In July 1789, two ships of the Spanish Navy, Descubierta and Atrevida (Discovery and Daring), sailed from the port of Cadiz, Spain, at the start of a scientific voyage that was expected to circumnavigate the World and designed, initially at least, to build on, and surpass, the voyages of Captain James Cook. The commander, Alejandro Malaspina, and his consort captain Jose Bustamante, had modelled their expedition particularly on the voyages of Cook.
In the introduction to the modern account of the voyage, the editors wrote, “Malaspina was familiar with all three of Cook’s Pacific voyages, both from published accounts, and possibly from stories passed by word of mouth, private letters of enquiry, and by other means. A measure of Cook’s importance to the Spanish expedition is obvious in the number of times that the British captain’s name is found in the version of his diario or journal that Malaspina was preparing for publication”.1
Malaspina’s two ships were purpose built 24-gun corvettes, about 118ft in length. Their armament was reduced to 16 guns to allow for the extra stores and equipment needed for the voyage. Each ship had a complement of 100 officers and men, plus an artist and botanist in each vessel. Both Malaspina and Bustamante were allowed to pick their own officers, selecting men skilled in astronomy, hydrography, cartography and natural sciences.
In his “Plan for a Scientific and Political Voyage Around the World” submitted to Antonio Valdes, Minister for the Spanish Navy, in September 1788, Malaspina wrote,
For the past twenty years two nations, the English and the French, in noble competition, have undertaken voyages of this sort in which navigation, geography and humanity itself have made very rapid progress. The history of human society has thus been founded on much wider research; natural history has been enriched with almost endless discoveries; and possibly the most exciting victory has been the preservation of health in the course of long sea voyages… The proposed voyage would aim to accomplish these objectives and this part, which can be termed the scientific aspect, would certainly be undertaken following earnestly in the wake of Cook and La Pérouse...
But a voyage undertaken by Spanish navigators must necessarily involve two other objectives. One is the making of hydrographic charts covering the most remote regions of America and the compilation of sailing directions capable of providing safe guidance to inexperienced merchant mariners. The other is the investigation of the political status of America both in relation to Spain and to other European nations.2
The scientific nature and Enlightenment goals of the voyage were emphasized to the other European nations. Doing so enabled the Spanish to request information and assistance that would undoubtedly have been denied if the voyage was seen to have had a military purpose. However, the main thrust of the expedition, as far as the Spanish Crown was concerned, was to examine the Spanish possessions in the Americas, to check on Russian settlement in Alaska, British settlements at Nootka Sound and in the southwest Pacific (principally Botany Bay), and to search for the Northwest Passage.
Although the cartographic and ethnographic achievements of the five year long expedition were as great as, or better than, those of Cook’s voyages, Malaspina fell foul of the Spanish government on his return. He was implicated in a plot against Prime Minister Godoy, and was jailed for six years. The reports and collections made during the voyage barely saw the light of day for many years, meaning that the effect of this expedition on enlightenment Europe was, in reality, much less than that of Cook’s three voyages.
Many of the books taken in Descubierta and Atrevida were British, published in London. Here are some of them.
In addition there were Nevil Maskelyne’s Nautical Almanacs for the years 1789, 1790 and 1791, plus the Tables Requisite to be used with the Nautical Ephemeris of 1781.
Two British people proved vital in assisting with the purchase of various scientific instruments: Alexander Dalrymple and Joseph Banks. According to the records of the Spanish Astronomic Observatory of the Navy at Cadiz, and information in Malaspina’s journal and documents at the Naval Museum in Madrid, 61 of the 68 items issued to the expedition came from London. They included the following.
Issued to Descubierta
Issued to Atrevida
Additionally each ship was equipped with a chronometer by the Frenchman Ferdinand Bertoud.
Why were there so many British made instruments aboard? Was it that they were of the highest quality and considered better than those of French manufacture, or was it because political relations with Great Britain were better than those with France, which was on the brink of revolution?
There are references to Cook and his voyages throughout Malaspina’s journal. Cook is referred to more often than any other navigator. I get the sense that, for Malaspina, Cook was the benchmark from which he worked, continually referring to Cook’s records of latitude and longitude, and to his charts.
In doing so, Malaspina would point out Cook’s errors. For example, whilst between the River Plate and the Magellan Strait, Malaspina wrote, “Various errors… made the chart from Captain Cook’s second voyage untrustworthy”.3 Two weeks later he wrote, “the direction of the coast was inclining much more to the east than was shown on Cook’s chart”.
There are also several instances where Cook and his officers are given much credit. For example, Malaspina wrote, “a precise survey of the southern extremity of Tierra del Fuego was perfectly carried out by Captain Cook”.4 And, “the longitude assigned to Nootka by Captain Cook, which was justly considered highly reliable by that illustrious navigator”.5 And, the Pratas reef “marked on the charts with accuracy thanks to the zeal of those illustrious navigators [Gore and King] during their voyage”.6
In Malaspina’s “Introduccion”, written to preface the expected publication of his voyage, he gives due credit to Cook’s attention to the sailor’s health on long voyages,
we shall limit ourselves to an endorsement of what Cook has already amply demonstrated: namely, that in what concerns nutrition and the economical maintenance of sailor’s health, there is no time or clime or any spot anywhere on earth, where success cannot be easily achieved.7
The antiscorbutics carried by the mission thus echoed Cook. Descubierta and Atrevida had portable soup, sauerkraut, malted barley, and an “abundant supply of orange and lemon juice”.
During his voyage, Malaspina was involved in what became known as the Nootka Crisis, triggered by a series of events that took place there during the summer of 1789. Spain seized some British commercial ships engaged in the fur trade in an uncolonized coastline area to which Spain claimed ownership. When Malaspina arrived there his diplomacy with the native peoples appears to have persuaded them that they fell within Spain’s remit. Britain rejected the Spanish claims and used its greatly superior naval power to threaten a war.
In 1792, George Vancouver’s expedition arrived in Nootka Sound, where he entered into negotiations with the Spanish, headed by Bodega y Quadra, which helped to diffuse the tension.
The five-year Malaspina voyage did not, as originally intended, circumnavigate the globe. Nevertheless, the expedition did achieve great things. His journals and other documents show the regard in which Captain Cook was held both by Spain in general, and by Malaspina in particular.8 The British contribution to the voyage of Descubierta and Atrevida, such as the publications and scientific equipment described above, also illustrates the British commitment to the expansion of natural philosophy and navigation to the benefit of all nations.
We can also see in Malaspina’s Plan for a Scientific and Political Voyage Around the World” an acknowledgement that the Spanish had fallen behind Britain and France in terms of world exploration. The Spanish felt threatened by and in need of catching up to the British thrust into the Pacific, a region the Spanish formerly considered to be effectively a Spanish lake.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 30, volume 40, number 4 (2017).
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