In 1782, Malaspina made his first visit to Manila. He returned to the Philippines by way of Lima, Peru, in 1786. In 1789, Malaspina, now 35, became commander of a charting expedition intended to circumnavigate the globe. Captain Malaspina left the port of Cádiz, Spain on July 30, 1789 aboard the vessel Descubierta. Captain Jose Bustamante y Guerra sailed the Atrevida. The vessels were corvettes (lightly armed frigates) built at the request of Malaspina so they would be suited for their specialized scientific and hydrographic work. He had launched an international search for navigators, scientists, and artists, accepting the most talented from Spain, France, England, and Italy to be part of his crew. His previous visits to the Philippines and Spain’s South American territories made him aware of what was required on such a journey.
On the first leg of the expedition, the two vessels reached Montevideo, on the east coast of South America, then travelled south to the Malvinas or Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and north along the Pacific coast to Acapulco, Mexico. Following Bodega y Quadra’s advice, the expedition sailed north from the Californias and west to avoid dangerous conditions and pick up favourable winds. They arrived in what is now Alaska, meeting with the Tlingit, then sailed south along the Pacific Northwest coast, pulling in at Nootka Sound and charting parts of Vancouver Island before returning to Acapulco.
On December 20, 1791, Malaspina’s ships left Acapulco to sail the south Pacific, including visits to Guam, the Philippines, New South Wales, Australia, and the Vava’u group of the islands of Tonga. The two ships of the expedition rendezvoused at Talcahuano, Chile and set sail around Cape Horn. The escalating war with France created some nervousness for the expedition, which carried few weapons. The Descubierta and the Atrevida arrived separately at Montevideo, where Malaspina organized the corvettes into a small fleet, along with some merchant vessels. Without sufficient arms, their only hope was to make potential enemies believe they had enough guns to defend themselves. By sailing across the Atlantic in formation, the ships gave the appearance of a naval convoy, and they arrived safely in the Spanish port of Cádiz on September 21, 1794.