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The Russian-American Company in Hawaii

by Murray Lundberg


      The late 1700s and early 1800s were a time of huge cultural changes around the Pacific, from Australia to Alaska. The voyages of Captain James Cook triggered European settlement in many areas, King Kamehameha was extending his domain to include all of what we now know as the Hawaiian Islands, the Spanish had claimed thousands of miles of the coast of the Americas, and the Russian-American Company was granted a trading monopoly in coastal Alaska, replacing the independent promyshleniki who had been operating in the Aleutians since 1745. Despite the vast distances involved, none of these changes occurred in isolation.

      In June 1804, the first Russians arrived at Hawaii in the sloops Nadezhda and Neva, during a series of round-the-world explorations. One of the aims of these voyages was to locate both supply points for Russia's holdings on the Pacific (including Alaska), and markets for the products of those areas. Expedition leader Lieutenant Ivan Fedorovich Krusenstern missed meeting King Kamehameha, who was invading Oahu at the time, but did talk to King Kaumualii on Kauai. Kaumualii asked the Russians for protection from Kamehameha's armies, but the Russians had neither the manpower nor the firepower to offer assistance, even if they had wanted to. Word about the expedition's primary purposes apparently reached Kamehameha, though, and in 1806 he sent word to Alexander Baranov, the Manager of the Russian-American Company, offering to send a ship to Sitka once a year for the purpose of trading food including swine, salt and sweet potatoes, for sea otter pelts. The following summer, the Nikolai brought the first cargo of food from Hawaii to Sitka.

      The crew of the Nikolai had been very well treated by Kamehameha's people, and in 1808 another ship was sent. There are conflicting reports as to whether Baranov already had plans for a colony in Hawaii - if such plans were in place, they were not implemented. There clearly was a requirement for a reliable source of food for Alaska - as early as 1806, the Russians had purchased grain from the Spanish at San Francisco (the northern limit of the Spanish claim), and during the summer of 1812, Fort Ross was built just to the north of the Spanish claim.

      Between October 1814 and January 1815, the Russian-American Company ship Bering traded furs for food throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but just after starting the return trip to Sitka, she was blown ashore and wrecked at Waimea Bay during a gale. Kaumualii, now only nominal ruler of Kauai under Kamehameha, seized the ship and its cargo. In a bid to recover the cargo from the Bering, Baranov sent surgeon Georg Anton Schäffer and Lt. I. A. Podushkin to the islands with orders to use whatever means necessary, be it negotiation, subterfuge or force, to ensure recovery of the much-needed supplies.

      Baranov's trust in Schäffer's negotiation skills was well-placed. Despite opposition from a group of American traders who had gained Kamehameha's trust, by early 1816, Schäffer had been successful in obtaining fishing rights, livestock, and a land grant to establish a post on Oahu. The King's generosity, however, was erratic - the Russians were not allowed to construct any new buildings, and could use existing buildings only with royal approval. The expected large amount of trading did not happen on Oahu either, so in May Schäffer went to Hawaii, and then to Kauai. At Waimea Bay, he found Kaumualii very agreeable - he not only returned the cargo from the Bering, he expressed a desire to form an allegiance with Russia, the object being to regain control of Kauai (and all of the islands, if possible). By the end of the month, Schäffer had, in exchange for exclusive trading rights to the island, pledged Russian military protection, made Kaumualii a line staff officer in the Russian navy, opened a trading post, and started construction of a house. On July 1, 1816, a more extensive agreement was reached, whereby Kaumualii

agreed to send an army of five hundred men, under Schäffer's command, to reconquer the islands held by Kamehameha, and to help build a Russian fort on each of the islands. The King promised to give the Company one half of the island of Oahu, strips of land on each of the other islands, and all of the sandlewood on Oahu, and to 'refuse to trade with citizens of the United States.' (Pierce, 12)
For his part, Schäffer promised to provide ships and ammunition for the invasions, and to bring fish and timber from Alaska.

      Schäffer worked quickly to build his empire - he bought ships, traded one ship for the valley and port of Hanalei, and on September 12, started construction of the first fort, which he named Fort Elizabeth, after Emperor Alexander's consort. Built near Waimea of lava blocks, it was to have walls 12 feet high, with a circumference of about 300 feet. A few days after construction started, Schäffer received word that his men had been ousted from Oahu, possibly for building a blockhouse and mounting guns and a Russian flag on it. Consolidation of the Russian holdings on Kauai was intensified - Hanalei was renamed Schäfferthal, two earthenwork forts were built overlooking the valley (one of the forts was named Fort Alexander), and the Russian flag was raised in a formal ceremony on October 8. Several more villages and a great deal of land were soon presented to Schäffer by members of the Royal family as well.

      Despite the optmistic outlook in mid-1816, and the rapid flowering of the Russian outpost, it was very shortlived - before the year was out, the natives of Hanalei had revolted, burning a distillery which had just been built, and killing one of the Aleut workers. To make matters even worse, Baranov had gotten word of Schäffer's actions, and had ordered his crews to return to Sitka. Kamehameha was of course very upset with Kaumualii's planned revolt, and was making life difficult for all Europeans who landed on Oahu, as he saw Europeans in general as the cause of his impending troubles.

      With virtually everyone working against him, Schäffer somehow managed to hang on until May 8, 1817, when he was seized by a small group of natives and Americans at Waimea and ordered to his ship, the Kad'iak. What may be considered one of the early flags of Hawaii, a blue-and-white ensign, was then raised over his fort. Sailing around to Hanalei, where he hoped to make a stand, he raised the Russian flag and claimed all of Kauai for Russia. The degree of hostility of the Hawaiians, however, soon changed his mind. The Kad'iak was leaking badly, and would not make it to Alaska, but Schäffer sent his only remaining ship, the Il'mena, to Sitka, fully expecting Barnov to send reinforcements. Meanwhile, he sailed to Honolulu, but a hostile reception there as well finally forced him to abandon his little empire, and on July 7 he left for Europe on an American brig, leaving the Kad'iak and her crew at Honolulu.

      With communications between Hawaii, Sitka, and the seat of the Russian Emperor at St. Petersburg taking many months, it wasn't until August 1818 that all parties had agreed that Kauai had indeed been abandoned by the Russian American Company, and for a couple of years following that, efforts were still being made to recover from the damage done by Schäffer. By 1820, however the Company had given up on Hawaii, and was obtaining supplies from Fort Ross, as well as American and British traders who were working along the Pacific Northwest coast.

      In 1839, the Hudson's Bay Company signed a long-term contract to supply Russia's Alaskan posts with various goods, including food and lumber, from their settlements in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a new post established in Hawaii. But that is another story...




References & Further Reading:

©1998-2009 Murray Lundberg:
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