Alexandro Malaspina to Gherardo Rangoni  (*)

Cádiz, March 13, 1789

    You can imagine how grateful I am for your highly-valued letter of February 16th last, which at the same time gives me surety of your kindness and confirms my hope for excellent detailed information on the basis of which I can better guide my steps. Cavaliere Belmonti will not only act as guarantor of my gratitude and ardent desire to express it on this occasion, but will also tell you in a few days how great a benefit society in general and our homeland in particular will draw from such a source of excellent information. In the meantime I have the great pleasure to assure the esteemed Marquis that his direct acquaintance and correspondence have for me ushered in one of the most delightful periods of my life, and I will not neglect to cultivate them during the whole course of my journey, attempting moreover to make them more pleasing, as of course they do not have to be so full of questions and enquiries!

With every moment I become more and more confirmed in the approach of not making discovery the main object of the voyage. As far as concerns natural history, which we will pursue in all its aspects, including lithology (in accordance with the principles of M. de Saussure (1)), it is certainly a matter of which I will neglect not a single part. The professors are very good, full of enthusiasm, and well equipped to endure hardship. One could demand nothing less of those who follow in the footsteps of Messrs. Banks (2), Solander (3), Forster (4) and Sparmann (5).

One of the things I will focus my attention on will be visiting the small and unformed islands discovered by previous navigators, in order to see what state they are in after fifteen or twenty years, and to confirm the supposition that they are in the process of being formed little by little and will become first habitable and then inhabited. I would also like to investigate the levels of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on either side of the Isthmus of Panama. Although we shall be unable to examine [directly] the Pacific Ocean side, on account of the weather and the intervening mountains, this should not be difficult, since the other half has been carried out by officers heading from Europe to western America by the direct route and, moreover, if the instruments are precisely calibrated and we rely on water gauges rather than barometers, a useful approximation can perhaps be achieved (6).
The Philippines will truly provide physicists with all sorts of new and interesting material. Including [in the expedition] an excellent naturalist, who has studied those islands for many years, will enable me to make public his really important work (7); the pattern of the tides there is periodic, yet totally novel. One can find traces there of an almost extinct language whose characters are all identical to signs of the zodiac; the music and the costumes of the Malayans have been identified there; the high level of evaporation from human bodies and the low solidity, or easy dissolution, of their bones, has been readily demonstrated there; finally the understanding of volcanoes should be enhanced there on account of the great abundance of them, whether active or extinct.

Above all, however, the history of mankind will be altered by this voyage, because many Indian languages are preserved only in the mouths of a few monks, and living among them will furnish us with many details that other nations absolutely cannot discover, since neither law nor religion allows them to come as close to the conquered peoples as we can. Our departure will take place in July at the earliest. I divine from the letter to Cavaliere Belmonti the excellent idea that the highly esteemed Marquis has adopted of not forwarding the French letter to anyone, particularly so as not to do anyone harm. I had forwarded it to give a clearer idea of the expedition rather than to have it directed to anyone else. I have no doubt that Messrs. Spallanzani and Fontana both have singular merit (8).
I have perhaps written at too much length and abused your precious time, esteemed Marquis. Blame it on my desire to have our correspondence continue, do me the honour of being guided by you, and believe me sincere when I declare myself with the greatest esteem …    

(*) Original in the Biblioteca Estense, Modena; G. CAMPORI, "Della vita e delle avventure del marchese Alessandro Malaspina," Memorie della Reale Accademia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti di Modena, Tomo IV, 1862, pp. 143-155, v. pp. 146-147; D. MANFREDI, Alessandro Malaspina e Fabio Ala Ponzone. Lettere dal Vecchio e Nuovo Mondo (1788-1803), Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999, pp. 171-174.  [Editing Criteria]

(1) Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799), Swiss naturalist, worked principally on the order of succession of involucres in terrestrial plants. Through Paolo Greppi, Malaspina asks that his Voyage in the Alps and Essay on Hygrometry be sent from Paris; see M.D. HIGUERAS RODRÍGUEZ, Catálogo crítico, vol. III, 1994, pp. 108-109.

(2) Joseph  Banks (London 1743-1820), naturalist and patron [of science]; he exterted great influence on contemporary science. He took part in the first exploratory voyage of Captain James Cook, collecting and studying important scientific specimens. From 1778 until his death he was President of the Royal Society. He left his private collection and library to the British Museum.

(3) Daniel Solander (1735-1782), Swedish naturalist who took part in Cook's first voyage (1768-1771).

(4) George Forster (1754-1794), son of Johann Reunhold - the naturalist who took part in Cook's second voyage (1772-1775) - on which he accompanied his father; on their return, he wrote an account of it, including a compilation of his father's notes: this work appeared before Cook's account: G. FORSTER, A Voyage round the World, in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop, Resolution, commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the years 1772, 1773, 1774 and 1775, London, 1777.

(5) [Malaspina] is referring to the German naturalist Anders Sparmann, one of whose volumes was sent him from Italy; see. M.D. HIGUERAS RODRÍGUEZ, Catálogo crítico, vol. III, 1994, pp. 111-112.

(6) In fact, in the region of Panamá, the officer Juan Vernacci was taken close to the Atlantic coast to take measurements relating to the level of the sea.

(7) Malaspina is referring to Juan de Cuellar. This naturalist collaborated closely with Antonio Pineda, the officer responsible for the natural history component of the expedition; see F. de las BARRAS DE ARAGON, "Documento de Juan de Cuellar sobre la muerte de Pineda," Bulletin of the Spanish Royal Society for Natural History, I (1952), pp. 435-437.

(8) Lazzaro Spallanzani, to whom Rangoni had apparantly sent a copy of the "French Letter," replied to Malaspina with a long list of questions; see M. JIMÉNEZ DE LA ESPADA, "Un autógrafo del abate Spallanzani", Annals of the Spanish Society for Natural History, vol. I, quad. II, 1872, pp. 163-181. ASs for Felice Fontana, it is known that the naturalists on the expedition made use of an eudiometer of his onvention, but not how this was done.

Text courtesy of the Centro di Studi Malaspiniani, Mulazzo, Italy, translated by John Black and Manuela Fahme; notes by Dario Manfredi, translated by John Black.                                   Italian Original

Updated: January 13, 2018