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Russians in Hawai`i

In 1741, the discovery of pelt mammals in the Alaskan wilderness by the Russian explorer Vitius established a lucrative trade circuit between Russian and Chinese merchants. In 1799, the Imperial Russian Government granted the Russian American Company (RAC) sole authority to trade in the American territories. The imperial government appointed RAC's manager, Alexander Baranov, governor of Russian America. By 1804, Baranov had established a permanent trading port at Sitka, Alaska, known at the time as "New Archangel." The company built fortified settlements in the North Pacific, giving it an advantage over roving British and American traders. Eventually Russians established a presence in Hawai'i as merchants from around the globe demanded fragrant Hawai'i sandalwood.

The first Russian contact with Hawai'i occurred in 1804 when the Nadezhda and the Neva, commanded by Lieutenant-Captain Ivan Fedorovich Krusenstern and Lieutenant Iurii Fedorovich Lisianskii, visited O'ahu and Kaua'i. At this time Kamehameha was still consolidating his rule. Following Kamehameha's victory over neighboring islands in 1806, he offered to supply Baranov with foodstuffs and supplies in exchange for otter pelts.

The following year, the Nikolai, a small vessel under Captain Pavel Slobodchikov, detoured to the Islands while en route from California to Sitka. Slobodchikov was treated well by Kamehameha who furnished a cargo of foodstuffs in exchange for furs.

In 1808, Baranov sent the Neva under Lieutenant L.A. Hagemeister to the Islands for a supply of salt. Historians to this day debate whether this voyage was meant as a colonizing voyage and part of a larger push for Russian representation in America or merely a supply run. Hagemeister left Hawai'i without taking any immediate aggressive steps, but as he sailed away, he wrote out plans for colonizing the Islands. He was particularly interested in Moloka'i, but Baranov took no action on Hagemeister's report. Baranov instead attempted to place two settlements on the West Coast of North America to obtain agricultural produce and establish new bases for hunting sea otters. An expedition to the Washington coast met with prompt failure, but a more successful try in 1812 established Fort Ross in California.

American and British traders now became embroiled in the War of 1812. Baranov saw the conflict as an opportunity for profit. Several American traders sold their ships to Baranov at reduced prices rather than face the possibility of having them captured or sunk; American captains often continued to sail the vessels under contract with the RAC. One of these ships, the Bering, sailed to Hawai'i in late 1814 for a load of provisions. After stopping on Kaua'i, Maui and O'ahu, the ship ran aground in Waimea Bay during a gale. Stranded on Kaua'i for more than two months, the shipwrecked men eventually received passage off the island in April 1815 on the Albatross. Kaua'i islanders under Chief Kaumuali'i retained the ship's cargo of furs and the castaways' personal possessions. Baranov dispatched Georg Anton Schaffer, a German physician, to recover the ship's goods; if successful, he was to also negotiate permanent trade relations with the Hawaiian Islands. To give the mission a peaceful appearance, Schaffer arrived in Hawai'i on the American ship Isabella and posed as a naturalist.

Schaffer immediately ran into huge opposition from John Young, John Ebbet, and W.P. Hunt, Britains and Americans close to Kamehameha. However, he eventually won Kamehameha's trust through the successful medical treatment of the king and his wife, Ka'ahumanu. In return, Kamehameha awarded Schaffer some land in Honolulu. In early May 1816, Schaffer established a post for his activities in Honolulu, where he raised the Russian flag. Other RAC personnel soon arrived on the Ilmen and the Kadiak and helped build a blockhouse. Schaffer proceeded to Kaua'i to negotiate the return of the Bering's cargo, apparently with a letter of support from Kamehameha. When Kamehameha discovered the Russians were building a fort and had raised the Russian flag in Honolulu, he sent chiefs from Hawai'i to remove the Russians from O'ahu by force if necessary. RAC personnel judiciously chose to sail for Kaua'i instead of risking bloodshed. The partially built blockhouse was finished by Hawaiians under the direction of John Young and 60 mounted guns protected the fort.

When Schaffer met Kaumuali'i on Kaua'i, the high chief agreed to return the cargo still in his possession and to pay restitution in sandalwood for any items that could no longer be accounted for. Kaumuali'i asked that Kaua'i- the only island not yet conquered by Kamehameha - be placed under Russian protection and he granted the Russians a sandalwood trading monopoly. Schaffer and Kaumuali'i signed a "secret treaty" July 1, 1816: Kaumuali'i was to provide 500 men for the conquest of O'ahu, Lana'i, Maui and Moloka'i; Schaffer was to provide brigs, weapons and ammunition in trade for a sandalwood monopoly. Schaffer was also to oversee the construction of new forts and trading posts. Russian American Company employees and more than 300 native Hawaiians, including Kaumuali'i's wives, built Fort Elisabeth under this pact. Kaua'i chiefs and chiefesses also granted land to Schaffer and other RAC employees in leeward Waimea, Makaweli and Hanapepe. Kaumuali'i granted Schaffer the entire district of Hanalei on the north (windward) shore where Schaffer began building two forts, Alexander and Barclay. Using furs as barter, Schaffer purchased two American ships for Kaumuali'i, the Lydia and Avon.

Rumors of hostile Russian warships reached Kamehameha by late 1816. When the Russian naval ship Rurik under the command of Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue arrived in Hawai'i in December 1816 during its around-the-world voyage, it was met by 400 Kamehameha loyalists armed with muskets. Kotzebue quickly made it known that he had no intention of conquest and he eventually sailed from Hawai'i without ever visiting Schaffer on Kaua'i.

Observing Kotzebue's behavior, Kaumuali'i now concluded Schaffer did not have the support of the RAC and he ordered Schaffer and his employees to leave Kaua'i. Schaffer left on the Panther with most of the RAC employees leaving shortly after on the Ilmen. Others on the Kadiak, however, were stranded when their ship ran aground in Honolulu where between 60 and 100 RAC employees remained until the spring of 1818. By 1818, Leontii Hagemeister had replaced Alexander Baranov as chief manager of the Russian American Company. Hagemeister thought occupation of the Hawaiian Islands was worthwhile but criticized Schaffer for going beyond the bounds of his authority and initiating "plans that could not be realized by available local resources."

In October 1818, Vasilii Golovnin on the Kamchatka made a brief visit to Kaua'i where he observed an English flag flying over the fort. He attempted to obtain an interpreter to talk to Kaumuali'i, but finding none, he sailed from the harbor without ever leaving his ship.

The strained relations between the RAC and Hawaiian chiefs had a severe economic impact on Russian's North Pacific colonies. Schaffer's expenses in Hawai'i were high and the Russians had lost many of their sources for provisioning.

In 1819, the Russian American Company purchased the ship Brutus from American traders and sent it to Hawai'i under Karl Johan Schmidt to buy provisions and reestablish normal trade relations between the Hawaiian Islands and the RAC. Schmidt was also to reclaim RAC belongings left on Kaua'i, but Kaumuli'i believed he deserved further payment for provisions used by Schaffer and his party.

Meanwhile, Schaffer had gone to China and then Europe to promote Russian annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. He was aided by a Swede named Anders Ljungstedt and Peter Dobell, an Irishman who supported Russian colonization of the North Pacific. In 1819, Dobell met with Kamehameha II (Liholiho), who had succeeded his father, Kamehameha I. Although the Islands were under English protection, Dobell believed securing them for Russia would be simple. He noted that Hawaiians had given up their traditional religion, referring to the recent ending of the kapu system, and were "looking for a new religion." He recommended the RAC send a commercial agent, two priests, ornaments for a church and decorations for Liholiho. Ultimately, however, the Russian Foreign Minister Count Nesselrode did not take action on any of Schaffer, Ljungstedt, or Dobell's recommendations. He opposed all plans for colonization for fear of disrupting relations with the British and rousing the Americans who had established an increasing presence in Hawai'i.

By the 1820s, Russian colonies could get most provisions more cheaply from Boston or New York than from the Hawaiian Islands, but the salt trade between the North Pacific and Hawai'i continued. In 1821, the Thaddeus - the same ship that carried the first Protestant missionaries to Hawai'i in 1820 - sailed from Hawai'i to Kamchatka with a load of salt and other supplies after Petr Ivanovich Rikord, governor of Kamchatka, wrote to Liholiho requesting salt be traded for furs. Adol'f Etolin made a similar trip in 1822 on the Golovnin.

Russian vessels arrived in Hawai'i sporadically for years to come, but two visits in 1824 marked the last significant Russian voyages to the Islands. In early 1824, Lieutenant Khromchenko sailed from Sitka to Honolulu on the Rurik to obtain provisions to remedy an extreme shortage of food in the northern colonies. When Kaumuali'i died suddenly in Honolulu, the Russians did not join the rest of the ships in the harbor in giving a salute. Seven months later, Otto von Kotzebue returned to Honolulu on the Enterprise. Kotzenbue witnessed the end of a rebellion on Kaua'i that broke out after Kaumuali'i's death. Forces loyal to the Kamehameha line put down the rebellion. Kotzebue sent a message of congratulations to the victors to demonstrate Russia's support of the Kamehameha monarchy but Russia's influence in Hawai'i had declined and her hopes of colonizing Hawai'i had clearly ended.

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