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About Captain Alexandro Malaspina

(pronounced  Mala•speena)

Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina) was originally named after Alexandro (aka Alejandro or Alessandro) Malaspina, who was born November 5, 1754, to a distinguished Italian family in Mulazzo, a fiefdom of the Habsburg Empire. He became a captain in the Spanish Navy and, with the specially-constructed ships Descubierta (Discovery) and Atrevida (Daring or Bold), conducted a scientific-political voyage in the Pacific, including a hydrographic survey of the Americas. The King of Spain ordered Malaspina to search for a Northwest Passage in 1791 and, after examining the Alaska coast as far west as Prince William Sound, he spent fifteen days at the Spanish outpost at Yuquot on Nootka Island before returning to Mexico, where he reported that the Northwest Passage did not exist.

During his tour of the Spanish colonies, he concluded that instead of controlling the economies of her colonies through heavy taxation, Spain should develop a confederation of states in which members would enjoy free international trade. However, upon his return to Spain, Malaspina became embroiled in political intrigue as a result of the consequential reforms he proposed to his adopted King Charles IV and was imprisoned for eight years. In 1803, through the intervention of Napoleon, he was released to return to his native Italy, where he died in 1810.

As a further result of his fall from grace, the journal of Malaspina’s voyage was not published in Spain until 1885, and did not become widely known until a century later. For this reason, and despite his being a great scholar, scientist and explorer, the world has been slow to acknowledge Malaspina’s extraordinary achievements. An English translation of his journal has been published by the Hakluyt Society, and is in the collection of the Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre at VIU; a scale model of the Atrevida is on display in the Maritime Museum in Bastion Square, Victoria.

The Italian navigator Alexandro Malaspina was not only a pivotal figure in the history of European contact with First Nations peoples on the West Coast of North America, but also a contributor in the development, during the period now known as the Enlightenment, of a number of academic disciplines including physics, applied astronomy, aesthetics and political philosophy. His achievements in these varied fields were celebrated in the naming of Vancouver Island University when our institution was founded in 1969.

Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre

The Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre, affiliated with the Liberal Studies Department, is dedicated to developing English-language resources for the promotion of interdisciplinary research into navigation in the 18th century. The Centre supports international collaboration between scholars and enthusiasts with like interests.

The Centre maintains a website, which is primarily a resource for research about and interest in the life and work of the 18th-century Italian navigator and writer who, as an officer of the Spanish Navy, led a five-year scientific and political expedition to the Pacific. For more information about the Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre, please visit viu.ca/amrc.

Updated November 10, 2009