Italian Explorer and Naval Captain
Alejandro Malaspina sailed on voyages of exploration in the Pacific Ocean for the King of Spain on his way to circumnavigating the globe in the latter part of the eighteenth century. During his travels he was able to report that the long-sought Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific did not exist. He also explored the American west coast, conducted hydrographic surveys of the Americas, and visited numerous ports in the Pacific.
Malaspina was born into a distinguished Italian family in the then-Spanish city of Parma. He entered the Spanish navy, rising through the ranks to become a captain while still in his 30s. He was then given command of a two-ship squadron, Atrevida (which meant bold) and Descubierta (or discovery). With these ships he was to complete a number of significant voyages during his explorations for the Spanish crown, including his explorations of the American Pacific Coast and his circumnavigation.
Leaving Spain in 1791 with orders from the King to search for the Northwest Passage, Malaspina sailed into the Pacific and made his way north to what is now the state of Washington, along Vancouver Island, and continued up to the Alaskan coast. Although he helped chart many hundreds of miles of coast, including much of the St. Elias Range, he eventually turned from this search, concluding that either a Northwest Passage did not exist or was not navigable. As we know today, there is, indeed, a Northwest Passage across the Arctic Ocean, but it is covered with ice for much of the year and is only marginally navigable with modern ships. In the days of wooden ships and sail, Malaspina was completely correct in his assessment.
During his visits to Spanish colonies, Malaspina grew concerned about ill-treatment of Native Americans at the hands of Spanish colonists. In a later report to the Spanish government he commented that, in the long run, Spain would be better served by forming a confederation of states, encouraging international trade with her colonies and the natives of other lands rather than simply conquering and plundering. He also suggested that Spain would be well-served by establishing a Pacific Rim trading bloc, with activities coordinated in the Spanish city of Acapulco. Unfortunately, his recommendations became caught up in political maneuvering and were completely ignored. In retrospect, especially in view of the success of former British colonies in which this approach was largely taken, Malaspina's comments seem quite prescient.
Leaving the American Northwest, Malaspina set sail for the South Seas, making a brief visit to Tonga in 1793. The first Spaniard to visit Tonga in 12 years, he claimed the islands for the King of Spain and departed. He continued on his journey, returning to Spain in 1795.
Upon his return, Malaspina presented his reports and recommendations to the Spanish government, but became embroiled in politics almost immediately. In spite of the accuracy of his observations and the perspicacity of his recommendations, his report was buried and his recommendations largely ignored. This culminated in his being imprisoned, where he died at the age of 55.
P. ANDREW KARAM