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Sunday, 5 November 2017

Alessandro Malaspina - explorer

Mapped Pacific on four-year epic journey


Alessandro Malaspina spent much of his life in the employ of the Spanish navy
Alessandro Malaspina spent much of his
life in the employ of the Spanish navy
Alessandro Malaspina, an explorer not so well known as his compatriots, Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Colombus, but whose contribution to mankind’s knowledge of the globe was no less important, was born on this day in 1754 in Mulazzo, a village now in the province of Massa-Carrara, about 120km (75 miles) northwest of Florence.

Like Vespucci and Columbus, Malaspina sailed under the flag of Spain, whose king, Charles III, was an enthusiastic supporter of scientific research and exploration.

He spent much of his life as an officer in the Spanish navy, and it was after completing an 18-month circumnavigation of the world on behalf of the Royal Philippines Company between September 1786 and May 1788 that he proposed to the Spanish government that he make an expedition to the Pacific similar to those undertaken by the British explorer James Cook and the Frenchman Comte de la Pèrouse.

His proposal was accepted in part after word reached Spain that a Russian expedition was being prepared with the objective of claiming territory on the northwest coast of North America that had already been claimed by Spain.

After two years of preparation, the Malaspina Expedition, made up of two frigates - one named Descubierta in honour of Cook's Discovery - that he had built specially for the expedition, set sail from Cadiz on July 30, 1789, bound for South America. They rounded Cape Horn and sailed up the Pacific coast to Mexico.

The route followed by Malaspina's party
The route followed by Malaspina's party
At this point, Malaspina received word that King Charles IV, who had inherited the throne following the death of Charles III in 1788, wanted him to detour to Alaska and survey the coastline to find out whether a rumoured northwest passage from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic existed.

Malaspina’s vessels anchored off Alaska for a month, studying local tribespeople and collecting and recording numerous plants. Today, a glacier between Yakutat Bay and Icy Bay is known as the Malaspina Glacier.

Malaspina knew that Cook had surveyed the west coast of Prince William Sound about 15 years earlier had not found a northwest passage. He was not convinced it did exist and, rather than spend more time looking after failing to find evidence of it, the Italian set sail for the Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, established two years earlier.

His men surveyed and mapped the area around Nootka Sound more accurately than had previously been achieved, and made more botanical studies. He moved south again to explore the mouth of the Columbia River, near where Seattle is now.

Malaspina's two frigates, drawn by Fernando Brambilla, one of a number of artists who accompanied the expedition
Malaspina's two frigates, drawn by Fernando Brambilla, one
of a number of artists who accompanied the expedition
Eventually, he headed back along the coast to Acapulco in Mexico, before crossing the ocean to explore the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia, before returning to Spain, arriving in arriving in Cadiz in September 1793, to be greeted with great acclaim.

Malaspina was elevated to fleet-brigadier in the Spanish navy but his status as a national hero collapsed, however, over the next few years as the political climate in Spain changed following the French Revolution. He became involved with a plot to overthrow the prime minister and was arrested.

He was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released after eight years when Napoleon Bonaparte, who had taken control of the territory around his home town in Italy, intervened on his behalf. But the years in jail, often in solitary confinement, had destroyed his health.

Malaspina’s documentation from the expedition was taken from him during his incarceration and his proposed seven-volume account of the journey was left unpublished.

He returned to Italy, settling in Pontremoli in the area of northern Tuscany at that time known as the Kingdom of Etruria, where he died in 1810 at the age of 55.  Although some of his journals had by then been published, it was not until 1987 – 177 years after his death - that the first volume of his full account was published by the Spanish Naval Museum.

The last of the seven was published in 1999 and the full extent of Malaspina’s achievement could finally be appreciated, so that he could take his place alongside Columbus and Vespucci as one of history’s great explorers.

Mulazzo has a monument to the poet Dante Alighieri
Mulazzo has a monument to the poet Dante Alighieri
Travel tip:

Mulazzo is a village in the part of northwestern Tuscany known as Lunigiana, an area of great beauty that was a favourite of the poet Dante Alighieri.  Although he would often retreat to the Monastery of Santa Croce Corvo on the coast near Marina di Carrara, he also enjoyed the peace and solitude of the mountain regions inland and visited Mulazzo, which stages a Dante celebration every year.  Mulazzo also has a study centre dedicated to the career of Alessandro Malaspina.

Pontremoli sits alongside the Magra river
Pontremoli sits alongside the Magra river
Travel tip:

Pontremoli has the status of city even though its population is fewer than 8,000.  Built on the site of a settlement first noted in 1,000 BC, its position and fertile landscape in the Magra valley made it a strategically important location and consequently it changed hands many times, owned by a succession of powerful families until 1508, when it became part of an area controlled by the French.  Subsequently it was taken over by the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, the Republic of Genoa, the Medici Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the French again before becoming part of the unified Italy.  Malaspina had a palace there.



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