“The first scientific mission to the Galápagos Islands was in 1790 under the command of Alessandro Malaspina, a Sicilian captain, sent by the King of Spain; unfortunately the records of this expedition were lost.”
With minor variations, the sentence above may be found in many historical accounts of the Galápagos Islands, and it has three distinguishing characteristics: it is clear, it is concise, and it is wrong. Malaspina was born in northern Tuscany, and although he lived in Palermo, Sicily for about three years, he served in the Spanish Navy, where he was eventually placed in command of an expedition to the Spanish possessions in the New World and Asia. And as the three-volume Hakluyt Society edition makes abundantly clear, the records of the expedition were certainly not lost.
In March 1793 the Spanish frigate Santa Gertrudis, Captain Alonso Torres y Guerra, surveyed (quite inaccurately) the Galápagos islands, and a note on a chart produced in Lima by Thomas de la Cruz Goblado in 1794 points out that the purpose of this survey was to supplement navigational data collected elsewhere in the Pacific by Malaspina.
The following excerpts from the Journal make it clear that Malaspina himself did not visit Galápagos. In fact, at about the same time that the Santa Gertrudis visited the islands, Malaspina was in the vicinity of Sydney, Australia. The “Ia. Carlos Lomas” notation in Ms. 126 in the Museo Naval (Madrid) archives was probably written by the unknown ms. author.
The outline of the voyage called for departure from Cádiz on 1 July 1789, with Montevideo as the first port of call. … Lima and Acapulco were to be important stops on the way north, while a search for the Islas del Gallego (thought to lie far to the west of the Galapagos Islands) plus an extended visit by members of the expedition to Mexico City, were also proposed.
24 and 25 October (1790). As for the log and the piloto's reports on the passage of the Copacabana to the Gálapagos [sic, Galápagos], I left them in the charge of Governor [of Guayaquil] José Aguirre to be sent to Madrid as part of the documents about our mission. According to the accounts of several of the passengers, there was a large number of islands, some of them so big that they formed a strait twenty leagues long. Most of them lacked water, as shown by their aridity, and the soil, largely composed of pumice (of which they gave examples to Don Antonio Pineda), showed they were the remains of various volcanoes, probably destined by nature to be eternally a desert.
These accounts were unanimous in describing the constant calms and showers in the vicinity of the islands, saying that they were 160 leagues from the coast, their latitude being approximately between one degree north and one degree south of the equator. This information and a long-standing rumour among these pilots that the Gálapagos extend well to the east, obliged me to be cautious about how to make best use of our time and not to let insignificant matters compromise the allowances of time and destinations that we had proposed for the important parts of the coast to the north.
4 November (1790, after departing Guayaquil). We chose to pass between Isla de la Plata and the coast, as there appeared to be no danger and in this way we would not have to go far offshore. After making good a suitable distance during the night, we lay-to on alternate tacks until dawn.
This was approximately the position from which I had intended to cross over to the Gálapagos, but as the time approached more and more reasons influenced me to abandon my original idea. The wind was tending too much to the west and the local pilot warned me of fearsome calms in the Gálapagos during this month and on the coast of Gorgona the following month. The time left before we were due to arrive at San Blas was very short while our work in Panamá would certainly be time consuming, and finally the advantages of fixing the position of these islands would not match the disadvantages we would incur, particularly as the settled and favourable SW weather since the new Moon almost demanded that we make use of it for the much more important work to be done on the somewhat redoubtable coasts of Chocó. This decision did not mean that we gave up all hopes of seeing the Gálapagos. They lay far to the south of the coast of Nueva España as they were now to our west, so if a more suitable occasion arose, we could carry out the proposed survey at no great loss.
6 January (1791, while about 100 miles off the coast of Mexico) I suggested he [José Bustamente y Guerra, captain of the Atrevida] choose Anson's route, while paying attention to the effect of the currents, which would doubtless carry him towards Los Galapagos. I recommended that he should pass within sight of Isla del Coco, but without letting it delay his passage [to Acapulco].
The Atrevida subsequently passed Isla del Coco, but did not approach the Galápagos Islands.—JW.
15 November (1791, writing of future proposals). The completion of the survey of the inner waters of Juan de Fuca Strait, the final touches to the parts not yet fully surveyed of the coasts of Teguantepeque and Guatemala, the survey of Golfos de Nicoya and Amapala, the reliable determination of the position of the Galapagos, the subsequent passages to Chiloé, the coast of Patagonia and Estrecho de Magallanes and the final survey of Golfo de San Jorge were all included in these proposals.