The ‘Schaffer scam’, as those events are known in American historiography, was a fleeting episode of the colonial era. But that doesn’t make the story any less exciting.
What truly happened on the Sandwich Islands between 1815 and 1817, why did a Bavarian doctor christen native chiefs in memory of Russian heroes of the Napoleonic War, and when were the last human sacrifices in Hawaii?
The ‘soft-shell crab’ as a great conqueror
The first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii had a difficult childhood. He was born in the middle of the 18th century to a noble family on the archipelago’s largest island. The clans of the tribe were constantly at war with each other and with neighboring tribes – for centuries there raged a classic “war of all against all.”
At birth, the child was given the name Paiea – the local name for a now extinct subspecies of soft-shell crabs. The birth took place against the background of unusual natural phenomena – according to one version, Halley’s comet was visible in the sky, passing perihelion in 1758. The priests took this as a sign and predicted that the child would become a great conqueror who would crush all enemies. After listening to the wise men, his grandfather, the ruler of the island, ordered the newborn to be killed “out of harm’s way.” His parents managed to hide the child, and for the first few years of his life nothing was known of his whereabouts. When, after the death of the leader and the next reshuffle in power, the boy was able to return to the court, his name was Kamehameha, which meant “very lonely man.”
A year later, after an unsuccessful attempt to find a sea route home around North America, Cook returned to the island of Hawaii, where Kamehameha’s uncle ruled at the time. For a month, the British repaired the ship and collected provisions. The crew, which had gone rather wild at sea, began having regular skirmishes with the local population. The conflict ended when the explorer tried to personally capture the chief. In the process, he was killed, his body cooked, and the bones, carefully cleaned of meat, were returned to the ship for an honorable burial. The chief who had evaded the assassination attempt died peacefully a couple of years later, leaving the island to his son and appointing his nephew as the defender of the god of war Ku. However, Kamehameha did not take long to fulfill the ominous prophecy concerning himself. He killed his cousin and became the ruler of the largest island.
Soon, the place attracted enterprising American traders from New England who found out about the archipelago from Cook’s expedition. Kamehameha, who discovered the might of gunpowder after a visit from the British, established sandalwood trade with the Americans in exchange for guns. He then gathered a colossal (by local standards) army of 10,000 people and, in ten years, subdued almost all the neighboring islands with fire and sword, except for the two most remote – western Kauai and Niihau. The Kauai chief, named Kaumualii, was only 18 years old when an armada of 1,500 war boats moved towards his possessions. It seemed there would be no salvation, but the fleet of the mighty conqueror was scattered by a sudden storm. A few years later, Kamehameha began to assemble a new invasion army on the central island of Oahu. Precisely at that time, two ships under Russian flags appeared on the horizon.
Although Russian research and fishing expeditions visited the coast of present-day Alaska as early as the 17th century, 1783 may be considered the year of the founding of Russian America. This is the same year in which Crimea and Georgia became part of the Russian Empire. By the decree of Catherine II, the American Orthodox Diocese was formed, and the North-Eastern Fur Company was founded. A year later, it established the first permanent trading post on Kodiak Island off the southern coast of Alaska. Initially, it was a private enterprise involving a group of Siberian fishermen. They extracted furs and sent them to Okhotsk, whence the goods were delivered overland to the central part of Russia with great difficulty.
In 1799, the Novo-Arkhangelsk trading post was established, and Emperor Paul I chartered the Russian American Company. A decision was made not to limit trade to the European market, but to use the Chinese port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and the European trading bases there as the main market. The permanent Russian population of Alaska grew, reaching several hundred families. The Aleuts, instead of resisting the newcomers, began to work for them, learning the language and converting to the Orthodox faith.
From 1790, the senior manager of the enterprise was Pomor merchant Alexander Baranov. But Russian-American company co-founder Nikolai Rezanov wanted to see everything for himself. In 1803, he and a small retinue were part of the first Russian round-the-world expedition led by Ivan Kruzenshtern and Yuri Lisyansky. Ten days after their departure, the head of the expedition was notified that in fact it was Rezanov who had senior authority over the enterprise, sponsoring the entire voyage, and was to be appointed the first ambassador of Russia to Japan.
During the whole journey, Kruzenshtern and Rezanov engaged in power struggles and only the governor of Kamchatka eventually reconciled them on the opposite side of the Earth.
Sometime before that, the vessels ‘Hope’ and ‘Neva’ sailed to the shores of Hawaii to replenish supplies. The guests were warmly welcomed, although King Kamehameha could not receive the explorers. He was preparing for the second attempt to invade Kauai together with his warriors on a neighboring island and, together with them, was ill with an unknown disease (the campaign would never take place). Russian sailors also visited his rival, Kaumualii, who, being in a hopeless situation, was ready to swear allegiance to the Russian emperor right then and there, just to get military assistance. However, Kruzenshtern had other plans, and the ships sailed further along their routes.
Rezanov was never accepted as an ambassador in isolationist Japan and, arriving in Novo-Arkhangelsk, found the settlement in a depressing state. At the time, all provisions except for fish were delivered from Siberia via Okhotsk by sea, and by means of just one ship. The journey took two to three months. Of course, by the time of delivery, the supplies were far from fresh. It became clear to Rezanov that in order to continue the enterprise, it was necessary to ensure the safety of goods. To this end, he went down the coast on two ships, mapped out a place in northern California for an agrarian colony (the future Fort Ross), and visited Spanish San Francisco, where he made a great impression on the governor, established trade relations, and married the daughter of a local general. The ultimately sad fate of Rezanov is known from the work ‘Juno and Avos’, but his ideas were later used by the ‘ruler’ of ‘Russian America’, Baranov.
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