I hereby trouble you, most esteemed Marquis, and in such a direct manner, not only with a copy of a letter written to Messrs. Lalande in Paris and Banks in London, but also with new annotations on the same letter and, above all, with an inquiry about any comments which might [by you], as from a rich mine, be extracted therefrom. I shall not pause to forgive myself the liberty I thus take. The motive behind it, your natural affection for the sciences, and above all our mutual friendship with the Cavalier Belmonti (1), provide many further reasons for passing over that in silence, whence, without further ado, I shall proceed to telling you those things which seem to me the most opportune at the moment. It is well known to you, esteemed Marquis, that the natural sciences have made rapid progress in recent years, since Europeans with philosophical purpose and vision have started to visit the most remote countries, whereby, were it not for the introduction of some of our all too prevalent methods, Mankind, and indeed the surface of the globe, would be presented in much more truthful colors. Some [superficial] details of everything are given (perhaps too glibly), each having embraced the part [of the whole picture] that was more useful to him for his own system, and in the meantime the correct [fundamental] ideas, or let us say the axioms, are covered over with a kind of veil, which already has made mathematical [sc. precise, systematic, certain] discourse impossible and resulted in endless conjectures.
Therefore, it is not so much the discovery of new, imaginary continents as scientific research into what has already been discovered that should be the primary object of the voyages that, from now on, Europeans undertake to distant maritime regions. Captain Cook, and now M. de La Pérouse, make any attempt towards new discoveries next to useless, and although the voyage that we are now going to undertake will perhaps be able to cover some new things, with respect to its geographical component, in relation to astronomy, it seems to me, and H. M. has deigned to approve this, that it is not so much geography as natural history that should be its principal object.
This idea (for us, it must be said, truly alluring, and so much more so in that it presented to us the hope of being able to follow in the footsteps of Brigadier Antonio Ulloa (2) in generating reports drawn from America of that great quantity of fables which have been produced, partly by the Spanish writings not being public, and partly by either the difficulties of the idiom, or too cursory an examination, or the natural love of the fantastic) would be to us nothing less than an utterly empty proclamation, if it were not for the fact that, in our researches, we are guided by more detailed and more direct prescriptions for investigating the truth, without loss of time and without mixing in superfluous matters. Perhaps the greatest evil for a traveller is the desire to see everything as going well [for himself]; just as the sage, from his retreat, should not be miserly with his provident advice to erring Mankind, so the former too ought to dedicate the labours, vigils and risks [he undertakes] to [the benefit of] others.
These are the reasons that have moved Baylío Valdés to propose to H.M., and the latter to allow, that in an expedition undertaken in general for the benefit of all, foreign experts play the part that they ought to play, so that physical and philosophical research is carried out with so much advantage to society.
Who, then, are those that induce me to address you, as
a worthy patron of the sciences in this beautiful country, I leave it to all
of them to say, who have the honour to know you and the pleasure of dealing
with you; and you can render me best justified, in the eyes of the world,
by providing the interesting comments that I hope to receive from you, and
through your intercession from your scholarly friends, towards the end
of May. At least, I shall place the greatest value upon receiving them, for
the love that I profess for knowledge and for the unceasing study by which
I pursue it, for the utility that the public, of course, may procure from
them, and, in the meantime, full of sincere esteem for you and with the greatest
desire to serve you, I grant myself the honour to reaffirm myself yours.
(*) Text published in: D. MANFREDI: Alessandro Malaspina
e Fabio Ala Ponzone. Lettere dal Vecchio e Nuovo Mondo (1788-1803), Bologna,
Il Mulino, 1999, pp. 156-158. Original now lost; copy in APSF;
Picanyol, pp. 38-39.
(2) Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre-Guiral (1716 -1795) was a high-ranking officer in the Royal Armada. He attained the rank of Guardiamarina in 1773. The following year, together with his colleague Jorge Juan, he took part in the expedition to Ecuador organized by the Academie des Sciences in Paris for the purpose of calculating the length of the terrestrial meridian. The return voyage was beset by storms, and Ulloa had to spend a certain amount of time in England, where he frequented the Royal Society. Having returned to Spain in 1746, he was ordered to prepare, with Jorge Juan, an Historical Account of the Path to South America, rich with political information about the Spanish possessions in the New World. Subsequently he travelled through various countries in Europe acquiring technical and scientific documents. On his return, he promoted the organization of colleges of medicine and surgery, of botanical gardens, of a cabinet of natural history and - again with Juan - planned the institution of the Academia de Ciencias in Madrid. He wrote other essays on America and, in 1765, was appointed Governor of Southern Louisiana. A few years later, back in Spain, he was promoted to Squadron Chief and settled on the island of León near Cádiz. After a final sojourn in America, he returned to Cádiz and pursued his studies and other publications.
Updated: June 5, 2018