Alejandro Malaspina in the Spain and Europe of his Time.

Ana Maria Donat. The purpose of this paper is to emphasize the figure of Alejandro Malaspina, the noble and debonair marine Captain who dreamt the dream of historical oblivion for so many years despite his great historical accomplishments on his voyages through the American lands, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands. We would like to place Alejandro Malaspina in the historical, sociological and political frame of the Spain and Europe of his time, in order to be able to shed some light on the complexity of the issues that surrounded his misfortune and led to it, while keeping in mind the colossal achievement attained by his voyage, which did not bring him the fame and recognition that he justly deserved.

Much has being written recently about Malaspina and his voyage. Emilio Soler, among other very well informed authors, has provided us with a recently published book on this subject: La Aventura De Malaspina (The Malaspina Adventure), in which he describes with great richness and detail the voyage of Captain Malaspina as well as the unfortunate events after his successful return to Spain that led to his misfortunes, his imprisonment and, ultimately, his expulsion from Spain. This forced estrangement from the country for whom he felt he had given his best effort and produced an astounding historical event, left him with a deep sorrow and a sense of unresolved injustice that is believed to have greatly contributed to his untimely sickness and death.

He tried unsuccessfully and repeatedly to obtain the permission of King Charles IV to return to Spain. He never got the King’s forgiveness or permission to return, much to his dismay, and by royal decree the books that he wrote about his successful voyage remained locked up in secrecy for years to come. 

It might look like an unexplainable occurrence, this unfair and illogical turn of events for a nobleman of aristocratic upbringing, who managed to put the naval and exploratory capabilities of Spain on a level of respect in relation to other European countries like Britain and Russia, both of which possessed formidable navies during this time. We will attempt to shed some light on the complex situation of the Spain of this time to show why Malaspina's well researched, truthful and solid ideas about reform were defeated, causing him his misfortune, imprisonment and untimely death.

It is well known that Alejandro Malaspina admired deeply the famous Captain Cook and that he carried with him during his long voyage a volume of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. We know as well that he had had a careful upbringing, and excellent schooling and tutors. (Dario Manfredi in his biographical study of Alejandro Malaspina called him an intellectual of his time).

Malaspina’s keen observation, education and enlightened upbringing enabled him to perceive quickly the serious malady that was afflicting the Spanish Monarchy and the Spanish Empire. He was able to notice that if left unchecked and uncorrected the state of chaotic administration, lack of ability and ignorance of the officers in charge of the American colonies of the Spanish Empire was going to cause the dismemberment and loss of those same Spanish Colonies. Unfortunately for him and for Spain, the climate in the Spanish court upon his return from the memorable voyage was one of extreme corruption, and the state of the Monarchy one of ineptitude and intrigue.

Spanish society of this time was still very much webbed in fanaticism, superstition and ignorance. Despite the ideas of freedom and revolution coming from France, there was a general atmosphere of suspicion towards the “Afrancesados”: those sympathetic to French ideas. The executions of the French monarch and aristocrats had caused a deep shock and outrage in the Spanish people, who still viewed the monarchy as appointed by God. The Spain of the XVIII and XIX Centuries was deeply religious and deeply influenced by the Church. The minority of Spaniards who held “enlightened” (equivalent to “afrancesados”) ideas was regarded by most with dislike, fear and suspicion.

The Church as an organization which for centuries had shared the reins of power in Europe with the monarchs was, like the Spanish monarchy, afraid of the revolutionary ideas leaking through the French border. These were considered blasphemy, evil and a danger to those of the divine origin and absolute (God-given) sanctity of the Monarchs’ appointments, since they appeared to propose a deep change in the Monarchy and in social structure.

Many Friars and Priests preached at Sunday Mass against the French revolution, French ideas and the “afrancesados.” One of the most influential and famous preachers was Friar Diego de Cádiz, who very successfully exhorted the citizens to a holy Crusade against “perverse France,” and reiterated the divine origin of the Monarchy. This atmosphere reinforced the alienation of the Spanish Monarchs, who walled themselves in their palace, closing their doors and their minds to any perverse and evil “new ideas.”

This division of ideas (between those who were “conservative, traditional, and opposed to change” and those who were “new, reformist, and liberal”) that began to brew at this time would cause in the future the war between “Carlistas and Isabelinos” (the followers respectively of Prince Charles, brother of the heir Ferdinand VII, and of his daughter Queen Isabel II). The “Carlistas” would embrace conservative and traditional religious ideas, while the “Isabelinos” would propose a more liberal and reformed Government, ideas and society.

This division of ideas ran deep in the heart of Spain as a source of poems and articles, inspiring Spanish literary figures to refer to this phenomenon as the “two Spains.” In the XX Century this “division of ideas” would ultimately erupt in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, with General Franco crushing the Spanish Republic three years later and imposing a Dictatorship and a political regime that will further alienate and enclose Spain for forty years.

Perhaps History would have been written in a different way had Alejandro Malaspina succeeded in his attempt to convince the Spanish Monarchy of the chaotic reality and imminent fall of the Spanish Empire, and of the deep changes that were sweeping the Europe of the late XVIII-XIX centuries.

It is easy to understand why, in this general atmosphere of paranoia and alienation, the underhanded and inept ways of Manuel Godoy, and his close-minded and catastrophic ideas, were successful, while the “enlightened” ways of Malaspina, and his well reasoned and truthful ideas, were not.

The latter's nemesis, Manuel Godoy, Head of the State, who had a meteoric rise to his position thanks to his skilful manipulation of the Queen’s favours, had become the favourite of King Charles IV and was rumoured to be the lover of his wife, the Queen María Luisa. Godoy was an incompetent man in governmental affairs but a very able one in sailing successfully through the tides of palace intrigue. Alejandro Malaspina, seasoned sailor on the open sea but inexperienced and naive in handling the turmoil of the sea of corruption and deceit at the palace, failed terribly in his attempt to convince the King and the Queen that their dear favourite Manuel Godoy, ironically enough called “Prince of the Peace,” should be removed from his position in order to save the nation and the Spanish colonies overseas from cataclysmic problems. 

Unfortunately the documents that he was sending through her handmaid to the Queen (like himself of Italian origin) were surrendered to Godoy himself by the same handmaid. Obviously Malaspina did not know of the intimate liaison that Godoy had had with her too. The result of this action was his disgrace.

Godoy was able successfully to turn the tables around and to accuse Alejandro Malaspina of conspiracy and high treason against the State with the tragic results of his falling, imprisonment and subsequent expulsion.

We should not forget that even though Godoy had the advantage of having at his side the Queen (and therefore the King, since he followed the desires and ideas of this wife), the political atmosphere of Spain was highly volatile at this time owing to the alarm and fear in the monarchs’ hearts after their failure to save their cousin the French King Louis XVI, who died by the guillotine at the hands of the French “revolution.”

The ideas of reformists like Malaspina struck a high chord of fear in the ears of the King and Queen who, after the execution of their relative at the hands of the French Revolution, were very weary of any ideas that looked “afrancesadas” (French-like).

Godoy very cleverly did not waste any time in making comparisons between the potential disastrous consequences of the situation that Malaspina was postulating and the situation that, according to him, led to the tragic events of the French Revolution, the main problem being the loss of the “limitless power of divine origin that the King should have as his right.”

Sus papeles estan llenos de las mismas ideas que suscitaron en Francia las disputas, que causaron las desgracias, sobre el poder ejecutivo y la voluntad ilimitada que debe residir en el Soberano por Derecho Divino. (1)
After this connection was made in the minds of the King and the Queen, the fate of Malaspina was already decided. 

He was lucky to escape with his life, but his imprisonment in the castle of San Antón of La Coruña, located in the north of Spain, with damp and cold winters, made him ill. His psychological frame of mind was influenced by his disillusion and sadness and as well affected his health, which became frail.

Fortunately for him, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor, who had ironically become the ruler of the country that had seen the execution of a King and the birth and passing of a Revolutionary Government, requested his release at the urging of several European political figures. In this case his aristocratic origins and his political connections served him well and he was released from prison in the year 1802. 

Upon his arrival in Genoa in March 1803, hHe was received with honours and acclaimed as a national hero in the country of his birth. There his fame was recognized and he was offered a ministerial position, but Alejandro Malaspina, devout in his sworn loyalty as an officer of the Spanish King, rejected the honour. A gentleman, one who lived and died as such.

His death occurred in his native Duchy of Parma, in Pontremoli, capital of Lunigiana and very close to the city of his birth, Mulazzo, in the year 1810, when he was 55 years old.
The magnificent accomplishment of Alejandro / Alessandro Malaspina did not disappear after all, locked away in some desk drawer with the books of this voyage. Like his books, his recognition also saw the light. His contribution has been recognized worldwide and he has been finally recognized in Spain, the country he chose to serve and tried to change. He was a man a step ahead of his time and lived at the end of a time period that was not as “enlightened” as it could have been. He lived in a time when Spain did not share his vision, but that vision has lived on and now his name is basking in a golden glow of recognition.


(1) Emilio Soler. La Aventura De Malaspina.Ed.B., S.A. Barcelona, Spain, 1999. P. 337.



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Updated: June 13, 2018