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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER VIII. — Malaspina Visits Doubtful Sound, 1793

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Malaspina Visits Doubtful Sound, 1793.

NEW voyages of any magnitude are wrapped in such mystery as is that of the Spanish corvettes, which, in 1789, under Malaspina, sailed from Cadiz, on a five years' tour of the world. It cannot be due to the fact that the narrative of their voyage was never translated into English, because other voyages, under similar conditions, are well known and referred to. On the author's part, it is because of a feeling that national jealousy was responsible for our ignorance of the exploratory work done by Malaspina, that he quotes in extenso an American opinion on that work. If we exempt Sir Joseph Banks, who knew no nationality when the prosecution of science was the object sought, English writers kept a close silence regarding the movements of the Spaniards. The American notice is here reproduced.

“The following particulars of the last attempt of a voyage of discovery, which has made but little noise, and has not even been mentioned by an English journal, cannot fail to procure attention. A magnificent work is at this moment in the Madrid press containing a full and ample detail of all the transactions that occurred during this voyage of discovery; and, on its publication, we shall be gratified with an account of the manners and customs of the Babaco Isles, a nondescript cluster then visited for the first time by Europeans.”

“The two sloops called the Discovery and the Subtile, the former commanded by Don Alexander Malaspina, and the latter by Don Joseph de Bastemente, sailed in company from the port of Cadiz, on the 30th July, 1789, in order to co-operate with the other maritime powers in the execution of human knowledge, and more particularly of navigation. page 102 The commanders of these vessels made correct charts of the coasts of America and the adjacent islands, from the river La Plata to Cape Horn, and from that Cape to the farthermost northern extremities of that part of the world. Their intentions in this were merely to repeat the attempts of the same kind, formerly undertaken either by foreigners or their own countrymen, and thus acquire a more minute knowledge of the subject.

“On their arrival at the north-west coast of America in lat. 59, 60, and 61 degrees, they searched, in vain, for a passage by which they might penetrate into the Atlantic ocean; they accordingly concluded that the predictions of Cook were founded on sound reasoning, and that the gut mentioned by Maidanogo, an old Spanish navigator, had no existence, except in his own brain.

“In the beginning of the year 1792, the Subtile, and a galliot, called the Mexican, under the command of Don Dion Galvyno and Don Cais de Taldies joined the English squadron, commanded by Captain Vancouver, with an intention to examine the immense Archipelago, known by the name of the Admiral's Fonte, and Juan de Foca.

“They continued the greater part of the year 1792 in visiting the Mariannes and Philippines, as also the Macas, on the coast of Guian. They afterwards passed between the isles Mindanoa and the isles called Mountay, shaping course among the coasts of New Guinea, and crossing the equator. On this occasion they discovered a gulph about 500 maritime leagues to the extent, which no former navigator had traversed. They then stopped at New Zealand and New Holland, and discovered in the Archipelago, called the Friendly Isles, the Babacos, a range of Islands which had never before been seen by any European mariner.

“After a variety of other researches in the southern ocean, they arrived in June 1793 at Calao. From this port they made other occasional expeditions; and each separately examined the port of Conception. and the rest of the coast of America, which extends to the southwest, as well as the western coast of Moluccas. They then entered the page 103 river La Plata, after having surmounted all the danger incident to those southern latitudes. Having been equipped and supplied anew with provisions at Montecedia, they joined a fleet of frigates and register ships and sailed for Cadiz, where they arrived after a passage of nine days, with cargoes to the amount of eight millions of dollars in money and merchandize.

“These voyages have not a little contributed to the extension of botany, mineralogy and navigation. In both hemispheres, and in a variety of different latitudes, many experiments were made relative to the weight of bodies, which will tend to important discoveries, connected with the irregular form of our globe; these will also be highly useful, so far as respects a fixed and general measure. While examining the inhabitants our travellers collected all the monuments that could throw any light either on the migration of nations, or on their progress in civilization. Luckily for the interests of humanity, these discoveries have not caused a single tear to be shed. On the contrary, all the tribes with whom they had any connexion will bless the memory of those navigators, who have furnished them with useful seeds, or presented them with a variety of instruments, and made them acquainted with several arts, of which they were before entirely ignorant.

“The vessels brought back nearly the whole of their crews; neither of them, in short, lost more than three or four men; which is wonderful, if we but consider the unhealthy climate of the Torrid Zones, to which they were so long exposed.

“Don Antonio de Valdes, the minister of the marine, who encouraged and supported the expedition, is busied at this moment in drawing up a detailed account of this voyage, so as to render the enterprize of general utility. It will soon be published; and the curious will be gratified with charts, maps, and engravings, now preparing to accompany it.

“In the mean time he has presented to the king the captains, Don Alexander Malaspina, Don Joseph de page 104 Bastamente and Don Dion Galeano, and Lieutenant Don Carlos de Cavalles. These officers are entitled to, and will soon experience, the royal munificence.”1

Shortly stated, their movements in these latitudes were as follows: Passing Norfolk Island en route from the Phillipines they sailed south to Dusky, which they sighted on 25th February, 1793, and at midday were at Doubtful. A boat's crew sailed into the Sound while the vessels kept off the entrance. The next morning they attempted unsuccessfully to enter Dusky, but could not get past Breaksea Island, and the weather becoming stormy they sailed for Sydney. Had they succeeded in entering Dusky, as we have seen, they would there have met Captain Raven's sealing gang. After staying a short time at Sydney the expedition sailed eastward, steering well to the north of New Zealand and past the Kermadecs. Malaspina's New Zealand experiences will be best told in his own words.2

“On the 21st we found ourselves in latitude 40 deg. longitude 45 deg. 30 min. east of Manila. Dusky Bay lay 100 leagues to the south, and Cape Farewell and Queen Charlotte's Channel 107 leagues to the east.

“A new softness in the air, longer days, and the brilliancy of the stars made these climates much more convenient for navigation than the tropics. Even in this latitude, the favourable east wind still blew, and in a measure as we approached the coast we discovered a larger number of aquatic birds, whereas on one side a dense mist obscured the horizon. Consequently although by midday of the 24th being in latitude 44 deg. 34 min. longitude 46 deg. east of Manila, we judged the coast to be near, and although the Atrevida signalled land in sight, it was impossible, on account of the mist, to approach nearer, and by nightfall, finding no bottom we steered to the west, the wind at N.N.E. light breezes.

“February 25. These changed to a soft S.S.E. breeze, which sprang up at midnight, clearing away the mist, which obscured the horizon, so that towards 3 o'clock, page 105 having taken the altitude to starboard, we found ourselves at break of an exceedingly fine day, within five leagues of the coast, which extended from N.E. to S.S.E.

“By the exact details which Captain Cook, with his usual accuracy, has given of this part of the coast, we were able without difficulty, to make out all the points within sight. Five Fingers Point bounded our view to the south, the opening of Dusky Bay was clearly visible, and the course we followed carried us slightly to leeward of Doubtful Bay, which at 9 o'clock was about two or three miles distant. Having made a careful survey of its surroundings, we put off from the coast, and stood in on the other tack somewhat to windward. It would be difficult to give a more perfect description of the ruggedness and elevation of these coasts than that given by Captain Cook on his first voyage. Two miles from shore we sounded in 100 fathoms without finding bottom, and although the intermediate island showed signs of a fairly abundant vegetation, the entrance of Dusky Bay, and all the coast of the port, closed in with inaccessible mountainous peaks, justified the Captain's accounts, which have caused this port to be looked upon as dangerous to ships leaving it.

“Nevertheless the fact of its latitude being only 45 deg. 13 min., of its being to leeward while the south winds held, and the well known importance of taking advantage of the weather on that coast, and the fine day we were enjoying being, as it were, a warning, were all reasons which prompted us to lose no time in availing ourselves of this favourable opportunity of achieving our purpose. The more so that every change of wind, and the examination of Captain Cook's meteorological diary, made us fear that we should again meet the east winds directly opposed to the entrance of both ports.

“For these reasons, having taken up at mid-day a convenient position to windward, ready to follow any course that circumstances might render advisable, the armed boat of the Descuvierta, under the command of Don Felipe Bauza, was sent to reconnoitre the interior of the port, and page 106 particularly to ascertain the facilities for watering and wooding. She was under orders to return with the utmost despatch. Meanwhile the corvettes, sometimes lying to, sometimes making small boards, kept the same position relative to the entrance.

“The boat did not return until 9 at night, only at the entrance, on the outside of the island, had they touched bottom in 20 and 25 fathoms, gravel, but afterwards in both channels they sounded in 50 fathoms, without finding bottom, nor could they again touch it in all the surroundings of the island. Both channels were intercepted by some rocks, presenting no danger to navigation. Wood and water were abundant in the interior; in an inlet to the north the coast was somewhat more level and sandy, offering safe and convenient anchorage. Time being limited they had not been able to take soundings. To the southeast, a channel of two or two and a half cables ran through the mountains, the latter rising in sharp peaks, then becoming much narrower the channel wound round to the south, perhaps going to meet the internal channels of Dusky Bay. The tide was not very rapid from the signs on the shore, the ebb appeared to be about mid-day. They saw a few birds, not a single seal, no shell fish save a few small limpets, and not a sign, however remote, of inhabitants. These were the chief points in their report of this place, to which must be added a total lack of pine trees, vegetation consisting of a species of medium sized shrub. In brief, unless chance or dire necessity bring mariners to this port, we must suppose that it is destined to be perpetually deserted, and that Dusky Bay will ever remain the port of welcome in this neighbourhood, offering as it does a more convenient, a safer, and a healthier refuge.

“Night falling and the boat taken up, we remained becalmed some little time off the coast, but soon a light north wind sprang up, which enabled us to put off, and by midnight we were three leagues from shore. Anxious to lose no time, we steered to the south, calculating we had still seven leagues to run, and by 3 in the morning, having page 107 made three of the seven we again stood to the coast, expecting to enter Dusky Bay at daybreak. The wind was now increasing considerably, a heavy mist obscured the coast, and there was every sign of an unfavourable change in the weather.

“26th. We hoped that the first daylight would accord us a favourable opportunity of ascertaining our course, but dawn revealed a different outlook, and we appeared to have completely lost our advantageous position for gaining the port. At 4 in the morning, the fog having for a moment cleared off, we found ourselves suddenly at the entrance of Dusky Bay, and only two or three miles distant from Breaksea Island, which it was impossible to pass on account of the wind. Finding thus an error of three leagues in our calculations since midnight, we steered due west, the wind blowing a strong gale. At 9 o'clock we again tacked and stood in to the land, waiting an opportunity of gaining the wind.

“But our efforts were vain. We were again standing in to the coast at the same position as in the early morning, the wind at N.E. and gaining strength every moment as we neared the shore, which warned us that to hold our purpose was to run the risk of serious losses. Consequently we were compelled to take in two reefs in our topsails and steer to the south. At times portions of the coast were still visible, principally Five Fingers Point, which stood out clearly.

“Far from failing, by the afternoon the wind had become so violent that it might be called a hurricane, with a heavy sea running. We suffered considerable damage in our sails and rigging. The corvettes seemed powerless to resist. We had taken three reefs in the foresail and maintopsail, a precaution we considered necessary to prevent the waves from swamping the ships. By 10 o'clock an accident seemed to threaten us at any moment.

“After midnight the wind began to fall, but did not entirely cease until dawn, at which time we were sailing with two reefs in the four chief sails and topsails. The page 108 heavy weather was followed by a few brief intervals of calm, which was finally followed by a favourable S.S.E. wind, accompanied by an exceedingly dense fog.

“The course we had been compelled to take in the past storm had carried us to a considerable distance from the coast. Our observations revealed to us a strong current to the N., and thus we were no less than 30 leagues from the bay.

“The warning we had received brought reflection with it, and we decided that to enter into Dusky Bay for the sole purpose of making experiments of gravity was an unnecessary risk. Other reasons were added to this—viz., the extraordinary effects of the cold and of the last storm upon the already weakened and tired Phillipine crew, and the heavy rains experienced in the port, so that at times a fortnight would pass without an opportunity for taking any observations, and finally, as we were twice again to cross parallel 45 deg. on either side of Cape Horn it would not be difficult to find a more favourable opportunity of achieving our purpose.

“For these reasons, we decided that to repair the ships and rest the crew it would be advisable to put in at Port Jackson or Botany Bay in New Holland. We therefore steered west without delay, and at mid-day of the 28th, the following day, we were already 70 leagues from the extreme south of New Zealand.

“Our longitude before Doubtful Bay, compared with that of Captain Cook was as follows: The errors 30 and 20 min. in the two islands of New Zealand, which the captain noticed on his second voyage, had, of course, been corrected in our charts:—

Chronom. 71 Num. 11
Longitude east of Manila 45.35.38 45.35.38
Longitude by time 45.41.01 45.13.12
Difference of time 5.23 22.26“

Malaspina dropped anchor in Sydney on 13th March and sailed again on 12th April. On the twentieth, only eight days afterwards, the Daedalus, with several of page 109 Vancouver's men who had been at Dusky in 1791, reached Sydney. They alone could correct the error into which Cook and Malaspina had fallen, of supposing that Dusky and Doubtful were connected, but they never met the Spaniards.

After his return to Spain Malaspina fell into disgrace and was arrested by order of the Spanish Government and thrown into the prison of Buen Retiro.3 From there he was afterwards removed to one of the strong castles of Corunna, where he remained until liberated by Napoleon in 1802. Under these circumstances Malaspina could do nothing in connection with the publication of his journals. El Pedro Gil, a man of great literary abilities, who had undertaken the compilation of the work, shared Malaspina's disgrace and fate. More than that, all papers and documents relating to the voyage were seized and the scientific staff of the expedition ordered to suspend their labours. Doubt is expressed whether the results of the voyage were ever published as a first edition. Certainly nothing had been done up to 1801. A Court intrigue is said to have been responsible for all this trouble. A copy of Malaspina's log can be obtained from Madrid, but search so far has failed to locate his charts. There is a probability that these were prepared by one of the officers, probably by Bauza, and were not kept amongst Malaspina's papers. That there was a chart published is beyond doubt, as the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty issued, in 1840, a chart of Doubtful Harbour by Bauza in 1793, and in Wyld's map of New Zealand, dated 1841, several Spanish names are to be found in Doubtful Sound. The meaning of some of these names, from the narrative just given, and with the aid of the list of officers of the vessel published with the work, can be explained. The southern head, Point Febrero, is called after the month of February, when Malaspina visited the Sound. Bauza Island at the entrance, is named after the captain of the “armed boat of the Descuvierta who surveyed it. Don Felipe Bauza was the official director of charts and page 110 conducted the astronomical observations. The inlet to the north, offering safe and convenient anchorage, was called by the Spaniards, Pendulo Bay, a name suggested by the object of the expedition, but the name has been lost because the opening was afterwards found not to be a bay, but the entrance to Thompson Sound. “To the S.E. a channel ran among the mountains, the latter rising in sharp peaks.” The name given to the point, Espinosa, was in honour of Don Jose Espinosa, who with Bauza, made observations on the latitude and longitude and the winds. Instead of the Spanish name, the meaningless one of Wood Head is now used on the charts. “The channel wound round to the south, perhaps going to meet the internal channels of Dusky Bay.” To this channel was given the name Malaspina Creek, after the captain of the expedition. The Admiralty surveyors are blamed for calling it Smith Sound, First Arm and Crooked Arm.

Bauza sailed round the island on a track indicated on his chart by soundings. These show that he came past the inside point of the island and into the Sound far enough only to disclose the bay opening up on the northern coast line, while from the same point the southern coastline appeared a continuous wall of high mountains. Had he proceeded farther, the arms to the south would have opened up. Wyld gives to the supposed connecting link with Dusky the name Mac's Passage. Two other Spanish names occur. Nea Island, still retained, at the mouth, may have been called after Luis Nee, the botanist of the Atrevida. The name Point Quintano, one of the points of Pendulo Bay, has not been retained. It was called after Fernando Quintano the third lieutenant of the Descuvierta.

The author hopes that one day the powers that be will pay the graceful compliment to that Spanish expedition, of reviving the old names, so that not only may we have a record of the visit, but may have that record perpetuated in the names of isle, or headland and of sound.