Sailing the North Pacific with Malaspina

Donald C. Cutter

     Good evening. I want to start by inviting you to go Sailing the North Pacific with Malaspina and me. Although Malaspina is the C. O. and we would like to share his quarters and mess, tonight we are going to sail before the mast as enlisted personnel aboard a vessel of yesteryear. Let me warn you that the gap between the enlisted complement and the officer and staff component of the late 18th century was far greater than it is today or than it has been during days that any of us can remember. I can speak with some confidence about our joining up with the explorers because as a young junior officer in the U. S. Navy during World War II, I sailed in some of the same waters as Captain Malaspina 150 years earlier.

     Malaspina’s corvette Descubierta was 306 tons: my ship, the USS Pecos was over 25 times as large. The Descubierta that we are going to board this evening had a complement of just about an even 100 counting officers and men. My Pecos had 220, or roughly ten times as much space per man. In neither case were there any women aboard and the average age of those involved was quite similar—with anyone in his middle-to-late thirties being considered old, even ancient. Obviously sailing with Malaspina was not a Sunday School picnic. But what about our C.O.? It has often been said that he was an Italian and it is implied that he was a mercenary. 1) At that time there was no Italy, although he was born in what eventually became Italy and geographically was always the boot of south Europe. 2) And when he became a young midshipman in the Spanish navy he became a Spaniard. And the small task group he commanded was a Spanish enterprise 100%. It would not, however, be accurate to depict the members as an equally 100% Spanish crew, for tonight we would be joining the typical crews of that period, consisting of available and capable men—French, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, English, Filipino, even an intrusive New Englander, and many whose national origins were obviously non-Hispanic. Some did not even speak Spanish, but responded in the unwritten language of the sea.

     The story of Malaspina’s voyage has been told and will be retold—we will add a little here and there, and even subtract some. My first interest in Malaspina came about at the invitation of a man who was a member of the California History Book Club who in 1958, knowing that I was going to Spain on a sabbatical leave, came up with the suggestion of my writing for a limited edition a little book of perhaps fifty pages on Malaspina’s visit to Monterey in California in 1791, which I could do along with my other research in the Spanish archives. Up to then I had known just a tiny bit about Don Alejandro but was tempted, and I yielded to the temptation. As my research mushroomed, little did I know that over forty years, four books, and at least a dozen articles later, I would still be greatly interested in the 62-month expedition headed by the learned captain. In 1958 I felt that I knew a great deal—today, being older and wiser, I know that there is much that I haven’t yet learned and a great deal for others to add to the story. That is where the entire audience can become involved.

     The name of Malaspina is more familiar here in the Pacific Northwest than nearly any other place that he visited. Why? An Alaskan glacier, a prominent ferry, an institution of higher learning, a soon-to-be forgotten hotel, even a dental centre, and a few geographical places bear his name. But what he did is not quite as familiar. How did he gain the fame that he now has?About 200 years after the fact, he joins with other better known round-the-world scientific explorers of the era; and now the trinity of Captain James Cook, the French Count of La Pérouse, and the Spanish Captain Malaspina can be mentioned in the same breath. The North Pacific is an ideal place to compare these early scientific contributors—first, because it was at that time one of the leftover areas of the second great age of exploration;second, because it was the last area in which an elusive, even soon-to-be-proved-non-existent strait through North America was felt to exist—sometimes called the North West Passage, the Strait of Anian, the Strait of Ferrer Maldonado, or the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Third, our area was the geographical point where colonial Spain played its last card in the great Quest for Empire that had started with Columbus, Balboa and Magellan. That last card was the expansion of New Spain (as Mexico was then called) north to occupy first California and then Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island; and fourth, it was also the single area visited by all three—Cook, La Pérouse and Malaspina..

     The juxtaposition of those ideas, hopes, and geographical concepts made and today still make the area an ideal one for comparative study of the late colonial period..

     Sailing before the mast with Malaspina’s expedition we thus join one of the last great voyages of exploration, one where science and empire went hand in hand. We board one or the other of his two new identical corvettes which had been fitted for exploration, with the idea of later conversion into armed cruisers. Crammed on to each of the 306-ton vessels were about 100 men – all professional mariners – meaning that each awaited the end of the month to draw their pay from the nearest royal treasury office via the supply officer of the corvette to which they were assigned. There were no amateurs.

     The phase in which we are interested this evening was the trip from Acapulco in Mexico to Alaska and back to Acapulco. It was one of the most important phases of the expedition, one of the most fruitful, and perhaps the most interesting because we are still learning from it concerning the areas visited then.

PacNorWestOpPlan(Pacific Northwest Operation Plan)

     It started out by being out of sight of land for fifty days. I can identify with such a prolonged period of absence from the real world, except for the accompanying vessel, the other corvette. I cannot match the loneliness of such a prolonged stretch, but having spent over two months without touching land or anchoring during WWII, I am certain that the feeling of loneliness has not changed much. The plan was to make a northing in about 60° where the elusive strait through North America was felt to be. En route northward, with calm weather, a few incredible contacts were made between the two corvettes. To make certain that future operational orders were well understood, a small boat was lowered from one of the corvettes into the endless ocean and made its way to the sister ship transporting not only the orders but also almost all of the officers from that vessel. They enjoyed a meal, had a nice time including a musical interlude and returned back after several hours, having left only one officer aboard for that elapsed time. Strange as this event seems, it was followed by some encores during the northward track. But once there, following a visit to Yakutat Bay, they were next tasked in less favorable weather to follow the coast first northwestward and then south and while doing so to chart and make coastal profiles of the intervening area. They mapped the great climax peak of Mt. St. Elias, and got westward as far as King George’s Sound, but failed to find a strait. Two weeks were spent at the Spanish military post at Nootka and finally the expedition returned to Acapulco via California.

     Many firsts were achieved. The first mapping of Nootka Sound, the best early artistic drawings of the area and of its inhabitants, the most detailed accounts of dealings with the aboriginal people all add to the importance then and now of the expedition. Special contributions were being made to botany, cartography, and museology. The first Ph. D. to observe the areas, the Naturalist Tadeo Haenke, adds uniqueness to the visit by being the initial evidence of what later became an infestation. There was also early ethnography, although the term had not yet been invented. The aforementioned artistic efforts form a treasury of material for continued study and give us visual dimensions that are so often lacking in early contacts between whites and aborigines.

     While aboard we might have early noted that the officers seem to have been well selected for the great mission, this having been a special advantage from the very beginning of the project. The naval ministry had left up to Malaspina and his consort commander José Bustamante the almost free hand they utilized in wise selection.

     Having been unable to find the much-sought strait, Malaspina determined that the following year, that of 1792, a spin-off expedition would be sent out from the corvettes to make a last search for the strait in the only areas that seemed feasible, entering by way of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. From this sub-expedition of the Malaspina voyage, Nanaimo first comes to outside attention, with even a drawing made by the expedition artist José Cardero of an Indian in ceremonial dress at the Bocas de Wintuysen, as the area was temporarily called.

     In such close order exploration there was much rowing and only a little sailing, but there was also a continuation of the collecting of artifacts, of the writing of reports and of visual interpretation.

     Going back to the daily life aboard the vessels to which we might be assigned, things were never easy. What we know about the day to day activity is mostly contained in the Libros de Guardia, the guard books kept every day while in port, which provide us with a somewhat distorted view of routine activity, only giving detail when some problem existed. At sea, Port and Starboard watches – i. e. 12 hours on- and 12 hours off-duty – made it a time of intensive effort. In order to avoid shipboard contamination, regular tests with a Eudiometer gauged the malignity or salubriousness of the air, and bedding was ordered aired topside with regularity. In an effort to be militarily prepared, on nearly a daily basis the enlisted personnel were trained in the management of the ship’s big guns and in regular small arms drills. Special detachments of the most militarily adept were organized for future extended duty in the ships’ boats.

     One interesting curiosity was that on the corvettes there existed a mobile commissary in that live animals, particularly cattle, were shipped aboard to be consumed as need arose and when other sources of meat were unavailable. Even at best the crowded conditions were made worse by the ever present infestation of cockroaches. This was true in officers’ country as well as before the mast. Although we have very few personal recollections of life aboard the corvettes, a short term replacement artist from Mexico City, Tomás de Suria, has left a journal from which I quote a small portion.

I will only say that stretched in my bed my feet were against the side of the ship and my head against the bulkhead, which is what they call the timbers that enclose the cabin. From my breast to the deck, which was my roof, the distance is only three inches. The confined position does not allow me to move in my bed and I am forced to make for myself a roll of cloth to cover my head, although this suffocates me; but this is a lesser evil than being attacked by thousands of cockroaches, which are such a great pest that you see some individuals with sores on their foreheads and bites on their fingers.  

     With normal perception while we are with Malaspina, especially in the more northerly latitudes, we would, like the rest of the crew, note that the mid-summer days seemed continuously longer and the nights shorter, giving rise to extended days of work and shorter nights of rest. These longer days had greater requirement for duties such as care of the signal flags, making of acoustical sounds, and shore details working with the scientific contingent. And when required there were long hours spent in gathering wood for the cook stoves, and taking aboard water obtained from convenient sources indicated by the local Indians as the best places.

     Some personnel among the enlisted group were involved in hunting for both food and for specimens. Fishing was done for similar purposes, and included fish that were drawn in great likeness to the originals by the artists aboard. In an effort to preserve animals in their entirety, some of the enlisted personnel became amateur taxidermists, but when some of the specimens took on weird and grotesque shapes due to the unanticipated settling of the materials used to stuff them, that activity was curtailed.

     Ashore as armed escorts for the scientific components, some personnel escaped from the constant painting, scraping, and conditioning of vessels and the constant care of sails and lines. Duty on the small boats used as taxis from vessels to land, where tents and fixtures were temporarily installed, occupied other enlisted men and doubtless helped develop their muscles during the regular rowing of boats that were not equipped for anything but very elementary sailing. Small boat duty involved a measure of self-interest when it entailed bringing aboard supplies from places that had an abundant supply, such as from the bakery established at Nootka’s Friendly Cove at the Spanish settlement, or the loading of salt from the salt beds at the mouth of the Salinas River in California.

     Food aboard, though never in short supply, tended to become monotonous and was punctuated with only occasional treats. Wine from San Lucar de Barrameda was regularly available, but the good wine from Málaga was only for special occasions. But food such as beans, potatoes, garbanzos, menestra, etc. was often supplemented by local resources which were used until completely depleted. Occasional efforts at desertion by crew members were at times motivated by dissatisfaction with the food, but long hours, and the tediousness of prolonged time at sea were more common.

     Coming back to our own reality, I think that most of us are thankful that the explorers of yesterday broke the ground, plied the waters, faced potentially hostile indigenes, and have left for us an incomparable record for our study and for our appreciation of their efforts.

Updated: June 13, 2018