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Tomás de Suría

1761 - 1835

Tomás de Suría was born in Madrid, Spain, in May 1761, to Francisco Suria and Feliciana Lozana. He studied at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts and accompanied his teacher Jerónimo Antonio Gil to Mexico at age seventeen.

In Mexico City he became an engraver at the viceregal mint and gained some measure of fame during his lifetime as a creator of medallions. With Gil in 1778 he was involved in the founding of the Royal Academy of San Carlos, where he served as artist and later as professor. On December 15, 1788, he married Maria Josefa Dominguez de Mendoza.

In 1791, de Suría was selected to join the Spanish round-the-world expedition under Alejandro Malaspina, for temporary duty on the northwest coast of North America as artist. Imbued with a spirit of adventure and uniting the qualifications desired by Malaspina, de Suría was chosen by Viceroy Revilla Gigedo because he was the best available candidate in New Spain.

De Suría arrived in Acapulco on February 16 and joined Malaspina on the Descubierta on March 27, 1791, at age thirty. Other members of the Malaspina expedition included chief scientist Antonio Piñeda, the French-born botanist Luis Née, and naturalist Thaddäus Haenke from Prague. Haenke was a Bohemian Ph.D. with remarkable facilities as a linguist, musician, physician, minerologist, botanist, and chemist. Also on board were two astronomers: Ciriaco Cevallos and José Espinosa y Tello.

The journal kept by de Suría was the only private diary of the voyage. De Suría wasn't allowed access to authorized accounts to check his facts, but his reportage provides a candid counterpoint to the reportage of Malaspina. De Suría describes his first day at Nootka. "The first thing they asked for was shells with the word 'pachitle conchi', alternating this with saying 'Hispania Nutka' and then words which meant alliance and friendship. We were astonished to hear out of their mouths Latin words such as Hispania, but we concluded that perhaps that had learned this word in their trading with Englishmen…."

At Nootka Sound he described the Spanish practice of trading guns for children who were slaves of Maquinna, ostensibly to baptize them and save them from cannibalism. "There was one among them whom the sailors called Primo…. He told us that he had been destined to be a victim and to be eaten by Chief Macuina together with many others, and that this custom was practiced with the younger prisoners of war, as well as in the ceremonies which were used in such a detestable and horrible sacrifice."

The first artistic work done by de Suría on the northwest coast was at Port Mulgrave (Yakutat Bay, Alaska), where he concentrated on the local Tlingit Indians. From here the expedition followed the coast southward and by mid August had reached Nootka Sound. There de Suría made drawings of the Spanish settlement, the Indian leaders Muquinna, Natsape, and Tlupananulg in their basket-weave whaling hats, and other Nootka Indians, as well as a small sketch of the internationally disputed anchorage in the sound. At the same time de Suría recorded in his journal (now kept at the Yale University Library) data of anthropological significance concerning local customs and the structure of Nootka society. Under de Suría's tutelage, Manuel José Antonio Cardero, a cabin-boy who had accompanied the expedition, drew zoological illustrations, depicted native customs, and sketched landscapes.

During the expedition's stay in Nootka Sound, de Suría accompanied a party in two small boats up Tahsis Inlet. The results of this excursion, however, are little known since de Suría's journal ends with their departure. Not so his art, for subsequently he drew Chief Tlupananulg commanding his great war canoe. A dance performed for the Spaniards on the beach by Tlupananulg was also captured by the artist.

The expedition was back in Acapulco by October 16, whereby de Suría was given another eight months to prepare his drawings. These were forwarded to Spain. Although de Suría's work gained the approval of Malaspina, his rewards were minimal. Malaspina, his commander for almost seven months, summed up de Suria's effort: "Our collections for the Royal Museum have been numerous and very interesting, inasmuch as Don Tomás Suría has depicted with the greatest fidelity to nature all that merits the help of the engraver's art, so as to secure better understanding in the historical narrative of this voyage."

De Suría resumed his employment at the mint and the academy, until his superior Gil died in 1798, whereupon de Suría held the position of chief engraver until 1806. He spent the rest of his life as an engraver, a professor, a paymaster, and at times a minor government official. With dimmed eyesight, he completed his last artistic work in 1834 and died the following year in Mexico City at age seventy-four.

Journal of Tomás de Suría of his Voyage with Malaspina to the Northwest Coast of America in 1791. Translated and edited by Henry R. Wagner. Pacific Coast Historical Review. Glendale, California. 1936.

Cutter, Donald. "Tomás de Suría." Dictionary Of Canadian Biography. Vol. 6. University of Toronto. Toronto, Ontario. 2000.

Cutter, Donald. Malaspina in California. J. Howell. San Francisco, California. 1960.

Henry, John F. Early Maritime Artists on the Pacific Northwest Coast, 1741-1841. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington. 1984.








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