various kinds of naval comestibles will be acquired in order to provide the experience necessary, should it prove advantageous, for opening a new branch of commerce with that colony in relation to its immense quantity of livestock. The whole Patagonian coast will be reconnoitred as far as the Strait of Magellan, and a visit will be made to the Malvinas Islands, where a good number of cattle will be taken on board and transported to the Bay of Great Success, in Tierra del Fuego, at the mouth of the Strait of Lemaire; since, multiplying in those uninhabited regions, they will be of the utmost utility to future navigation in the Southern Sea. Having passed through this Strait, the expedition will double Cape Horn, charting it, and visit and explore the western mouth of the Strait of Magellan, as far as that tempestuous sea allows it, in particular the Archipelago of Los Chonos (5) and the coast as far as our first settlement on the Island of Chiloe, from where, one part journeying by land along the coast within sight of sea, the expedition will travel the whole western coast of America as far as Acapulco, which operation, assuming it is not crossed by adverse circumstances, will occupy the whole of the year 1790.

    After a little while an excursion to Mexico City will be made (6), and then, departing from Acapulco, the expedition will reconnoitre the Islands of Las Gallegas (7) and Galápagos (8), and sail to the Sandwich Islands (9) along a parallel never before used; next it will continue to sail north between Asia and America, as far as the ships may, calling at Kamchatka and exploring all that part of California that until now is little known. From our port of San Blas on the latter coast, it will sail to Canton, coasting along some of the Islands of Japan and there selling the otter pelts acquired in the north, for the benefit of the sailors and soldiers of the two corvettes (10).

    At the beginning of 1792 it will arrive at the ports of China, taking advantage of the season suitable for exploring the Capes of Bojador and Engaño, as well as the port of Lampón on the opposite coast of Luzón; then it will continue to the Marianas Islands, and from these occupy itself with all diligence and attention with the navigable coast from the Strait of San Bernardino (in the Philippine archipelago) to Manila.

    From this capital the expedition will set out to explore and study the island of Mindanao, and then it will sail among the Celebes and the Moluccas, to the north of New Holland, on the way to the Indian Ocean; having coasted along the whole western part of New Holland, it will set sail for the Friendly and Society Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, along parallels and meridians not previously navigated, then will return to the South, in order eventually to sail NW (having by then visited New Zealand and doubled the southernmost point of New Holland) to call at some eastern ports and the Cape of Good Hope, whence it will sail for Europe at the end of 1793.

    From this short brief you can easily understand how great a project would be an expedition like this, in which however we do not hope to make great discoveries and to lay before the public things never before heard, this not being the object which ought to occupy navigators in these times, since the immortal Cook has granted us an acquaintance with the entire part of the globe that was previously the object of the abstract speculations of the sages. The late King (11) approved its implementation and his successor has deigned to assure us that we shall not lack any of the necessary auxiliaries. The two corvettes are already under construction and will be launched, with all security, convenience and economy, in three months. From England will come all the machines and appropriate instruments, the two botanists and naturalists required to accompany us have already been named, and so too, shortly, will be the draughtsmen and perspective painters. Finally we shall have with us some sailors from Manila, who, understanding and speaking the Malay language, will be of  additional utility in the islands and lands of the Pacific Ocean.


(*) Text published in: D. MANFREDI, Alessandro Malaspina e Fabio Ala Ponzone. Lettere dal Vecchio e Nuovo Mondo (1788-1803), Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999, pp. 136-140. The notes have been modified since that publication. Original now lost; copy in APSF. PICANYOL, pp. 36-38. Fuller versions of this document - which must have been forwarded to Rangoni with an accompanying letter no longer extant - exist in Spanish; cf.: AMNM, Ms. 146, cc. 226-227 v. (in the handwriting of Fabio Ala Ponzone); Ms. 316, cc. 27-29 v. (autograph draft by Malaspina); Ms. 583, cc. 5-7. In the text here published there appear no signs (they are present instead in the
AMNM copies) indicating the importance of keeping secret the news of a political character.
[Editing Criteria]

(1) A nautical chart with instructions regarding sea routes.

(2) In fact only one botanist will be enlisted in Madrid: Luis Neé. The Bohemian Tadeás Haenke will join the expedition in 1790.

(3) The painters José del Pozo and José Guio will be enlisted; however, Malaspina, dissatisfied, will put them ashore in America and call, in their place, upon the Italians Fernando Brambilla and Giovanni Ravenet. The complex circumstances surrounding the choice of the artists for the expedition are well explained in C. Sotos Serrano, Los pintores de la Expedición de Alejandro Malaspina, Madrid, Real Academia de la Historia, 1982, 2 vols.

(4) Instead, the departure will take place on July 30.

(5) An archipelago in southern Chile, between 44° and 45° S.

(6) But after Mexico the itinerary will undergo considerable modification, and will not include either the Sandwich Islands or Kamchatka.

(7) Today these islands, situated in Bucareli Bay, are called the Coronados.

(8) An archipelago in the territory of what is now Ecuador. The name derives from the enormous tortoises that were seen there.

(9) I.e. Hawaii. James Cook named the islands after John Montague, fourth Earl of Sandwich, who at that time held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty.

(10) The pelts will in fact come to be sold not in Japan (which will not be visited) but instead in Macao. Nevertheless the profit will be a great deal smaller than expected because of an excess of supply over demand; see Narración di José Bustamante, AMNM, Ms. 429, cc. 80-109, published also in Diario general del viaje por Alejandro Malaspina (edited by C. Sánz Álvarez ), vol. 2 of: La Expedición Malaspina 1789-1794, Madrid, Ministerio de Defensa - Museo Naval - Lunwerg Editions, 2 vols.

(11) Rammentiamo che Carlo III era spirato nella notte tra il 13 ed il 14 dicembre dell'anno precedente.

Text (Italian version) courtesy of the Centro di Studi Malaspiniani, Mulazzo, Italy; notes by Dario Manfredi.  Text and notes translated by John Black.

Updated: June 5, 2018