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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 332-334
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Alejandro Malaspina, or the Dreams of Boldly Doing What No Man Had Done
Louisiana State University
John Kendrick. Alejandro Malaspina: Portrait of a Visionary (London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999). Pp. 200. $23.95 cloth.
Emilio Soler Pascual. La aventura de Malaspina: La gran expedición científica del siglo XVIII por las costas de América, las Filipinas y las islas del Pacífico (Barcelona: Ediciones B, 1999). Pp. 351. 1,995 pesetas cloth.
The two books under review are excellent examples of the current research on different aspects of, and contributions to, the long Spanish eighteenth century. While this period had indeed been neglected far too long, in the past few decades it has become the object of numerous studies and publications. Among this rediscovery of people and texts is the figure of Alejandro Malaspina--navigator, adventurer, follower of the current enlightened thought, and contributor to the scientific and ethnographic knowledge of the Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Pacific. Both books are based on diaries and private letters written during the five-year scientific exploration from 1789 to 1794.
Kendrick's metaphor of his book as a portrait of Malaspina is justified. By studying not only the navigator's diary but also the man's personal correspondence and political manifesto, and by placing all of this in the context of Spain under the reign of the infamous Charles IV, Kendrick has indeed recreated for us a portrait of this complex man. The "portrait" is composed of 13 chapters: the first three cover Malaspina as a young student in his native Italy and then in Spain; chapters 4-8 deal with the long five-year voyage from Spain to South America, North America, the Pacific, and the return to Spain; and the last five chapters concentrate on his political thought, conspiracies, and ultimate imprisonment. On reflection one realizes that the composition is made up of two halves. While the first 100 pages clearly deal with Malaspina's voyage, his scientific findings, and his ethnographic observations, the second half of the book (also 100 pages) concentrates on his return to Spain, his political thought, ambitions, frustrations, and disillusionment--which completes the portrait of Malaspina. By revealing to us the man behind the navigator, Kendrick has succeeded in making this an enjoyable book to read.
As commander of two corvettes, Malaspina described his mission as "scientific and political" (37). Its purpose would be to complement the work of previous explorers by charting remote regions of America and the Pacific for the benefit of commercial navigation. For the scientific objective he included among his crew artists, naturalists, and botanists. It is thanks to these men that scholars [End Page 332] today have access to "over three thousand entries, most of which originated during the voyage" (41), including maps, drafts of Malaspina's journal, portraits of aboriginals, and numerous notes and drawings of the flora and fauna. But it was the second objective of his voyage, the political one, that proved to be his downfall, since "he went on to say that he would arrive at political axioms on the national prosperity, which would be accepted or rejected by judges worthy of respect" (34).
On his return to Spain, "Malaspina the visionary emerges, presenting his vision of an enlightened Spanish empire governed by reason and justice" (101). Among the political conclusions he derived from first hand experience in the American colonies is the warning of a defective union between Spain and its territories in America: "A sea (once Spanish) which divides them, a soil and climate, some customs and local relationships which are entirely different, the natural opposition between conqueror and conquered, all go to show that such a union would be defective, not to mention imaginary" (110). As Kendrick so rightfully says, "In the Spain of Charles III, such dogmatism might have been tolerated; in the time of Charles IV it was a menace" (107).
A warning that his proposals could bring the...