First of all, I should like to thank
As you know, I am going to talk about Alessandro Malaspina, the
commander of the most important Spanish scientific expedition of the eighteenth
century. From 1789 to 1794 this Italian sailor led an encyclopaedic voyage that
But I shall not spend long talking about the actual voyage – that is, the physical voyage. The voyage I am going to speak about is of another kind. As far as the former is concerned, the details are well known. During those 5 years the crews of the Descubierta and the Atrevida, a select group of hydrographers, naturalists and draughtsmen produced an extraordinary picture of the Spanish possessions and their border zones. Natural history, map-making, ethnographic descriptions, geology, geography, studies on the trade and politics of the regions they visited ... it would actually be easier to say what they did not do. Their interests were many and various – encyclopaedic, so to speak.
And perhaps this idea of the Encyclopaedia is a good reason to introduce the subject. The Encyclopaedia, the famous work directed by Diderot and d'Alembert, expresses an idea which is characteristic of the Enlightenment. It is the idea of circular knowledge. That is what the Greek word means: a circular education, spherical, total, and complete, embracing and including all subjects, or, as they said at the time, all the arts and sciences.
Now let us turn to voyages of exploration and the knowledge of the
Earth. And let us consider the Enlightenment as a second act of the
Renaissance. The voyages of Cook, Bougainville, Malaspina and the great
circumnavigations of the eighteenth century in fact finished what Columbus,
Magellan and Vasco de Gama had initiated centuries before. In the Enlightenment,
Western man managed to achieve his longstanding desire: to encircle the Earth,
to hold it in a tight embrace. And he did it in two ways: physically, thanks to
nautical progress in the form of these voyages; and also mathematically,
measuring its dimensions. It was the age that saw the settlement of the polemic
The frontispiece of the Encyclopaedia, too, makes us aware of another
desire of the age, which is very relevant not only to Malaspina, but in fact to
all the science of the time. The image shows Reason tearing the veil from
Truth. As Montesquieu had indicated years before, man felt that Nature’s secret
had finally been revealed. This idea permeates the century as far as Humboldt,
who would also illustrate his Geography of plants with the same image, where
Apollo unveils this
Everywhere, Western man felt that he could fold up the world and surround it. He could encircle the Earth, systematize all knowledge and gain access to the secrets that Nature had kept for centuries. This was the fulfilment of a promise at the heart of two traditions that merged in the early Modern Age: the old Christian tradition, in which Saint Augustine had reintroduced the passage of Genesis exalting man as the king of creation, and the new tradition of modern science, in which Francis Bacon, for example, had also prophesied the empire of man over nature.
In the caption to this picture there is a Biblical phrase, from the Book of Daniel: “many shall pass through [the columns of Hercules] and knowledge shall be manifold.” [Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia.] This picture, in addition, expresses an analogy which was common at the time, and is relevant to our argument: the analogy between travel and knowledge.
Let me say something on this point, which is not as obvious as seems. Nowadays the identification of travel with science seems as natural to us as for many centuries it was strange. Travellers, from the point of view of the old world, were seen as untrustworthy, unreliable individuals. Their work had little to do with science, with true knowledge. In the Western tradition, until the time of the Scientific Revolution, the activities of travellers were akin to those of poets, merchants, thieves and liars. All of these were individuals who trafficked with reality. At the origin of this tradition, of course, we have Ulysses, the prince of travellers. And Ulysses, as you know, was a liar and a cheat. Let me give another philological clarification. In Homer’s poem Ulysses, Odysseus, is described in the first verse as “Odysseus Polytropos”, the man of twists and turns. His kingdom, so to speak, was change. Odysseus did not reflect reality, he transformed it.
Travellers, in addition, were people who told of strange events, of extraordinary things: hence their association with wonders. And for scholastic philosophy this type of fact, observed by a single person, was not worthy of credit. Science had nothing to do with it. Science was quite the opposite; science was what happened normally, what everybody could observe: for example that the sun moved around the Earth.
Modern science changed this way of acquiring knowledge. And it also
modified the role of travellers. Experimental philosophy and empiricism granted
a different status to isolated facts. Extraordinary facts, like those obtained
in a laboratory or in remote regions, things seen through a telescope or a
microscope, what was hidden or unknown, became the basis of science.
What has all this to do with Malaspina and his exploration? Quite a lot, because it offers some clues to understanding what sort of discovery the Italian was seeking, and how he intended to carry it out. In the last instance, it helps to understand what sort of traveller we are faced with, and the nature of his voyage and his search.
I have already mentioned that sort of generalized optimism that the
Enlightenment felt concerning man’s capacities for knowledge. Without doubt,
that optimism arose from the conquests in the field of natural science that had
taken place in the course of the Scientific Revolution: those of Harvey,
Vesalius, Galileo, Copernicus and, above them all, Newton. It is difficult to
exaggerate the veneration that the eighteenth century felt for
The discovery that the moon or apples behaved in the same way, obeying
the same principles, caused an immense upheaval in the culture and mentality of
the time. It turned the old closed cosmos into an infinite universe, as Koyré has
explained. In other words, in a sense, it put an end to the centrality and
uniqueness of the Earth. But at the same time it gave back to mankind something
that he thought he had lost since the time of Adam – the ability to understand
and know the mysteries of creation. Thanks to the scientific method, indeed,
the Europeans of the eighteenth century believed themselves to be at a crucial
moment in the history of humanity. The age of reason therefore exalted this man
and this way of making knowledge. And it applied his science, his rules and his
methods to the explanation of all types of phenomena.
I quote: “And if Natural Philosophy in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will also be enlarged.”
During the eighteenth century, indeed, we find versions of Newtonian
science to explain not only heat or electricity, but also the passions, love
and – of course – trade, politics and human society itself. To speak of social
Newtonianism is to speak of Adam Smith and the birth of political economy, a
discipline that arose to explain the operation of human communities. Adam Smith
is best remembered for his famous work, An
Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). This
Scottish professor began at the
As you will already have realized, my aim here is to present Malaspina as a social Newtonian, to argue that the nature of his research into the Monarchy was this: to make an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth and poverty, of the strengths and weaknesses, of the Spanish Empire as a whole.
Malaspina received a solid Newtonian education, beginning in his early
years when he studied at the
There he acquired his first education in classical letters, rhetoric, grammar, history and also natural sciences. We know that in the Somascan college experiments were carried out on vacuum, as in the Galilean Accademia del Cimento; and also that he studied natural philosophy through Newtonian texts that were classics in the Catholic world: John Keill, s'Gravesande, Rohault. Also from this time comes the earliest piece of his writing to be conserved, the Theses ex fisica generali (1771), an academic work in which he reviews various ideas characteristic of natural philosophy. At 16, then, Malaspina was quoting and commenting on Boyle, Bacon and Hooke. He was familiar with scholasticism, the atomist schools, modern conceptions of experimental philosophy and, needless to say, Newtonian physics.
On the front page of this school exercise, young Alessandro wrote something highly significant: “things that we learn in our first years last and persist tenaciously”. And so they do. I cannot recall who said that a person’s homeland is where he studied high school, but he was not far wrong.
1774 was an important year in the biography of this young Italian. That
year his father died, and he joined the Spanish Navy, not an uncommon act for
an Italian of the time. Hispano-Italian relations in the Modern Age were very
close. In fact, for example, King Carlos III of
It is no accident that the foundation of the observatory and the
encouragement of scientific studies in the Navy were thanks to the work of Jorge
Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, two sailors of the generation previous to Malaspina.
When young, these two sailors had taken part in the geodesic expedition to
measure the arc of meridian in the Viceroyalty of Perú,
that is, in the great scientific undertaking that had confirmed
A science that had demonstrated such success in explaining phenomena such as the decomposition of light, the movements of the moon, the relation between mass, attraction and distance or the shape of the Earth, could and should serve to explain other phenomena. This is what many thought: Malaspina was one of them.
In 1788, in the midst of his preparations for the expedition around the world, Malaspina wrote a document that was discovered exactly 15 years ago. It is the Political Axioms on America, a ten-point list of political principles dealing with the Spanish Monarchy. In them Malaspina set out his ideas on the subject, which consisted basically of the criticism of the colonial model and the proposal of a series of alternative measures.
Malaspina criticized the excessive weight of Hispanic bureaucracy, the cause of idleness and corruption. He was opposed to the excesses of conquest, to the economic model based on the exploitation of precious metals, and to commercial monopolies. Malaspina proposed the liberalization of trade and local political institutions. For him, as for Montesquieu, laws (political laws as well as natural, that is to say, political laws on the same level as natural) were necessary relationships that derived from the nature of things. Consequently, Malaspina opted for a sort of Commonwealth, a more liberal colonial format.
I must admit that the first time I read the axioms it seemed to me that they were written after and not before the expedition. Their concise and definite quality, their consistency with the ideas that Malaspina had expressed in the political reports on the different regions he visited, made me see them as a sort of final conclusion. They were, I thought, the result of the expedition.
However, Malaspina had already mentioned them in several documents of
1788 and 1789, before the expedition. Reading Newton’s Principia removed
all doubt from my mind. The authoritative text of modern physics opens, not
closes, with the Axiomata sive leges motus, the axioms on the laws of
motion, principles that he later tried to demonstrate through cases, examples,
experiments. Such was the case with Malaspina’s Axioms, veritable precepts for
Monarchy, the laws by which that great social and political reality was ruled. This
explained why, time and time again, the Italian made use of the rhetoric,
language, images and metaphors of natural philosophy: the great Monarchy was
made up of different bodies (the Spaniards, the Creoles, the
Indians), bodies that moved, collided with one other and rebounded. Malaspina
explained the operation of a social organization using the mathematical and
geometric approach of the great
And this really explained the nature of the expedition, seen from then on as a sort of experiment, fieldwork by which to verify and demonstrate, as in a laboratory, the validity or otherwise of those general principles that, in any scientific company, are always established before and not after the empirical study of the different cases.
You will, no doubt, think that this argument tends to undervalue the
weight of experience. What is the point of a voyage if we already know what we
are going to find? What is the point of opening a book if we already know what
we are going to learn? Well, there is no need to exaggerate, one way or the
other. What is certainly true is that the history of science, knowledge and
voyages is full of episodes similar to the case that concerns us.
What I mean is that in order to see it is necessary to be prepared to see: that we only find what we have previously guessed or anticipated. What do historians find when they consult documents in the archives? Generally, what they are looking for, or what they are ready to recognize. And maps? What information do they give geographers about the land? What has been identified beforehand as the object of their search, what their instruments can measure, what their questions try to chart.
In relation to the world of exploration, what did
Malaspina transferred the classic images of Enlightenment thought onto the object of his investigation: a naturalized, geometric empire, a geographic and political space subject to a series of laws, mathematical principles and axioms. This is why I chose this title for my book, La física de la Monarquía, The Physics of the Monarchy.
Are we talking about displacements and transferences? Just so. I said before that the labour of travellers is precisely that, to take things from one place to another, to put one thing (or one word or one meaning) in place of another. I am speaking of traffic and translations. I’m speaking of metaphors and figures of speech – the business of travellers, to which Ulysses was dedicated. And I am referring to representation, the heart of any voyage and also of any act concerned with the production and communication of knowledge. This is also how scientific research works. For instance, to talk about light as a set of particles or waves is to make use of two different representations. They are two metaphors, two transferences, two ways of understanding a natural phenomenon.
This, then, is the true distinguishing characteristic of the Malaspina expedition: an encyclopaedic exploration, if we look at the disciplines that took part; scientific, not only because the disciplines involved (natural history, hydrography, astronomy) were scientific, but by virtue of their method; and political, because its ultimate aim was to carry out a diagnosis of imperial strengths and weaknesses in order to reform the colonial model.
It’s true that the Malaspina expedition tried to emulate Cook’s voyages
in many aspects, something that is evident from the very names of the
corvettes, the Descubierta and the Atrevida. But it cannot be
understood as a mere replication. Their differences come from the different
This explains the priority given to hydrographic tasks. To draw up the
coasts’ profiles and to trace routes for navigation was to transfer into the
colonial setting what Vicente Tofiño had just done in the
Malaspina not only directed all this work, but in addition applied
himself to writing a series of reports on all the viceroyalties and regions he
visited. Systematically, he wrote a geographic description and a political
examination of each one of them. In some ways, these reports follow in the wake
of the ancient moral and natural histories of the Indies, the Jesuit literary tradition
introduced by José de Acosta in the sixteenth century, and now, in the eighteenth
century, updated into the new civil and natural history. This is the case of
I will give two examples. They are two details, but significant. First
is the motto with which he heads the Political
Axioms on America. It is a Latin verse, Erranti passimque oculos per
cuncta ferenti. It means “wandering, and casting the eyes all around.” It
is a dactylic hexameter from the Aeneid. While it was written in the
frontispiece of the Axioms in 1788,
this was not the first time he had adopted it. A year before he had used it in
the heading of the logbook of the voyage of the frigate Astrea, when he made a complete circumnavigation of the world. It
was the first time that an Italian had directed a navigation of this type, and
it was the first time that Malaspina sailed the Pacific. Used in two such
strategic places, the motto expresses how Malaspina sees himself, how he
understands his voyage, the nature of his search. The phrase is taken from a
decisive moment in Virgil’s poem. After the fire of
The other example comes from the political description of the provinces
of the River Plate, now
In other words, Malaspina is always thinking globally. His subject is
the regeneration of the Monarchy as a whole. I stress that this is a
mathematical, geometric examination. His method has a universal bias, like the
The way he composed these geographic and political descriptions was always the same. The navigator collected all the data that he had and drew up a concise picture in which he evaluated the characteristics, the problems and the possibilities of each place. He could speak from direct knowledge of some places, and not of others. But no matter: Malaspina, like all investigators, extracts as much information from the studies of his own men as from other travellers, naturalists and historians.
The information that he deals with is very complete. Before leaving Cádiz, numerous consultations had been held with many Spanish, European and American authorities. The corvettes Descubierta and Atrevida, in addition, were not only mobile laboratories, but also portable libraries. We are well aware of the books that were in their holds. And also what Malaspina’s favourite reading matter was: political economy, history, moral and natural philosophy and, obviously, travel literature. The list is long and includes authors like William Robertson, David Hume, William Paley, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Jefferson himself, to mention some classics of the Anglo-American world; but there were also many others: Raynal, Filiangieri, Jovellanos, Genovesi, Boturini, and so on.
As well as this, when the expedition arrived at an important capital,
Malaspina commissioned a special group to study and copy documents in the
archives. This happened in many places, but mainly in
Let us turn our attention to the information that they gathered in
In the capital of
Shortly before the travellers passed through
As you all know, Malaspina and his men undertook numerous projects
concerned with anthropology and ethnography. They took with them the
vocabularies of the indigenous peoples that James Cook and William Anderson had
prepared in the Pacific islands and here in Nootka. The interest in the
languages, rites and myths of ancient peoples becomes more intense in
Malaspina’s writings as the voyage progresses and especially in two regions,
two frontier regions where the navigator could make contact with indigenous
populations isolated from the control of the West. These two regions were the
Islands of Tonga, in the South Pacific, and the
We have no time here to go into detail of the accounts and writings generated by these visits. I just want to point out the role that these experiences and this type of studies played in Malaspina’s global vision – that mathematical, geometric vision, dominated, as we have said, by Newtonian physics and the political economy of early liberalism.
As a result of the encounter with other cultures and other values,
Malaspina ponders the role of empires and western colonialism. There were other
ways to understand human sociability, far removed from political economy and
the new languages of Western political theory, far from republicanism,
constitutions and universal laws and rights. There were other ways to
understand and to put into practice the relations of man with nature, far from
Malaspina, a true navigator-philosopher, confronted the problem in its twofold human and theoretical dimension with courage and great lucidity. His imperial vision often breaks down. They are beautiful pages, where Malaspina wonders about the sense of a scientific and political activity in which he knows himself to be established and in the first rank. His thoughts are subjected to tensions which are difficult to resolve. Against the axiomatic method, individual cases; against aspiration towards the universal, the existence of the local, the different; against new science, history. What do peoples and nations have in common? By virtue of progress and the empire over nature, can Western man export and impose his forms of social organization and his forms of knowledge?
To us, this tension or dialectic is familiar. Not by chance: on the contrary, because this is the very paradox of modern thought and its crisis. It’s the clash between globalization and the survival of different ways of thinking and living. In a word, it’s a tension, a clash, which has yet to be resolved.
Malaspina experienced this historical questioning at a particularly appropriate moment, at the critical moment of the Enlightenment, in the days of the French Revolution, which were also the days of Goethe, Herder and early Romanticism.
He was not the only one to express this tension. Nor was he the first to
note the limits and the risks of exporting modern science in an attempt to
explain everything, including human societies. One of the first, in fact, was
Giambattista Vico, a Neapolitan professor from the beginning of the eighteenth
century, in whose doctrines Malaspina was also educated at the
One of the great historians of ideas of the second half of the twentieth
And that is what I meant to say to you today. The greatness of Malaspina
as a thinker resides in the fact that he also knew how to go against the
current: against the current of his own ideas, his own education, his own profession. All this ties in with
how he ended his days, first in jail and then in exile, isolated from
everything and everyone. Once in
Some time ago a writer, also Italian, Italo Calvino, wrote a marvellous story about an eighteenth-century character. Its title is "Il Barone rampante," "The Baron in the Trees," and it deals with the fabulous events that befall a man who decides to live in the trees, without ever setting foot on terra firma. At one point in the story Calvino writes:
... the only way really to be with others was to be separated from others, to stubbornly impose on himself and on others that uncomfortable singularity and solitude at every hour and every moment of his life, like the vocation of the revolutionary, the poet, the explorer.
Malaspina was a Baron in the Trees avant la lettre. Instead of the treetops, he chose the ocean and the timbers of a ship. He lived his last seven years close to where he had lived his first seven. In his tomb in far-off Lunigiana, in Pontremoli, there lies a man who encircled the earth and who dared to think about its imperfect sphere.