First given at the VII Congreso Internacional de Estudios Canadienses
Cádiz, October 23-25/1998

Robin Inglis, Director, North Vancouver Museum and Archives,
President, Vancouver Spanish Pacific Historical Society, Canada.

    During the latter part of the Eighteenth Century, and more specifically between the years 1774 and 1796, ships of the Spanish navy sailed the North Pacific beyond the coasts of modern day California, Oregon and Washington into the waters of British Columbia and Alaska. The great westward sweep of the coast from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Aleutian Islands measures about 1000 kilometres in a direct line: follow the intricacies of the coast, however, in and out of its numerous bays, inlets and river estuaries, and the sailor will cover close to 20,000 kilometres. It was this coast - the home of  vibrant native cultures, and the last temperate coast in the world to reveal itself to European mariners - that was explored for a longer period and more intensely by the ships and men of Spain than by those of any other imperial or commercial power.

    Although Spanish authorities upheld the principle of sovereignty over the Pacific, stemming from the 300 year-old Treaty of Tordesillas and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s ‘discovery’ of the Mar del Sur in 1513, the truth is that from the Seventeenth Century onwards they were obliged to tolerate numerous interlopers in the ‘Spanish Lake.’ By the second half of the Eighteenth Century, however, there were practical concerns with French and English voyages in the South Pacific that served to threaten the colonies in South America, and reports from St. Petersburg suggesting that the Russians were poised to move westward from Asia into North America. No matter how exaggerated this latter concern might appear to us today, the Court in Madrid and the Viceroys in Mexico were worried about a northern approach to New Spain. Further, they were aware that geographers in London and Paris firmly held the belief that there existed a navigable waterway across  northern North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Certainly New Spain would be threatened from the north if any maritime power other than Spain were to control such a passage.

    For twenty years therefore, until it became clear that both the Russian threat and the existence of any passage were illusory, Spanish ships were involved in some forty voyages north of California. They were expeditions of exploration and diplomacy and voyages of supply to a short-lived establishment at the entrance to Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Once the Nootka Sound controversy with England ended in a formal, irrevocable breach of Spanish claims to sovereignty, it also became obvious that the costs of maintaining a compromised presence in the North Pacific, along a distant and treacherous coastline, far from New Spain, were too high and would purchase limited value.

    Before this retreat, however, there was a three year period of intense activity, 1790-1792 when a distinguished number of representatives of the Spanish Crown fought to uphold what they considered to be their nation’s rights and interests. The establishment at Nootka was expanded and a sustained effort was made to explore into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As in earlier years when courageous men such as Bodega y Quadra and Francisco Mourelle sailed north thousands of kilometres out of the naval station at San Blas in small ships better suited to the supply of California missions, so now officers like Manuel Quimper and Francisco Eliza entered the lists aided by highly competent pilots such as José María Narvaez and Juan Pantoja. Most important of all, the Northwest Coast was visited in 1791 by the Malaspina Expedition, with its distinguished commanders, Alejandro Malaspina and José Bustamante and an array of experienced scientists, cartographers and artists. As with the other great ‘enlightened’ voyages of the period - those of James Cook, Jean François de La Pérouse and George Vancouver - we are the beneficiaries of their scientific enquiry, hydrographic expertise and artistic production.

    And so, in this context, we meet our protagonist Dionisio Alcalá Galiano who, as a member of the Malaspina Expedition, led as a special assignment the last Spanish exploration on the Northwest Coast - a voyage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca that would finally explode the myth of a great passage, and in the process establish the insularity of Vancouver Island.

    Galiano was born in Andalusia in Cabra near Córdoba on October 8th, 1760. In 1775 he entered the navy as a guardia de la marina and spent his formative years as a junior officer in the River Plate region of South America and in the Malvinas Islands during the war against Portugal. (1) Returning to Cádiz in 1783 he was able to pursue his particular interest in science and astronomy, an interest that brought him to the attention of the influential Admiral Vicente Tofiño, already engaged in his great hydrographic study of the coast of Spain that resulted in the Atlas Maritímo de España published in 1789. Galiano was fortunate to be assigned to Tofiño’s team in 1784 and this experience formed the basis of his considerable expertise as a professional cartographer, a skill that he practised for a significant part of his career in the navy. A year later, in 1785, Galiano left Spain to survey the Strait of Magellan under another influential teacher, Antonio de Córdoba. By 1788, as a teniente de navio, he was in charge of a mission to fix the location of the Azores and once again was engaged in the final stages of Tofiño’s great enterprise mapping the northern coasts of Asturias and Vizcaya. That same year he proposed to the authorities that an expedition be launched to chart the coasts of Argentina and Chile.

    As it turned out, he would soon travel again to South America when his ideas for new coastal surveys were folded into the instructions given to the Malaspina Expedition. It was as a skilled and experienced officer that Galiano was invited to join this great enterprise. He was only 29 and appeared to Malaspina as ‘an honorable man whose activities would someday give glory to his nation.’ Assigned to the Atrevida under Bustamante he spent the best part of the two years prior to the expedition’s arrival at Acapulco in April, 1791 engaged in coastal surveying and a variety of scientific tasks such as astronomical observations and gravitational and magnetic measurements.

    Further evidence that Galiano was one of the more highly regarded and trusted officers on the expedition is provided by the fact that he had been promoted capitan de fregata just prior to the arrival in Mexico and that, when Malaspina’s ships were diverted from their planned progress across the Pacific to search for the Northwest Passage and to check on the establishment at Nootka in the wake of the crisis of 1789-90, Galiano was ordered to Mexico City to finalize the South American charts made on the voyage so far, and to gather any archival documents he might think useful to the current and future work of the expedition. Malaspina had authority to collect up any documents in the colonies he visited to aid his reports on the state of colonial affairs. This, therefore, was an important assignment for Galiano. While in the capital of New Spain, he became acquainted with the Viceroy, the Conde de Revillagigedo and such leading men of letters and science as José Antonio de Alzate y Ramirez, Antonio de León y Gama and Ciriaco González de Carvajal, and undertook a number of astronomical observations to confirm or revise the available figures.

    If learning hydrography and map making under Tofiño and Córdoba, and being invited to join Malaspina, can be seen as the two vital steps in advancing the career of Galiano, it was his selection as commander of an expedition from Mexico to explore the Entrada de Fuca that proved him to be one of the very key officers of the Malaspina Expedition. When Malaspina returned to Acapulco in October 1791 he had already learned in Monterrey that a couple of months earlier pilot José Maria Narvaez, attached to the Eliza Expedition out of Nootka, had sailed into a large body of open water connected to the Entrada de Fuca to the north. In Mexico he saw the chart and would have been informed of Eliza’s opinion:

that the passage to the Atlantic Ocean ... cannot, if there is one, be found anywhere else; it is either in this inlet or this is the continent. (2)

    The Viceroy was already ahead of Malaspina in determining that this news warranted further investigation in the summer of 1792. A ship was under construction at San Blas and Francisco Mourelle, as experienced and knowledgable a northern mariner as any in New Spain, was preparing to lead the exploration. After the disappointment at Mulgrave at 60°N in Alaska, however, Malaspina was keen to ensure that if indeed Fuca opened up into the legendary Strait of Anian, as the armchair geographers in Europe maintained, then men from his expedition should make the discovery. He insisted in a letter to the Viceroy in November 1791 that his officers, carrying the most sophisticated instruments available, should make the reconnaissance. (3) Any embarrassment that the Viceroy might have felt about Mourelle being pushed aside evaporated when his chosen commander became ill. He agreed that the expedition should consist of two identical ships on the ways at San Blas and, in February 1792, the Sutil and the Mexicana were delivered to Acapulco. In addition to Galiano in the Sutil, Malaspina appointed Cayetano Valdés to command the Mexicana along with junior officer Secundino Salamanca and Juan Vernacci. A fifth ‘senior’ and very important participant was the official artist José Cardero who, having joined the Malaspina Expedition as a cabin boy, had increased his value by beginning to draw people, places and natural history specimens once the ships had reached South America for the first time late in 1789. In the summer of 1791 his prolific output had made him as valuable as the official artist Tomas Suria during Malaspina’s northern campaign to Alaska. Now his artistic talents would produce a remarkable complement to the documents and charts from Galiano’s 1792 voyage into Fuca. (4)

    The two ships were very small and not really suited to the task of ocean voyaging and close coastal surveying. No more than 14 metres (or 46 feet) long and 3.6 metres (or 12 feet) wide, they were barely able to accommodate the expedition’s complement of 39 men. In addition, after the ships set sail from Acapulco on March  8th, 1792, the mainmast of the Mexicana broke, which significantly delayed the party’s arrival at Nootka, their staging post for the summer in Fuca. Nevertheless, the refitting of a new mast was soon completed and by early June the ships were entering the fabled strait. They were to be away from Nootka for a full three months. Both Malaspina and the Viceroy had given instructions to Galiano and Valdés which underscored the fact that a complete exploration of all of the internal channels of Fuca was expected. While Malaspina reminded his young officers that ‘a new field of glory lies before you,’ Revillagigedo made some more practical points: for example, that swift communication with Madrid and the utmost secrecy would be required if a voyage to the Atlantic was accomplished; also that it was very important to maintain harmonious relations with the native peoples encountered. (5)

    Galiano stopped first in a small bay on the south side of the strait. Here, a week earlier Salvador Fidalgo had established a small outpost - Nuñez Gaona - that authorities were considering as a replacement for Nootka if, as expected, that establishment was abandoned. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was already at Nootka waiting to discuss the hand-over of the settlement to George Vancouver, who had come to the coast to receive it under the terms of the Nootka Convention of 1790. The vast subject of the imperial struggle between England and Spain need not concern us here; suffice it to say that before he had left Nootka Galiano had been asked by Bodega to check on the suitability of Nuñez Gaona as a harbour and for an establishment. His report, given to Bodega at the end of August before the latter’s negotiations with Vancouver got underway, confirmed other reports that the location’s weaknesses - as a shallow and poorly sheltered bay surrounded by unfriendly natives - were serious.  Partly as a result of this, Bodega determined, when his talks with Vancouver reached an impasse, that Spain should keep her presence at Nootka, at least for the time being. At Nuñez Gaona Galiano met Tetacu, the leading chief of the Fuca region. Cardero sketched both Tetacu and his wives and the chief accompanied Valdés in the Mexicana to his village in what is today Esquimalt harbour, near the capital of British Columbia, Victoria. The modest communication with the native leader was adequate to provide information to the Spaniards that two other ships had already entered the strait, and Galiano was soon to learn that these were Vancouver’s Discovery and Chatham en route to Nootka but keen, first, to use the summer exploring the mysterious Fuca. (6)

    As the Sutil and Mexicana turned north through the mass of islands that today separate the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Gulf of Georgia, they were covering waters and charting coastlines that had already been seen by Narvaez and other members of the 1791 Eliza expedition. But Galiano was acutely aware that the coastal tracings of Narvaez recorded on his chart of the eastern side of the Canal de Nuestra Señora del Rosario were sketchy, and that it was here that the investigation had to be particularly precise; first to test whether or not Eliza’s view about a passage possibly opening up out of what was named the Boca de Floridablanca could be located at this point, and secondly to discharge his duty to Malaspina’s instructions to give ‘priority to the maximum penetration of the sea or navigable rivers towards the east to decide once and for all the excessively confused and complicated question of the communication or proximity of the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic in this parallel of latitude.’ Buried in the Museo Naval is a sketch book in Galiano’s’ own hand that illuminates his progress north of the San Juan Islands into Bellingham Bay (Seno de Gaston) and Boundary Bay to the east of Point Roberts (Punta de Cepeda). It is a small gem of Canadian west coast cartography. (7) Narvaez’s chart had suggested that the entrance to a passage could be through the Boca de Floridablanca east and north of what he had called Islas de Cepeda and Islas de Langara, soon also to be confirmed as a punta (today Point Grey). During the period June 11 to June 24, 1792, Galiano and Valdés, aided by the English explorers whom they finally met, exhausted the possibilities that any such passage existed. Instead they found the area to be the low lying flood-plain of what they thought, but did not verify exactly, was a major river. The land in question is of course the delta of the Fraser River.

    On the morning of June 13 there occurred what has to be regarded as an historic moment. Galiano sighted a square rigged vessel that turned out to be the Chatham under the command of Lieutenant William Broughton. Galiano spoke a little English, a rare skill in the Spanish navy, and so he was able to receive news about the progress of the Vancouver expedition and he showed the English captain the 1791 chart of Narvaez. It was the first meeting of Spanish and English naval officers on the Northwest Coast. Following this meeting the Spaniards crossed the route of the modern ferries from the mainland to Vancouver Island and spent a brief time surveying what are today the northern Gulf Islands. Galiano’s sketch book details the Boca de Porlier that today separates Galiano and Valdés Islands. They were not named as such on this occasion, but rather by Nineteenth Century British surveyors in memory of the Spanish heroes. Porlier Pass is the subject of another Galiano sketch and Cardero drew portraits of the natives encountered nearby as well as a remarkable natural feature caused by wave action. It is on Gabriola Island and is today known as the ‘Malaspina Gallery.’ The Spaniards then recrossed the strait and engaged in trade with the natives of Punta de Langara. Cardero sketched the local Musqueam chief. As they prepared to complete the exploration of the northern end of Narvaez’s Boca de Floridablanca, the journal of George Vancouver, who had been away from his ships on an extended launch survey that had included Howe Sound, takes up the story:

As we were rowing  ... for Point Grey we discovered two vessels at anchor .. His Catholic Majesty’s brig Sutil and schooner Mexicana. Señor Galiano ... informed me that they had arrived from Nootka ... in order to complete the examination of this inlet which had, in the preceding year, been partly surveyed by some Spanish officers, whose chart they produced. I cannot avoid acknowledging that on this occasion I experienced no small degree of mortification in finding the external shores of the gulf had been visited and already examined.... Their conduct was replete with that politeness and friendship which characterizes the Spanish nation; every kind of useful information they cheerfully communicated. (8)

The cordiality and sense of brotherhood and common purpose far from home was genuine and both Peter Puget and Archibald Menzies echoed their commander’s impression of Galiano, the former stating that:

we conceived ourselves particularly fortunate that this gentleman spoke English with great ease and fluency. (9)
and the latter noting:
we continued visiting one another during our stay on the most cordial terms of friendship which was mutually cultivated on both sides by frequently spending our convivial hours together in a most social manner. (10)
    Imperial manoeuvring was for the moment set aside and the two commanders not only shared information but actually agreed to work together. However, Vancouver’s need to chart the coastline for himself rather than to accept the findings of the Spanish surveys ultimately made this idea unworkable, and there was a second problem for the Spaniards in that Vancouver’s ships and manpower were vastly superior to their own. In the end the two groups reached Nootka separately, but there was never any reluctance from the time of their initial meeting to their brief rendezvous at Nootka fully to share information, opinions and the results of their labours. As a result the Spanish gained knowledge of Puget Sound, which they had never found, and Vancouver’s final chart contained a number of adjustments (such as Indian Arm at the eastern end of Burrard Inlet where the city of Vancouver now stands) and recognised a number of Spanish toponyms such as Texada Island.

    The various inlets stretching into the continent north of the farthest extent of Narvaez’s 1791 explorations were charted, as well as the northeastern shoreline of Vancouver Island, and Cardero drew a picture of a magnificent waterfall in Knight Inlet. At a village near present-day Alert Bay both Spanish and English accounts tell of seeing European articles and guns which had arrived across Vancouver Island via a well established trade route from Nootka Sound. As their route tended to the northwest, the swell of the sea suggested that they were again nearing the open ocean. Before this was reached, however, Cardero drew the portrait of another chief as well as the sweeping vista of an imposing native village near present-day Port McNeil.

    Bodega y Quadra, waiting at Nootka to embark on his negotiations with George Vancouver, was certainly happy to receive from Galiano a first hand account of the summer’s work that provided such a comprehensive update of the Narvaez chart of the previous year, in addition to the Spanish captain’s report on Nuñez Gaona. The clear evidence that there was no passage leading out of Fuca at 49°N was a few days later complemented by Jacinto Caamaño’s report that the already highly suspect story of a strait discovered by Admiral de Fonte at 54°N was also illusionary. (11) All this information rounded out for Bodega as complete a picture of the Northwest Coast as he could have wanted as the context for his diplomatic duties.

    After a short visit to Monterrey in California, the Sutil and Mexicana ended their voyage at San Blas on November 23, 1792 ‘in good health and with the greatest joy’. Galiano immediately went to Mexico City along with his fellow officers and José Cardero. Here they received the congratulations of the Viceroy. Galiano stayed in Mexico for another year working on the narrative of the voyage and the charts. His relations with the Viceroy became somewhat strained when Revillagigedo was critical of Galiano’s writing style and requested editorial changes and a more precise reconciliation of place names in the journal with those on the maps. But all was finally completed, at least to the commander’s satisfaction, and he left Mexico City to catch a ship for home from Veracruz on October 25th 1793.

    Once back in Spain Galiano was promoted Capítan de Navio and resumed his active career with a tour of duty to the Caribbean. After Alejandro Malaspina returned in triumph from his five-year Pacific voyage in August 1794, Galiano met up with him a couple of months later and, accompanied by Juan Vernacci and José Cardero, delivered his 1792 report and papers to the Commander in Madrid. These three colleagues were part of a select group who stayed in the capital to assist Malaspina in the preparation of the planned publication from all the reports, observations, charts and drawings collected over the past sixty months. It was a massive undertaking to integrate all this information into a grand narrative and accompanying atlas to rival that of James Cook. Clearly the Galiano/Valdés voyage into Fuca in 1792 was an important part of the Northwest Coast story to complement the accounts of Malaspina’s 1791 visits to Mulgrave and Nootka.

    What happened next in 1795, as the great work was proceeding, was as important in Galiano’s career as his training by Tofiño and his Pacific experiences as a member of the Malaspina Expedition. His name became synonymous with the Spanish exploration of the Northwest Coast of America when the only publication actually produced about Spanish activities on this northern frontier was the 1802 Relacion del Viaje hecho por las Goletas Sutil y Mexicana en el año 1792 para reconocer el Estrecho de Juan de Fuca. (12) Malaspina’s disastrous involvement with court politics, which led to his arrest, imprisonment and [eventual] exile, also signalled the end of any grand publication about his great voyage. It would be ninety years before an edited account was published for public sale. All the papers under review in Madrid were impounded and those engaged in the work were dispersed. After briefly working on a new topographical map of Spain, Galiano returned to active duty in the war against England and was careful to distance himself from the disgraced Malaspina. He commanded a ship-of-the-line at the Battle of Cape Vincent in 1797, was responsible for the defence of Cádiz in 1798 and successfully made a daring trip to Veracruz to bring back to Spain much needed bullion to finance the war.

    Meanwhile, full accounts of the voyages of La Pérouse and Vancouver had appeared in 1797 and 1798 respectively. (13) The authorities in Madrid, faced with the seemingly impossible prospect of rehabilitating Malaspina and preparing a published account of his Pacific enterprise to rival the French and English accounts of their great endeavours, settled on Galiano’s 1792 expedition as a compromise, along with the neat fiction that he had operated under the direction of the Viceroy Revillagigedo and not that of Malaspina, whose name is never mentioned in what became a substantially edited and expanded text. The Relación was prefaced with a long account by naval historian Martín Fernandez de Navarrette which, by placing the voyage into a larger context, conveniently highlighted twenty-five years of Spanish naval activity in the North Pacific. And eight of the nine charts in the accompanying atlas had nothing to do with Galiano’s voyage, but served to display the wider achievements of Spanish mariners.

    The publication was a great boost to the career and prestige of an already distinguished and skilled naval officer. He was still only forty-two years old, with many and varied experiences, and his name would have been as well known as that of any of his contemporaries. Active, generous, highly regarded by his subordinates despite a reputation for keen discipline and a short temper, Galiano was never reticent about his own talents or about the positions of trust he had held. (14) The upward trend of his career was further advanced when, after successfully escorting the future bride of Fernando VII from Naples to Barcelona in the warship Bahama, he was promoted to Commodore in 1802.

    All of this came to a sad and abrupt end however in 1805, when an English cannonball took off Galiano’s head during the Battle of Trafalgar, where he again commanded the Bahama. This martyr’s death - ‘muerto gloriosamente’ - as much as his distinguished career, placed him in the Pantheon of Naval Heroes in San Fernando and remains the single most remembered fact about him. In the early history of the west coast of Canada, however, he is better known as one of a long list of Spanish naval officers who served their King with courage, tenacity and skill when Spain sailed and explored the North Pacific.

    Galiano’s voyage of 1792, along with Jacinto Caamaño’s voyage to Alaska and Bodega y Quadra’s Expedicion des Limites, proved to be the peak of Spanish activity on the Northwest Coast. As a National Historic Site plaque on Punta de Langara or Point Grey succinctly puts it, his meeting with Vancouver:

Marked the beginning of British predominance and the end of Spanish exploration on the coast.
    In 1793 the Montreal fur trader Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific overland ‘from Canada,’ creating a symbolic link with George Vancouver’s meticulous charting of the entire coast of the future British Columbia. From this fragile thread emerged a nation ‘Canada’ across the northern expanse of North America. Although it was destined to become part of the British Empire and James Cook and George Vancouver still loom larger in the public’s consciousness than Alejandro Malaspina or Bodega y Quadra, the west coast of Canada retains a number of reminders its Spanish heritage. Indeed the particular achievements of Dionisio Alcala Galiano and his companions and the precious legacy of José Cardero’s drawings are better known and appreciated today than at any other time in the last 150 years.


1. The Personal File of Dionisio Alcalá Galiano detailing his naval record is in the Archivo-Museo Alvaro Bazán, El Viso de Marqués. See also Salvá, Jaime Alcalá Galiano, Madrid, c.1950.

2. Eliza, Francisco: Extracto de la navegación translated by Henry Raup Wagner, in Spanish Explorations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Santa Ana, California, 1933, p.152.

3. See Cutter, Donald: California in 1792: a Spanish Naval Visit, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p.5.

4. See Sotos, Carmen: Los Pintores de la Expedición de Alejandro Malaspina, Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, 1984.

5. Malaspina’s Instructions are in the Archivo Géneral de la Nación in Mexico City, Marina 82; those of Viceroy Revillagigedo are in the Museo Naval, Madrid, MS 619. Both are translated in full in Kendrick, John: The Voyage of the Sutil and Mexicana, 1792: The Last Spanish Exploration of the Northwest Coast of America, Arthur H. Clark Company, Spokane, Washington, 1991, pp. 39-54

6 See Lamb, W. Kaye (ed.): The Voyage of George Vancouver, 1791-1795, Volume II, Hakluyt Society, London, 1984, pp. 508 forward.

7. Museo Naval MS 146.

8. Voyage of George Vancouver, Volume II, pp. 591-592

9. Peter Puget: Journal, June 22, 1792, quoted in Voyage of George Vancouver, p. 592

10. Alexander Menzies: Journal, quoted in Cook, Warren: Flood Tide of Empire, Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1973, p. 355.

11. See Tovell, Freeman: ‘Ending the Search for the Mythical Passage of Admiral Fonte: The 1792 Voyage of Jacinto Caamaño’ in BC Studies, Number 117, Spring, 1998, pp. 5-26.

12. Published in Madrid in 1802.

13. Vancouver, George: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 3 Volumes with Atlas, London, 1798; La Pérouse, Jean François Galaup de: Voyage de la Pérouse autour du Monde (Ed. Milet-Mureau), 4 Volumes with Atlas, Paris, 1797.

14. A short character assessment of  Galiano was given by his son, Antonio. See Cutter op.cit. p.59.

Updated: June 13, 2018