Alejandro Malaspina was born in Mulazzo, a hereditary fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, in what is now Italy. His family held titles, which gave him some social standing but no great wealth. He entered the Colegio Clementino or Clementine College in Rome in 1765, where he studied the ideas of the Enlightenment. His scientific and philosophical writings Theses ex Physica Generali were published as a book in 1771: he was only 17 at the time. Malaspina continued to focus on the idea that knowledge came from constant observation, a useful characteristic in an explorer.
Malaspina decided to join the Real Armada of Spain. At that time, Italy was a network of duchies and principalities and not yet a united country with a single military service. First, he served as a cadet in the Order of Malta, and then entered his midshipman’s training in Cádiz, moving to Spain in 1774. He continued to move up the ranks and became a frigate captain in 1782; he travelled to the Spanish colony in Manila, in the Philippines, the following year. He soon earned acceptance by the Spanish court and corresponded with King Charles III. In 1785, a plan to form a chartered company that would trade between Spain and Manila was approved, and Malaspina was invited to command a vessel for the Philippine Company in 1786.
Malaspina left Cádiz, embarking for the Pacific aboard the frigate Astrea. When he reached port in Lima, Peru, he presented some of his ideas about free trade and his plans to cut out Manila from the Spanish-South American trade route. After he returned to Cádiz in 1788, he asked to be discharged from the Company. He was then appointed to shore duty with the Compañía de Guardias Marnias. He was unhappy working on shore and within four months had put forward a proposal for a voyage that would circumnavigate the globe and complement the charting work of previous explorers. This took him to South America in 1789. His work in the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific followed in 1791 and 1792.
Malaspina returned to Spain in 1794 amidst an atmosphere of war, for the Spanish navy was then engaged in battle with France on the European coast. He was imprisoned in 1796 for political reasons and upon his release returned to his Italian homeland, moving to the village of Pontremoli. He died of colon cancer in April of 1810, at the age of 55.