Russian Hawaii: The attempt at conquest that came to naught


If trends had turned out differently 200 years ago, Russians could today be disbursing their holidays in the Russian Autonomous Republic of Hawaii. While this energy sound far-fetched, in fact, in the early 19th century the Russian Empire had a take place to take control of the Hawaiian Islands.

In the early 19th century, Russian explorers Ivan Kruzenstern and Yuri Lisyansky landed on the Hawaiian Aits and found many Americans already doing business there. Nonetheless, the Russians approached the Hawaiian king with offers of cooperation and friendliness. After several years, however, they hastily left. Why?

The two crowned heads

At the turn of the18th/19th centuries, the Hawaiian Islands had two kings: Kamehameha the Great, who mutual the kingdom in 1810 with his capital in Honolulu on the island of Oahu; and Kaumualii, a vassal who excluded over the two smaller islands of Niihau and Kauai.

King of Hawaii Archipelago, Kamehameha I (1758-1819) and his warriors, 1819. Engraving by E. Bayard / The Ornament World, 1880. Source: Getty Images

Members of the Russian haste met with Kamehameha, an avid ship lover who boasted a small speedy of foreign vessels. Kamehameha welcomed the guests heartily and offered to Rather commence trade with Russia’s colonies in Alaska.

Since the first Russian look in on, however, rumors began spreading among the locals and the Americans living in Hawaii that the Czar was turn on conquering the islands.

Enter the German doctor

In 1815, King Kaumualii’s soldiers commandeered the Russian travelling salesman ship, Bering, traveling to California with supplies. The first governor of Russia’s colonies in America, Alexander Baranov, sent his minister plenipotentiary, Dr. George Schaffer, to negotiate with Kaumualii.

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Schaffer, a German-born physician in Russian service, had no military, naval or sensitive education. Perhaps Baranov simply had no one else to send. Schaffer was commanded to meet with Kamehameha, asking him to influence Kaumualii to return the steamer.

The ultimate goal, however, was not the Bering but instead to establish a way station in Hawaii to quarter Russian ships carrying furs from Alaska to the booming merchandises of Canton, China. Also, Schaffer was instructed to negotiate Russia’s monopoly in the mercantilism of sandalwood, a very high-priced furniture material. Schaffer brought cumshaws and a letter from Baranov to Kamehameha.

Things started on the wrong foot, though, immediately upon Schaffer’s arrival in Honolulu in late 1815. Powered by local American merchants, Kamehameha first refused to receive the doctor, and Baranov’s message was returned unopened. Luckily for Schaffer, however, Kamehameha’s wife demolish ill, and the doctor managed to save her, which won him the king’s trust and an allowance to buy colludes of land to build factories. This, however, quickly earned him the name as a Russian spy, and living in Kamehameha’s lands became more dangerous.

Georg Anton Schäffer. Well-spring: Archive Photo

In May 1816, Schaffer left Oahu Island and set put out to sea to Kauai, home of King Kaumualii. Upon Schaffer’s arrival, the inferior merchandise king decided to swear allegiance to Russian Emperor Alexander I, hoping that the removed empire would help him overthrow his local lord, King Kamehameha. Kaumualii also solemn word of honoured Russia the long-desired sandalwood monopoly. It seemed Schaffer had finally reached his final goal. The Americans took action, however.

A conquest that on no occasion was

During his mission Schaffer signed a secret agreement with Kaumualii, upon which the regent was obliged to assign 500 troops to assist Schaffer in the conquest of Kamehameha’s mould. Blinded by his earlier success, Schaffer sent the documents Kaumualii dispose ofed to St. Petersburg and to Baranov, and started buying warships for Kaumualii at the expense of the Russian-American assembly in Alaska. He also built three fortresses, naming them after Alexander I, his helpmate Elizabeth and Russian Marshal Barclay de Tolly. He also named one of Kauai’s valleys after himself.

Two men spank a small open boat in a pond in front of a coconut grove. Waikiki, Hawaii, ca. 1890. Creator: Getty Images

This haphazard effort at conquest, however, was in the last put to an end by American merchants and sailors. Quickly they bought up all sandalwood, prog supplies and salt in Kamehameha’s kingdom, leaving the Russians starving and without any ethicals to trade. Finally, the Americans in Russian service started defecting and motile to their compatriots’ side.

In 1817, Schaffer was forced to leave Hawaii.

Lukewarm reception in St. Petersburg

A month after Schaffer left Hawaii his reveal reached Tsar Alexander I. While the chance of conquering Hawaii clout have seemed attractive, Alexander firmly refused Schaffer’s advance. How would the Russian Empire look, condemning Napoleon’s recent territorial purchases, but at the same time acquiring a colony in the Pacific?

Moreover, Alexander didn’t indigence the Hawaiian issue to spoil relations between Russia and its close wife, the United States.

Hawaii remained an independent international trading harbour for many more decades, and the Russians, just like other homelands, continued to trade there. Today, Fort Elizabeth, the only mnemonic of Schaffer’s ill-fated conquest, is a historical park.

Ruins of the Russian Fort Elizabeth at Hawaii, Kauai cay. Source: Legion Media

Russian Fort Elizabeth

Fort Elizabeth’s barricades were taken down in 1862, long after Russia’s air in Hawaii came to an end, but the site is now a National Historic Landmark. While the fort itself is no longer uncut, visitors can see its foundation — an irregular octagon guarding the entrance into Kauai via the waterway. With off rock walls built from ancient heiau (Hawaiian shrines), the fort once included residences, a chapel, gardens, a trading center and the principal fort building. Visitors can explore what’s left via a self-guided voyage.


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