Robert J. King
Presented to the Association of Iberian and Latin American
Studies of Australasia (AILASA 99),
Melbourne, July 1999
It may seen a little strange to ascribe the conception of a great Spanish voyage of exploration, carried out under the command of an illustrious Italian nobleman, to the mind of an Irishman serving as a military governor in one of the more remote corners of the vast Spanish empire. Even so, Concepcion may not be an inappropriate name in this context, when the available evidence is considered.
In a despatch dated 18 October 1792, which the Irishborn Captain General of Chile, Ambrose Higgins, wrote to the Spanish Prime Minister, the Count of Aranda, he said:
What I fear, not without basis, is that the numerous settlers situated at Port Jackson are thinking of extending their colonies from that place little by little throughout the whole Pacific Ocean, as they have already advanced as far as Norfolk, founding there the colony concerning which Mohonro (master of the Mary Ann) has given us notice, passing further and having similar settlements in the Sandwich and Friendly Isles, and those of the Society, or what is more probable, in Tahiti, forming a chain of possessions with which they may approach these coasts and disturb in the near future our own exclusive commerce. My concern in this regard is longstanding, as Yr. Excy. can see from the confidential letter which I wrote to Señor Don José de Gálvez in the year '86, while I was Governor and Commandant General of the Frontiers of this Realm, a copy of which I enclose, recommending it to Yr. Excy.'s attention, because so much that I said then can be of use today, insomuch as the ideas regarding this have taken a much greater extension than I could ever have foreseen.1Higgins received a reply from Aranda's successor as Prime Minister, the Duke of Alcudia (Manuel Godoy), in a letter dated 18 April 1793:
The King appreciates the news you communicated by your letter of October last year, concerning the English settlements at Botany Bay and the Isle of Norfolk, which you acquired from the Governor of Valparaíso, to whom it was given by Captain Munroe of the Marianna, which came there with the intention of engaging in the whale fishery after having left at Botany Bay the exiles which she had brought from London. His Majesty equally values the reflections you made in the same letter on the ideas of the English in pressing on with their settlements in New Holland, being able thereby to pass on to gain them also in the Sandwich, Friendly and Society Isles, and Tahiti, and to endanger our own rights and commerce; all of which has been timely and useful, as also have those which you made relative to the same points which you recorded with this motive in your letter of 25 March 1786 to his lordship the Marquis of Sonora [Gálvez].2Higgins' letter of 25 March 1786 had been written following the visit of the French expedition led by Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse to Concepcion. In it he wrote,
...none of the members of the present expedition exhibit any thought but enthusiasm for research, for the improvement of navigation, for the extension of geographical knowledge, the exploration of seas and islands, and for determining with the greatest exactitude the configuration of the Globe and all it contains of use to its inhabitants. That, as it would seem, is the philosophy of these admirable men; but still it is not to be supposed that they will set aside their national interests by neglecting to keep an eye, as chances offer, on the places best adapted for settlement; nor, likewise, to appropriate for colonization at an opportune time (though, for the nonce, it would only be in their mind's eye) some island of suitable resources out of the many they must surely visit in crossing the Pacific Ocean, and in pursuing their course afterwards from the coast of California to the outposts planted in the Western sea by the Russians... to investigate those localities with a view to adopting corresponding measures later on... I have noticed that they say nothing about occupying themselves with any search for a Southern Continent, nor with penetrating the seas towards that Pole, nor about visiting New Zealand either... It may well be that they will not care to lose the time that is so necessary to them for gaining those high latitudes on the other side of the equator where, as I said before, they have much before them, especially in that hemisphere, which Cook perforce left unfinished by reason of his unfortunate death.3Lapérouse had sailed from Brest in August 1785 in command of the Boussole and Astrolabe with a Spanish passport, and so was able to call at the Spanish ports of Concepcion, Monterrey and Manila. He had detailed and comprehensive instructions drawn up with the active participation of Louis XVI. The voyage had been planned in conscious emulation of those of Cook, and a million livres had been spent on its preparation. One of the factors which counted in the selection of Lapérouse as commander of the expedition (and of Paul-Antoine de Langle as his lieutenant in command of the Boussole) had been their action in 1782 during the American War in capturing the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort York and Fort Churchill in the northern New South Wales on the shores of Hudson's Bay. There was still thought to be a possibility that a passage might be found from the North Pacific or Arctic Oceans to Hudson's Bay, and in any case the sailing experience would be useful in navigating the cold, foggy waters of the North Pacific. "Political and Commercial Objects" came first in the King's instructions, followed by investigations into the China trade and the North Pacific fur trade. Reports were to be made on all European commerce and possessions, "which may be interesting... in a military point of view," and likely places for French settlement were to be noted.4 The voyage has been characterised by the editor of Lapérouse's journal as, "a voyage which would without doubt have an air of discovery in such little known seas as the North Pacific, but before all a commercial and political objective."5 The French Government had obviously heard, presumably from the hearings of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transportation of Felons, of the proposals for a English colony in the South Seas, and he had been instructed to ascertain "the nature, condition and object" of the colony, which the French Government then expected would be established at Cook's favourite calling place of Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.6 He was careful not to disclose these objectives to Higgins when he called at Concepcion:
he has not told me what places he is bound to next, and, as it is said he was very reticent on this subject before my arrival, I have not cared to push inquiries unavailingly in the face of an express order not to disclose the scheme of his voyage which no doubt he will have.Higgins correctly guessed, however, that he was bound for the North West coast of America, and thence to Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, with the aim of completing the work left uncompleted by James Cook of exploring the seas between China and Japan (as James King had recommended in the 1784 account of Cook's last voyage). When Lapérouse arrived at Petropavlovsk in September 1787, he received despatches from Paris informing him that Botany Bay was the location of the new English colony, and redirected his course thither, arriving on 27 January 1788.7
On 20 July 1786, Higgins wrote again to Sonora, calling attention to the important benefits brought to their respective nations by the expeditions led by Lapérouse and Cook, and strongly recommending that Spain organize a similar expedition to the Pacific:
...because of what may be understood of the Thoughts of the Russians or English of establishing Colonies (although they could not do so without directly offending the Court of Spain) in the aforementioned Sandwich Islands or in those which Cook called the Friendly Isles, and others which he visited in those Seas, it appears to me that it would not be excessively diligent to order that they be surveyed by a pair of Spanish frigates, equipped in Spain, provided with everything for a prJune 13, 2018 La Perouse...8Higgins emphasized, however, that "the new expedition under a Spanish commander should concern itself with more immediate objectives, of interest to the State". He said the proposed expedition should visit the isles of Quiros (present day Vanuatu), Tahiti, and the Sandwich Islands, with a view to preparing the way for their colonisation by Spain. A settlement in the Sandwich Islands would promote development of the fur trade on the coasts of California, from Nootka up to Cook's Inlet. The furs could be sold to China, either directly at Canton or through Manila. Another advantage would be the ability to exploit the timber resources of the North West coast. The strengthening of Spanish naval and merchant marines in the Pacific would be another benefit. Like those of Lapérouse and Cook, the Spanish expedition would contribute to a great improvement in navigation. Knowledge would be gained of the languages of the native peoples of New Zealand, New Holland, the Friendly Islands, New Caledonia, the isles of Quiros, the Sandwich and many other islands of the Pacific, as also of the American continent from Nootka to the Arctic Ocean.
He drew attention to the fact that, although the expeditions of Cook and those of his fellow countrymen who preceded him as circumnavigators - Byron, Wallis and Carteret - had been promoted by the English under the specious pretext of perfecting geography, navigation and knowledge of the globe, no one could have remained ignorant of the involvement of other ideas which necessarily formed their principal objective, of establishing and possessing colonies in these regions. Nor could the Russians disguise that they were doing the same to increase their commerce in the seas and coasts intermediate between Muscovite Asia and the neighbouring part of Spanish North America.
He concluded by saying that, although during the age of Magellan, Quiros, Mendaña and other Spanish explorers of immortal memory, it was not possible for Spain to reduce to subjection and colonize the many islands of the Pacific, it was now unavoidable in order to prevent foreign powers - English, French and Russian - from realizing their own schemes for establishing colonies in those islands to the detriment of Spanish dominion in the Pacific. A maritime inspection such as he proposed was therefore indispensable. He had therefore considered it his duty to present his conclusions on these matters, which he had come to after reflecting upon the stay at Concepcion of Lapérouse, and after having subsequently (after Lapérouse's departure) read the Voyages of Captain Cook.
Higgins' recommendation is especially noteworthy in the context of the Malaspina expedition, because just six months after Higgins wrote it from Concepcion, and while he was still there as governor in February 1787, the port was visited by Malaspina in command of the frigate Astrea, sailing on a round-the-world voyage by way of the Philippines.9 The Astrea was under charter to the Royal Philippines Company, and the aim of the voyage was to open up a quicker, less expensive route for merchant shipping to the Philippines than the Acapulco-Manila galleon route. It would be surprising if Higgins and Malaspina did not discuss the concept which led to the production in September 1788, following the Astrea's return to Spain in May of that year, of Malaspina's proposal for an expedition along the lines set out in Higgins' letter.10
The plan presented in September 1788 by Malaspina and Bustamante to Antonio Valdés for a scientific and political voyage around the world referred to the recent French and English voyages of exploration, and even stated that the scientific part of the proposed voyage would have as its objectives the fulfilment of the designs of those of Cook and Lapérouse. However, echoing Higgins' insistence that a voyage undertaken by a Spanish commander should also have more immediate objectives, of interest to the state, the Malaspina/Bustamante plan stated that "a voyage made by Spanish navigators should necessarily involve two other objects: one, the construction of hydrographic charts... and the other, the investigation of the political state of America in relation to Spain and foreign nations." 11
The coincidence is striking between the scope and objectives set out in Higgins' memorandum and those set out in the Malaspina/Bustamante plan, and followed in the actual voyage.12 In particular, Higgins' concern to prevent encroachment on Spanish dominion in the Pacific is parallelled in the Malaspina/Bustamante plan by the proposal to investigate and prepare confidential political reports on the Russian settlements in North West America and those of the English at Botany Bay and the Liu Qiu islands. It was well known that Botany Bay had been settled in January 1788 (and had been the object of a visit by Lapérouse); in 1788 there was no British settlement in the Liu Qius - nor was there ever to be one - but there was current a plan, which Malaspina had somehow learned of, for a trading factory to be established there by the King George's Sound Company and the Bengal Fur Trading Company, as a means of breaking into the closed Japanese market. The original proposal for the English settlement at Botany Bay, drawn up by James Matra under the guidance of Sir Joseph Banks, had closely connected it with plans for the opening up of the North Pacific fur trade and gaining entry to markets in Japan and Korea.13
The proposal to visit Botany Bay fell upon receptive ears in the Spanish Court, which at the same time received a treatise on the British colony from Malaspina's fellow officer and friend, Francisco Muñoz y San Clemente, "Reflexiones sobre los establecimientos Inglesas de la Nueva Holanda".14 Muñoz said: "The grave dangers, which in time our commerce will experience because of their neighbourhood to South America and the Philippines, has obliged me to treat of the [English] settlements." Muñoz had known Malaspina since 1778 (if not before), when they had served together in the Real Compañíade Guardias Marinas de Cádiz. In 1785, the Royal Philippines Company had been re-established, and in August of that year, he had been appointed to command of the frigate Aguila Imperial; one of two ships sent under charter to the Company to explore the best direct route to the Philippines from Spain (as opposed to the traditional Acapulco-Manila galleon route). The Aguila Imperial was to go by the Cape of Good Hope route, and the Placeres, under Alexandro Malaspina, by the alternative Cape Horn route. Malaspina could not take up his command of the Placeres at the time on account of illness,15 but when he recovered in June 1786 he took the Astrea to the Philippines for the Company, going out by the Cape Horn route and returning to Spain by the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at Cadiz in May 1788.16
The Aguila Imperial sailed from Cadiz for the Philippines under Muñoz in January 1786 and arrived at Manila on 8 August of that year. She sailed on the return voyage to Spain from Manila on 12 January 1787 and arrived at Cadiz on 17 March 1788. Both the outward and return voyages were by the Cape of Good Hope.17 Shortly after his return he was given leave to go to Madrid to attend to family affairs (his mother had died just after the Aguila Imperial had sailed from Cadiz).18 His presence in Madrid, and his friendship with Malaspina, were referred to in a letter which Malaspina wrote to an English friend from Cadiz on 13 July 1789: "Muñoz and the amiable Greppi are yet in Madrid."19 It was during this period that he wrote and submitted his "Reflexiones sobre los establecimientos Inglesas de la Nueva Holanda": it is dated San Ildefonso, 20 September 1788. The treatise, which foreshadowed many of the points which Malaspina was to make in his confidential report on the colony, considered the advantages which New Holland offered for settlements to the English, the sea lines of communication between the new colony and India, China, the Philippines and South America; and finally, indicated the dangers which it posed to the Spanish possessions both in peace time from the development of a contraband commerce, and in war time as a base for British naval operations. Taken together with a report in the London press in mid-October 1786,20 which quoted the section of James Matra's "Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales" that emphasized the strategic location of the settlement in relation to the Spanish possessions in the Pacific, the treatise presented irrefutable reasons for Spain to send her own observers to obtain first hand, accurate knowledge of the colony.21
On 14 October 1788, Valdés wrote to Malaspina informing him of the Government's acceptance of his plan: its acceptance within such a short space of time indicates that the plan had met prepared minds. Confirmation of the influence of Higgins' memorandum on the Government, apart from the expression of appreciation in the letter signed by Alcudia on 18 April 1793 which would indicate that the Government gave weight to his views, comes from José de Espinoza y Tello, the hydrographer with the Malaspina expedition. In a memorandum he prepared in 1791 on Spanish voyages to the North West coast of America, Espinoza stressed the importance of the information sent by Higgins in stimulating the Government to initiate an extensive program of exploration in the Pacific:
Because the war undertaken against the English towards the end of the aforementioned expedition [that of the Princesa and Favorita, under Ignacio Arteaga and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, in 1779] and the attention which the state of Europe then demanded, voyages of exploration to the Northwest coast of America were abandoned completely, until at the beginning of the year 1787, the Minister for the Indies, the Marqués de la Sonora, in consequence of information sent to him by the Military Intendant at Concepción de Chile... advised the Viceroy of Mexico that it was the wish of His Majesty to prepare at San Blas two ships suitable for reconnoitring the coast to the North to verify if such [Russian] settlements in fact existed.22This was a reference to the Royal order of 25 January 1787 which led to the departure of the Princesa and San Carlos, commanded by Esteban José Martínez and López de Haro respectively, from San Blas on 8 March 1788. It may be fair to presume that the impulse given to Spanish policy by Higgins' memorandum did not exhaust its momentum with Sonora's order to the Mexican Viceroy, but contributed significantly, along with information received from other sources such as Spain's ambassadors in Paris, St. Petersburg and London, to preparing a favourable reception for the Malaspina/ Bustamante plan, which itself so strikingly resembled his own proposal.
It is not difficult to imagine what would have been Higgins' reaction to Malaspina's imaginative and enlightened solution to the threat to Spanish interests in the Pacific posed by English encroachment. Malaspina's "Political Examination of the English Settlements in the Pacific", prepared after his visit to Port Jackson in March-April 1793 (which Higgins may never have seen) proposed, at the admitted risk of drawing upon himself "the censure of traitor who would defend publicly the great advantages which would result to us from promoting an English settlement at no great distance from our Pacific coasts", the development of a trade in foodstuffs between New South Wales and Chile.23 While recognizing the strategic threat it posed to Spain's Pacific possessions in time of war, Malaspina preferred the peaceable approach of drawing attention to the commercial opportunity the new colony offered for a trade in food and livestock from Chile and the development of a viable trade route linking that country with the Philippines. Having seen carts and even ploughs being drawn by convicts for want of draught animals in the colony, and having eaten meals with the colonists at which beef and mutton were regarded as rare luxuries, he saw the trade in Chilean livestock as the key to a profitable commerce.24 He proposed that an agreement be signed with London for an Association of Traders, and for an agent of the colony to be resident in Chile. Conscious that the policy he was proposing was a bold and imaginative one in the face of Spain's traditional insistence on a national monopoly of trade and other relations within her empire, Malaspina declared that "this affair is exceedingly favourable to the commercial balance of our Colonies", and it would have the advantage of calming and tranquilizing "a lively, turbulent and almost insolent neighbour.... not with sacrifices on our part but rather with many and very considerable profits". For Malaspina, a pacified trading partner was preferable to a neighbour whose only choices for dealings with Spanish America lay in rapine and contraband.
One can imagine only too well what Ambrose Higgins would have made of the suggestion that, under the terms of a "Contract for the provisioning of New Holland from the Coasts of Chile", an agent of the English colony be permitted to reside in Valparaiso. Higgins was unswervingly loyal in his support of the traditional policies of the imperial regime. Like his contemporaries on the other side of the Pacific who served the Shoguns, and who had thwarted the dreams of those Englishmen who had hoped in these years to open a trade to Japan, Higgins was a firm upholder of the policy of closing his country to any kind of intercourse with foreigners. As Captain-General of Chile, and later as Viceroy of Peru, he employed every means at his command to prevent the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and treated every foreign vessel as if they were carriers of plague. In June 1799 we find him writing from Lima to Madrid of the "great anxieties I have in seeing the islands of this Ocean occupied by our enemies who, as masters of them can avail themselves of their commodities to repair their ships, deposit booty and form permanent settlements, which would ruin forever the commerce of this part of America, or serve as bases for greater designs."25 Both Malaspina and Higgins saw the impending ruin of the Spanish empire: Malaspina proposed enlightened, radical reforms; Higgins saw no alternative to the time-sanctioned policies of the old regime as enshrined in the Laws of the Indies.
3. Copy dated 12 March 1786 enclosed with Teodoro de Croix (Viceroy of Peru) to Sonora, 5 July 1786, Archivo General de Indias, Audiencia de Lima, estante 110, cajón 3; quoted in Bolton Corney, The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain in 1772-1776, Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 1914, pp.416-20.
7. Fleurieu to LaPérouse, Versailles, 15 December 1786, Archives Nationales, Marine, 3JJ 386, f.212. Quoted in Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac, Le Voyage de Louis XVI autour du monde: l'expédition de La Pérouse, Paris, La Table Ronde, 1985, p.126.
8. Archivo Histórico Nacional (Madrid), Estado, legajo 4289. Also at Archivo Nacional de Chile, Fondo Vicuña Mackenna, vol.304, D, ff.5-26. Published in Revista chilena de historia y geografía, no.107, 1946, pp.387-401.
10. Upon his promotion to Captain General of Chile, Higgins sent a letter dated 2 August 1788 to Sonora's successor, Valdés, in which he reiterated the points he made in his letter of 20 July 1786. Fondo Toribio Medina, vol.204; cited in Donoso, p.122. He again met Malaspina when the Descubierta and Atrevida arrived at Valparaíso, Chile in April 1790, and may have had contact once more, in October 1793 when they called in at Talcahuano. Prior to their return to Chile he had been thinking of using the ships of the expedition to undertake a survey of the southern regions of Chile, as a precursor to their colonization to prevent the area falling under the sway of foreign powers. Higgins to Florida Blanca, 12 April and 20 May 1792, Capitánia General (Santiago), vol.793, pp.205-207; cited in Donoso, p.274.
11. "Plan de un Viage Científico y Político alrededor del Mundo, remitido al Excmo. Señor Bailío Don Antonio Valdés, Ministro de Marina, por los Capitanes de fragata Don Alexandro Malaspina y Don José Bustamante, 10 September 1788", Museo Naval (Madrid), MS 316; quoted in Pedro de Novo y Colson, Viaje politico-científico alrededor del Mundo por las corbetas Descubierta y Atrevida, Madrid, 1885; and in Diario de viaje, Mercedes Palau, Aranzazu Zabala and Blanca Saíz (eds.), Madrid & Barcelona, Museo Naval, 1984.
12. Diego Barros Arana first called attention in 1902 to the influence Higgins' letter had on the preparation of the Malaspina expedition in his Historia General de Chile, Santiago, 1884-1902, Vol.VII, p.139. Commenting on this in 1942, Ricardo Donoso said that it was not possible to determine the extent of this influence with exactitude, op.cit., p.122. See also Robin Inglis, "The effect of LaPérouse on Spanish thinking about the Northwest Coast", in idem (ed.), Spain and the North Pacific Coast, Vancouver Maritime Museum Society, 1992, pp.46-52. Dario Manfredi said in 1988: "probably, the idea of realizing such an undertaking must have germinated and taken shape in the mind of our navigator during the voyage of the Astrea", op.cit., p.104.
13. Public Record Office, CO 201/1, ff.57-61; British Library Add. MS 47568, ff.240-6. Robert J. King, "'A regular and reciprocal System of Commerce'--Botany Bay, Nootka Sound, and the isles of Japan", The Great Circle, vol.19, no.1, 1997.
15. Expediente de Alexandro Malaspina, Archivo Naval de Bazan; cited in La Expedición Malaspina, 1789-1794, Museo Naval y Ministerio de Defensa, (Barcelona, Lunwerg, 1987-1996), Tomo I, (1987), edited by R. Cerezo Martínez, Circunstancia histórica del viaje, p.96.
16. José de Gálves to Antonio Valdés, 23 August 1785, Archivo Naval de Bazan; cited in Dario Manfredi, Il Viaggio Attorno al Mondo di Malaspina con la Fregata di S.M.C. "Astrea", 1786-1788, La Spezia, Memorie della Accademia Lunigianese di Scienze, "Giovanni Capellini", 1988, p.26.
19. Malaspina to William Parsons, 13 July 1789; in private possession; drawn to the attention of the author by Mr. Robin Inglis.
20. The General Advertiser for Thursday, October 12, The London Chronicle, The St. James Chronicle, The Whitehall Evening Post, The Morning Post for Friday, October 13, and The Daily Universal Register for Saturday, October 14, 1786.
21. During its stay at Manila from April to November 1792, Malaspina's expedition was assisted by Muñoz, who since August 1790 had occupied the post of Teniente de Rey and Commandant of the Cavite Arsenal.
22. "Noticia de las principales expediciones hechas por nuestras pilotos del Departamiento de San Blas al reconocimiento de la costa noroeste de America, desde el año de 1774 hasta el 1791, extractada de los diarios originales de aquellos navegantes", in Pedro de Novo y Colson, Viaje politicocientifico alrededor del mundo por las corbetas Descubierta y Atrevida, al mando de los capitanes de navio, don Alejandro Malaspina y don José de Bustamante y Guerra, desde 1789 a 1794., Madrid, 1885, p.428; cited in Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1973, p.115.
23. Museo Naval, MS 318, ff.11-37; MS 329, ff.57-88; quoted in Robert J. King, The Secret History of the Convict Colony: Alexandro Malaspina's Report on the British Settlement of New South Wales, Sydney, Allen & Unwin (Paul & Co., Boston), 1990, and Juan Pimentel, En el Panóptico del Mar del Sur, Madrid, CSIC, 1992.
24. Fernando Brambila, one of the expedition's artists, had depicted this scene in "Vista de la colonia de Parramata en la Nueva Gales Meridional". A copy of this was prepared as a gift for Francis Grose, Acting Governor of the colony, with the significant deletion of the convicts, in deference to English sensitivities, which were stated eloquently by David Collins: "From the disposition to crimes and the incorrigible character of the major part of the colonists, an odium was, from the first, illiberally thrown upon the settlement; and the word "Botany Bay" became a term of reproach that was indiscriminately cast upon every one who resided in New South Wales. But let the reproach light upon those who have used it as such.... if the honour of having deserved well of one's country be attainable by sacrificing good name, domestic comforts, and dearest connections in her service, the officers of this settlement have justly merited that distinction." (David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, London, 1798, p.502; Peter Barber, "Malaspina and George III, Brambila, and Watling: Three discovered drawings of Sydney and Parramatta by Fernando Brambila", Australian Journal of Art, Vol.XI, 1993, pp.31-55; also in Mercedes Palau Baquero & Antonio Orozco Acuaviva, eds., Malaspina '92: I Jornadas Internacionales--Madrid, Cádiz, La Coruña. 17-25 de Septiembre de 1992, Cádiz, Real Academia Hispano-Americana, 1994).
Updated: June 13, 2018