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Alejandro Malaspina:
Portrait of a Visionary


216 pages,
ISBN: 0773518304


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Brief Reviews - Exploration/Biography
by Phyllis Reeve

In Nanaimo, British Columbia, we give the name of Spanish navigator Alejandro Malaspina to rock formations, hotels, nurseries, a dental centre, and a college. Yet Malaspina never set foot or sail within the perimeters of Georgia Strait. Worse, he seems to have manipulated chains of command so that the expedition that had been planning to come here all along was subordinated to his own expedition, and he accrued credit for findings in an area he never visited.

From Malaspina Glacier in Alaska to Malaspina Reach in New Zealand, he teetered on the cutting edge of science. But in Alejandro Malaspina: Portrait of a Visionary (McGill-Queen's University Press, 216 pages, $34.95 cloth, ISBN: 0-7735-1830-4), John Kendrick claims that Malaspina failed to outgrow the "combination of arrogance and na´vetÚ" which plagued him as a precocious student. Fired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, he wanted his Great Voyage to serve aims higher than conquest or commerce. But his career ended with imprisonment and the suppression of his accomplishments.

John Kendrick studies and writes about the Spanish exploration of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the "enlightened voyages" of 1791-1792. Currently an assistant editor for the Hakluyt Society translation of Malaspina's journal, Kendrick focuses on the man rather than the voyage. He has access to Malaspina's personal letters and writings, including the Axiomas Politicos sobre America, in which Malaspina envisioned an enlightened Spanish empire driven by reason and justice.

A dedicated student of the great empiricists from Hobbes to Diderot and Adam Smith (Kendrick calls them "utilitarians"), Malaspina sought to apply scientific method not only to geography, ethnology, biology, and other studies within an explorer's scope, but also, more riskily, to political science and economics. He repudiated such learned monstrosities as "theoretical geography" in favour of scrupulous observations and experiment. He planned to make his findings and analyses available for the greater good of mankind, beginning, of course, with Spain.

Preparations for his Great Voyage, the culmination of his already distinguished career as a navigator, proceeded like the details of a NASA mission: extensive consultation with foremost experts, selection of officers with specialty interests, outfitting with high-tech equipment, and pinpointing topics, such as gravitational force, for specific investigation.

Also like most NASA heroes, Malaspina held military rank. He emerged from a university curriculum "reformed" to produce government quotas of engineers. He who should have known better took literally the possibility of political science. In Latin America, he collected data on the colonial administration, and failed to endear himself to authorities when he advised the Empire be dissolved.

Perhaps Malaspina's vision included himself as the minister destined to guide Spain into the nineteenth century. But the existing chief minister, Manual Godoy, held the key to everything in Spain, including the Queen's bedroom and Malaspina's prison.

Kendrick has not written an intimate biography, but then his subject did not invite intimacy. He hints at culture shock in Tonga, a Queeg-like breakdown, and a healing retreat to a Chilean village. Kendrick and others, including Malaspina himself as his writings are published, will have more to tell us about this complex visionary and his world. 

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