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Lived: 1754-1809
Explored California in: 1791
Exploring for: Spain
Explored: by sea along the northern coast

Visitors to Monterey, the Spanish capital of Alta (Upper) California, were rare in its early years. After the presidio (fort) at Monterey was founded in 1770, supply ships came from Mexico just once a year. The first foreign ship arrived in 1786, a French ship under the command of La Pérouse. It was 1791 before another ship came from Europe, this time from Spain and captained by Alejandro Malaspina. The Spanish Californios were always pleased to have news from the rest of the world.


Alejandro (also spelled Alessandro or Alexandro) Malaspina was born in the Duchy of Parma, which was then owned by Spain. His parents were Italian. Malaspina became a captain in the Spanish Royal Navy, and undertook missions that took him far from Spain. In 1784 he completed a voyage around the world.


Spain’s exploration of their claimed holdings in the New World north of Mexico had ceased between 1603 and 1769. Then, fearful that other nations would move into California, Spain had sent colonizing expeditions by land from Mexico. By 1790, there were 11 Spanish missions and four presidios (forts) along the California coast.

Spain had not made many more attempts, however, to explore the interior of California or the coastline to the north. The search for a Northwest Passage across the American continent to the Atlantic, which was important to Spain in earlier centuries, had been abandoned.

Now Spanish interest in a Northwest Passage (known as the Strait of Anián) was reawakened by the voyages of the English Captain James Cook in 1776 and the French Count La Pérouse in 1786. In 1789 the King of Spain ordered an expedition to the Pacific which he hoped would rival those of Cook and La Pérouse. One of the King’s orders was that Malaspina search once more for the fabled Northwest Passage.


Malaspina left Spain in 1789 with two ships called corvettes. A corvette was a small, fast warship usually armed with one row of guns. The flagship for the voyage was the Atrevida, whose name means “daring” or “bold.”

This was to be a scientific expedition in addition to being a search for the Northwest Passage. On board the ships were scientists to study the ocean, the land, plants, and animals. There were also cartographers (mapmakers) and artists.

On September 11, 1791, Malaspina’s journey brought him to Monterey Bay. There he was well received by the Spanish governor of Alta (Upper) California. He also met Father Lasuén at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Father Lasuén had become the President of the missions after Father Serra died in 1784.

The scientists with Malaspina spent 15 days recording their observations of the Monterey area. They made nautical soundings to find the depth of the water along the coast. They described the birds and animals, and the customs of the Indians and Spaniards. The first scientific description of a redwood tree comes from the botanist who was with Malaspina.

The artists with Malaspina spent the 15 days making drawings of the animals, plants, and the people. One of those artists was José Cardero. He had signed on with Malaspina as a cabin boy, but his talent for drawing brought him new assignments. By the time the ships reached California, Cardero had earned a place as one of the two expedition artists.

Cardero drew many pictures of the Indians at Monterey and Carmel. He showed details of their dress and their weapons. He also drew the mission buildings and the presidio. One of his drawings, called Soldier of Monterey, was of Gabriel Moraga, then a 26-year-old soldier. Moraga later became an explorer of the inland valleys of California.

Though it had little to do with his mission, Malaspina is responsible for bringing the first American (from the newly-formed United States of America) to California. John Green was a sailor from Boston who had signed on with Malaspina as a ship’s gunner. When they reached Monterey, Green was ill with a disorder known as dropsy. He was put ashore, where he died within a few hours.

Malaspina left the Monterey harbor on September 26, 1791, and sailed north, hoping to find a Northwest Passage. He went as far as Prince William Sound in Alaska without finding any passage. He then spent several weeks at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, before continuing on around the world.


The account of Malaspina’s visit to California is not as complete as that of Count La Pérouse in 1786, nor as that of Captain George Vancouver in 1792. However, the illustrations of the people and the land drawn by the artists with Malaspina give an excellent picture of life in Monterey at that time.

Many of these illustrations are available today for scholars who want to understand California’s history. Cardero’s drawings of the mission at Carmel were used in the restoration work done there in the 1930s. His drawing of the Monterey presidio is considered the first good picture of that early fort.


Captain Malaspina completed his five-year around-the-world voyage and returned to Spain in 1794. He was welcomed as a hero and promoted to the rank of brigadier. He was working on his journals and the maps and pictures that had been drawn, when he was arrested in November 1795.

Malaspina seems to have been the victim of a secret plot against him. All of the records of his grand voyage were locked away for many years. He was sentenced to a prison term of ten years and one day. He died in prison at the age of 55.

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