Preconfederation Ornithology

A compilation of transcriptions relating to Canadian preconfederation ornithology, 1534-1867

The Malaspina Expedition



The Spanish, who colonized Central and South America in the 16th Century, historically had a strong interest in areas further north in the Pacific northwest. Juan de Fuca, a Greek pilot, originally named Apostolos Valerianos, was employed by the Spanish in 1592 to look for a northern passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He sailed north as far as British Columbia and discovered the body of water now named after him - the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Over the following centuries the Empire of Mexico was founded. The Mexican government established settlements in Alto California at San Diego in 1769, San Francisco in 1776 and Los Angles in 1781. Despite the recent expansion north, Spanish political and commercial interests were more directed at developing trade with the Philippines and Japan. For one hundred and fifty years Spain ignored the area until Russian expansion in the late 18th century demanded a response.

After the Seven Years War ended in 1763, France, Spain and Britain and other European countries turned the era of relative peace into a period of commercial expansion. This lead to many conflicts among their foreign possessions. The Spanish empire in the Americas extended from Texas to California south through central and south America to Argentina. In North America British colonies in Canada and America were expanding westward. It is not surprising that Britain and Spain would inevitably clash over the unsettled and largely uncharted Pacific Northwest.

The British territorial advantage was enhanced by its strong interest in finding a westward entrance to the Northwest Passage. The exploitation of such a waterway would have tremendous benefits for all north European countries interested in trading in the Pacific, particularly with China.

The Spanish-British clash was evident in disputes over the Falkland Islands. Conflict escalated with the Cook voyages into the Pacific. By the 1770s Spain was clearly concerned about British interest in finding the Northwest Passage and by Russian exploration along the Alaskan coast. These developments encouraged the Spanish to finance a series of expeditions to British Columbia and Alaska. Many were organized from their Mexican naval establishment at San Blas founded in 1768 by José de Gálvez This port was intended to be the centre for military expeditions to Sinaloa, Sonora, Baja and Alto California. The military nature of San Blas distinguished it from the commercial port of Acapulco to the south.

The first of many expeditions was led by Juan Jose Perez Hernandez who in 1774 sailed along the west coast of Vancouver Island and as far north as the Alaska border. The following year two more expeditions were sent under the leadership of Bruno de Hezeta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.

In 1758 Miguel Venegas published A Natural and Civil History of California. A chapter in Volume One is devoted to natural history, including birds. Venegas describes species generically as geese, ducks, quails, gulls, cormorants, herons, vultures, crows, swallows, thrushes, goldfinches, sparrows and blackbirds. The lack of species level detail probably reflects the general state of ornithology in Spain at the time.

This was soon to change. In the early 1790s Spain sent two expeditions to the Pacific northwest which included scientists interested in natural history. Spanish interest in the natural sciences was not firmly established until the 1770s with the founding of two new institutions in Madrid: the Royal Botanical Garden in 1774, and the Museum of Natural Sciences in 1776. The latter was founded by Ecuadorian naturalist Pedro Franco Davila (1711-1786) who became its first Director.

The Malaspina Expedition 1791

I am indebted to the research on Malaspina presented by Michael Layland in his important book on the early history of Vancouver Island In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island.

In 1788 the Italian, Alejandro Malaspina (1754-1810), proposed to the government of Spain a multi-year around the world expedition to visit Spanish possessions in America and Asia. The expedition had many objectives including examining the political state of Spanish possessions, charting coastlines, and collecting natural history specimens and information for the national collections. In keeping with the important scientific nature of the expedition, Malaspina's two ships were named after Captain Cook's vessels the Atrevida (Resolution) and the Descubierta (Discovery).

Malaspina selected Antonio Pineda y Ramirez (1751-1792), a Guatemalan, as Chief naturalist for the expedition. Pineda, was an army officer and naturalist who trained under the director of the Jardin Botaonico in Madrid. He selected Thaddaus Peregrinus Xaverius Haenke, a Czeck, and Luis Nee, a Frenchman as assistant naturalists.

Pineda, 36, had considerable background in natural history which included undertaking a comprehensive study of the birds in the collection of the Royal Museum of Natural Science in Madrid. Haenke, 27, a medical doctor, was an extremely competent all-around naturalist with knowledge in zoology, geology and ethnography. Keir Sterling in his biographical sketch of Haenke in the Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists provides and extensive review of his educational background and career. Haenke received a Ph. D. in 1782 from the University of Prague. Nee, 55, was primarily a botanist. (James Braund: "Malaspina's Scientists and their Contribution to the Expedition")

The ships departed from the Spanish Mediterranean port of Cadiz in July, 1789. After a stopover in Montevideo, Uruguay, they sailed around Cape Horn, and proceeded up the west coast of South America. Malaspina arrived at Acapulco in April, 1791.

On his way to Mexico Malaspina promoted one of the crew, Jose Cardero, to the position of painter-cartographer when Jose del Pozo, one of the original holders of the position, was reassigned. Cardero received assistance from the second official artist Jose Guio. Cardero clearly had artistic talent. Later in the exploration of the Pacific northwest with Malaspina and on the second voyage under the leadership of Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes, Cardero completed at least 5 paintings of birds. An additional artist, Thomas de Suria, also joined the expedition in Acapulco.

Alejandro Malaspina

Wikipedia: Alejandro Malaspina

In Mexico Malaspina received new orders. He was instructed to sail north to try to settle the existence of the Northwest Passage and to investigate the conflicting British and Spanish claims at Nootka. In 1789 the Spanish had established a base at Nootka after confiscating ships belonging to English fur-trader, John Meares. Meares, along with other British traders such as James Colnett, had set up at Nootka in 1788 to provide a base for his sea-otter trade with China.

With the expedition's new orders, the scientists were given different assignments. Pineda and Nee remained behind to collect in Mexico. Haenke, along with artists Suria and Cardero accompanied Malaspina in Atrevida north to British Columbia and Alaska. According to Braund Haenke "became the first trained scientist to explore the mainland of the Pacific Northwest" (Braund: 68)

In May, 1791 Malaspina left Mexico and sailed north. According to the Journal of Tomas de Suria they continued offshore reaching 50 degrees of latitude on June 19th and off Haida Gwaii on June 20th. Proceeding north they moved inshore close to the coast. They arrived at Port Mulgrave, Yakutat Bay, in the Gulf of Alaska, between Juneau and Valdez, on June 27. In his book Layland in his book notes that this visit provided Haenke the opportunity to botanize and study Tlingit culture.

The expedition remained in the Port Mulgrave area for about nine days before sailing north to 59 degrees north latitude in Prince William Sound,. They remained in the area of the Sound until July 27.Heading south they arrived at the Spanish fort at Nootka, on August 12, 1791.

At Nootka on August 14, 1791. de Suria noted (Journal: 275):

The botanist Don Tadeo Haenke, began to botanize. He made a collection of plants but very meagre because he could not find in port other plants distinct from those in Europe. He did, however, find many anti-scorbutic plants classifying these as well as the pines of which there were many different species.  

Sterling, in his biography, discussing Haenke's efforts at Nootka noted "he made the first recorded systematic collection of Canadian flora."

After a layover of just over two weeks they left Nootka on August 28, 1791 and sailed south to Acapulco. Layland noted that Haenke's natural history record from Nootka was "not extensive". His collections from Yakutat and Nootka were shipped from Acapulco, and subsequently to Spain. During the chaotic Napoleonic era his specimens and notes were separated. Fortunately Haenke wrote an essay in Latin which was incorporated into a chapter "Trabajos Scientificos y Correspondence de Tadeo Haenke" by Victoria Ibanez in her book Expedicion Malaspina 1789-1794.

Ibanez published the following observations by Haenke on the birds he observed at Nootka:

The number of birds is few.  At least in August, Corvus major [Common Raven] and minor [Northwestern Crow], very common in Europe; Ardea grus [Sandhill Crane], Picus pileatus [Pileated Woodpecker], Motacilla regulus [Golden-crowned Kinglet], Falco columbarius [Merlin] and Mergus [Merganser species].

The use of scientific names for the birds, unusual for naturalists visiting the Pacific Northwest in the late 18th century, separates Haenke from all others who collected or wrote about the birds they encountered. He appears to be the most important naturalist to visit the northwest Pacific in the 18th century. One can only hope that some of his other writings will eventually be found.

De Suria also recorded observations in his Journal from Nootka as well as sketching images of the people and scenes. He does not appear to have made any useful ornithological observations.

The Malaspina Expedition 1792

In 1792 Malaspina sent two newly-built small shallow-draft schooners, Mexicana and Sutil back to the Pacific Northwest led by Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes. They were instructed to search for the Northwest Passage in the area of the Strait de Juan de Fuca. Artist Jose Cardero accompanied this smaller expedition. Layland quotes from John Kendrick's book Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana, 1792 that they were also given a limited natural history mandate:

All other objectives of botany, zoology and lithology you will regard as fortunate accessories which cost neither the slightest risk or sacrifice of your own safety, nor the slightest cost of time on the part of the commission.

Galiano and Valdes spent the summer in the Strait and the Gulf of Georgia, circumnavigated Vancouver Island, and stopped at Nootka before returning to Mexico.

Cardero accompanied Valdes back to Spain. His bird paintings were subsequently etched by Fernando Selma. Five that survived, in the collection of the Spanish Naval Museum in Madrid, were printed in To the Totem Shore. They include Willow Ptarmigan, California Quail, Bonaparte's Gull, Curve-billed Thrasher and Red-winged Blackbird. It is understood that California Quail may have been introduced to Vancouver Island at a later date. With the exception of the Quail and the Thrasher, the Ptarmigan, Gull and Blackbird were likely painted in British Columbia or Alaska.

Layland also mentions a few other Cardero sketches of birds including Picus (Northern Flicker). Other references are unclear. Since Cardero spent one month in Alaska and considerably more in British Columbia in 1791, and more time in 1792, it seems more likely they were collected there. Further investigation might reveal the answer and perhaps considerably more records as well.

Malaspina continued its voyage in the Pacific. The expedition visited the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand before returning to South America. Malaspina eventually returned to Cadiz via Cape Horn arriving in June, 1794.

Malaspina assembled an extensive shipboard library of natural history and many modern aids for the collection of plants and animals. Unfortunately the expedition ran into many problems. Pineda died during the voyage and the impetus for completing the scientific observations of the expedition was lost. Unfortunately for Malaspina, he got involved in Spanish politics soon after his return and was imprisoned in 1795. When released from jail in 1803 he was deported to Italy.


Gracula (Red-winged Blackbird) painted by Jose Cardero. Museo Naval, Madrid ms 1725.

The results of British and Spanish explorations in the Pacific Northwest suggested that there was no water passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. As a result Europeans lost interest in the north-west coast. In January, 1794, Britain and Spain signed an agreement declaring that both were leaving the region. In March, 1795 the Nootka settlement was dismantled.

Modern day published results of the collections and drawings from the Malaspina expedition indicate that the prime natural history focus of the expedition was to collect botanical material. In Pabellon Villanueva's La Botanica en La Expedition Malaspina, many illustrations from the expedition are shown, primarily of plants, with a liberal sample of fish, reptiles and birds.

Generally speaking the artwork and manuscripts associated with the Malaspina expedition are now found in Spain. Artwork and manuscripts from Quadra expedition of 1792 are found in the Toner Collection of Sesse and Mocino, Hunt Institute for Biological Documentation, Pittsburgh, PA. The Quadra expedition is discussed in a separate paper.

It is possible that the unearthing of more documents from the Malaspina expedition will reveal more records of the birds collected. De Suria, who travelled with Haenke, refers to him in several places as a "botanist". The expedition appears to have visited Port Mulgrave in Alaska for about one week. It is not clear how long the expedition spent at Nootka but de Suria's Journal indicates that Haenke was intent to collect botanical species there.

Many naturalists of the day were aware of the Malaspina Expedition. Indeed Malaspina was in correspondence with Sir Joseph Banks before his expedition (Malaspina Archive). Newspaper clippings announcing the return of the expedition were also found in the Banks Papers. Despite scientific interest in the results of the expedition, it contributed little to European ornithology at the time. This fact is reinforced by Beddall's research paper "Scientific Books and instruments for an eighteenth century voyage around the world: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition". Beddall notes:

It seems a great pity that the results of this carefully planned expedition should have been so meagre in site of the elaborate plans that Malaspina made for their publication. 

Despite the close ties between natural scientists in the late eighteenth century, specimens collected and illustrations made from the two expeditions were not made available to the small body of botanists and zoologists working in Britain, France, Holland and Germany.

The reasons can be found in the singular peculiarities of the two expeditions which was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the naturalists were working in Spanish, and the continuing political conflicts between Spain and the rest of Europe.

Later ornithologists, (Swainson and Richardson, 1831), who reviewed the known North American ornithological literature, made no mention of either Spanish expedition.


  • Beddall, Barbara G. "Scientific Books and instruments for an eighteenth century voyage around the world: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition", Journal of Society for the History of Natural History 9 (2) pp 95-107
  • Braund, James. 2011. Revisiting the Malaspina Expedition: Cultural Contacts and Contexts. Auckland: University of Auckland
  • Comeiro, Jose, Anne Salmond, Mercedes Camino and Phyllis S. Herda Edit. 2011. Braund, James. "Malaspina's Scientists and their Contribution to the Expedition" Revisiting the Malaspina Expedition: Cultural Contacts and Contexts. Auckland NZ: University of Auckland
  • de Suria, Tomas. 1791. Journal of Tomas de Suria of his Voyage with Malaspina to the Northwest Coast of America in 1791. Document No. AJ – 137. Madison WI: Wisconsin Historical Society href="">808:TOOTRE2.0.CO;2.short
  • Dickenson, Victoria. 1992. First Impressions, European Views of the Natural History of Canada from the 16th to the 19th Century. Kingston: Agnes Etherington Arts Centre.
  • Gough, Barry M.. 1992. The Northwest Coast, British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812. Vancouver: UBC Press
  • Government of Spain. World Exposition, Vancouver. 1986. To the Totem Shore. Madrid: Ediciones El Viso
  • Ibanez, Victoria. 1987. Expedicion Malaspina 1789-1794. Tomo IV. Madrid: Museo Naval
  • Kendrick, John. 1991. Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana, 1792. Spokane WA: Arthur H. Clark Co.
  • Layland, Michael. 2019. In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island. Victoria: Torchwood Books
  • Mackay, David. 1985. In the Wake of Cook, Exploration, Science & Empire, 1780-1801. London: Crom Helm
  • Pierce, Richard A. Edit. 1980. Carl Merck, Siberia and Northwestern America, 1788-1792, The Journal of Carl Heinrich Merck, Naturalist with the Russian Scientific Expedition led by Captains Joseph Billings and Gavriil Sarychev. Kingston: The Limestone Press, Kingston, 1980.
  • Marshall, James Stirrat and Carrie Marshall. 1955. Vancouver's Voyage. Vancouver: Mitchell Press.
  • Real Jardin Botanico 1987. La Real Expedition Botanica a Nueva Espana, 1787-1803. Madrid: Real Jardin Botanico
  • Sterling, Keir. Edit Keir Sterling et al. 1997. "Haenke, Thaddeus Peregrinus Xavierius". Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press
  • Swainson, William and John Richardson. 1831. Fauna Boreali Americana Vol II: The Birds.& London John Murray
  • Venegas, Miguel. 1759. A Natural and Civil History of California. 2 Volumes. London: James Rivington and James Fletcher
  • Villanueva. Pabellon. 1989. La Botanica en La Expedition Malaspina, 1789-1794. Madrid: Real Jardin Botanico
  • Wagner, Henry R. Edit. 2003. Journal of Tomas De Suria of his voyage with Malaspina to the Northwest Coast of America in 1791. Document No. AJ- 137 Wisconsin Historical Society

Michael Layland. Nature's Realm

List of Bird and Naturalists' Illustrations

67Red-winged BlackbirdCarderoNaval Museum, Madrid
74Surf Scoter (male)EcheverriaToner Collection, Hunt Institute
77Marbled MurreletMozinoMinistry of Foreign Affairs, Spain
78Red CrossbillEcheverria(do)
89Sandhill Crane(do)Toner Collection, Hunt Institute

Additional Notes

The following additional notes are to be examined and suitable information is to be added to the doc above:

Between 1774 and 1795, the Spanish explored its shores and built the first permanent post on Vancouver Island. Having settled in Mexico, they feared losing their hegemony on the Pacific coast when they heard of the Russian expeditions and of Samuel Hearne's voyage to the mouth of the Coppermine River on the North Sea. These expeditions had revived interest in the Northwest Passage among both the English and the Spanish.

Hernandez 1774

The first Spaniard to undertake the exploration of the Pacific coast, in the summer of 1774, was Juan Pérez Hernandez. Leaving San Blas, Mexico, he sailed as far as the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where the Haida came to meet him. Turning south, he stopped at point Estevan on Vancouver Island, where the Nootka came to the ship to trade with the crew. The meeting was friendly but Perez dared not compromise the results of his discoveries by leaving the ship.

Bodega y Quadra 1775

In 1775 two ships left San Blas. Don Bruno Hezeta captained the first and Perez was its pilot. Francisco de Bodega y Quadra captained the second, piloted by Francisco Mourelle. They were to find the Russian establishments and officially take possession of the territory for Spain. At Point Grenville, in present-day Washington State, seven sailors who had been sent on land to bring back water and wood were massacred by 300 Native people within sight of the crew, who were too far away to help. Hezeta decided to return home.

Bodega carried on north on his own, disembarked at 58º N and took possession of the area in the name of Carlos III, King of Spain and the West Indies. Then, not having seen a single Russian, he went back down the coast, making topographical surveys.

Estevan Jose Martinez 1788

In 1788, ship's ensign Esteban Jose Martinez went as far as the Russian posts. Returning, his encounters with several English and American merchant ships on the coast recommended to him the construction of a Spanish establishment in Nootka Bay. On his arrival at this bay, on May 5, 1789, he found three merchant ships there, and then Captain James Colnett arrived with Chinese workers, confirming that he had received orders from England to build a post at Nootka. An argument ensued between Martinez and Colnett.

Martinez arrested the latter and ordered the seizure of two other English ships, which had arrived later. The Native people, who had previously been indifferent to these disputes, protested as the seizure of the English ships prevented them from trading. Martinez fired in the air to frighten them but one of his soldiers, thinking that he had missed his mark, killed a First Nation chief. In spite of this delicate situation, the Spaniards managed to build a "presidio", a frontier fort that included barracks, a battery of cannons and a villa for the officers. This was the first European establishment on Canada's west coast.

The ships' capture created a diplomatic incident between England and Spain. After several negotiations, on October 28, 1790, in Madrid, the two countries signed the Nootka Bay Convention. According to the terms of this treaty, the two colonial powers recognized that they both had rights to the northwest coast north of California and that each would have access to the others establishments. Commissioners from each country would be named to settle the details of the agreement. This convention has frequently been interpreted as an agreement, on the part of the Spaniards, to leave the northwest coast, although there was nothing in it forcing them to leave Nootka. Rather, the Spanish improved the land fortifications and installed a floating battery in the port.

The two commissioners named were George Vancouver, captain in the Royal Navy and Bodega y Quadra, now captain in the Spanish navy. They met at Nootka in August 1792. In spite of their good relations, they could not agree on the details of the transfer of properties specified in the Convention and, by mutual agreement, submitted the problem to their respective governments.


During these discussions, scientific expeditions were also being launched. During his explorations in the interior of the Georgia Gulf, Vancouver met Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés Flores Bazán y Péon, who were also conducting research as part of the Spanish scientific expedition of Captain Alejandro Malaspina.

When these explorations showed that there was no water passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic, the European nations lost interest in the north-west coast and, on January 11, 1794, England and Spain signed an agreement declaring that both were leaving the region. On March 23, 1795 the Nootka "presidio" was dismantled. So ended the Spanish reign on the northwest coast.


  • Beddall, Barbara G, "Scientific Books and instruments for an eighteenth century voyage around the world: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition". Journal for the Society of the History of Natural History 9 (2) pp 95-107 Real Jardin Botanico. 1987. La Real Expedition Botanica a Nueva Espana, 1787-1803. Madrid:
  • Dickenson, Victoria. 1992. First Impressions, European Views of the Natural History of Canada from the 16th to the 19th Century. Kingston: Agnes Etherington Arts Centre
  • Gough, Barry M., 1992. The Northwest Coast, British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812. Vancouver: UBC Press
  • Pabellon Villanueva, 1989. La Botanica en La Expedition Malaspina, 1789-1794. Madrid: Real Jardin Botanico