May 01, 2013

The Kauai Gambit

The Kauai Gambit
Inside "Russian" Fort Elizabeth, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Brave Heart

The remains of a once-formidable Russian fortress rest atop a Kauai hilltop that offers a sprawling view of the Pacific. Looking out over the historic black sand beach where British explorer Captain James Cook made his first landfall in the Hawaiian islands in 1778, the fort is a silent reminder of a strange episode in nineteenth century history, a seemingly insignificant event that could have changed the course of history.

The Russian side of this story begins in 1799, with the founding of the state-backed Russian American Company. As part of its charter, the RAC was granted a monopoly over trade (primarily furs for export to China) with the Russian territories in the Pacific. The charter focused the company’s efforts on North America, but for all practical purposes the only limit to Russian exploration and expansion in the Pacific was the reach of the Spanish and British empires.

In August 1803, the Russian navy sent a pair of ships – the Nadezhda and the Neva – to the Pacific to support the efforts of the RAC and to explore the feasibility of maritime trade with China (as well as with Japan and South America). The expedition was led by Captain Adam Johann von Krusenstern, a Baltic German who had served in the British Royal Navy and been heavily influenced by Cook’s expeditions. When Krusenstern and his second in command, Lt. Commander Yury Fyodorovich Lisyansky, returned to Kronstadt Naval Base three years later, they were feted as the first Russians to circumnavigate the globe.

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