Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Guest Post: Russian Hawaii

This article first appeared on Today In Alternate History.

July 19, 1817 - Schäffer establishes the short-lived Russian Kauai protectorate

"[To the USS Boston, I am] prepared to make an immediate attack upon this town, at 4 o'clock P.M. to-morrow, (Saturday) in the event of the demands now forwarded by me to the King of these Islands not being complied with by that time" ~ Captain Lord George Paulet on-board the HMS Carysfort.

A power struggle between two chieftains, Kamehameha and Kaumuai'i, was cynically exploited by a rogue and ambitious German surgeon called Georg Anton Schäffer. He led a mixed group of Russians and Aleuts, sent by the Russian-American Company (RAC) to expedite the return of the cargo of the wrecked ship Bering or, failing that, obtain compensation if the cargo had been stolen or destroyed. There were strict boundaries to his mission as well as other obstacles caused by the local ascension crisis that was going on when he arrived. Fortunately, Schäffer was fully aware of the two main threats to the success of his mission - that the locals had superior armed forces and the United States had significant interest in the islands. As a direct consequence of these factors, there was absolutely no realistic prospect that he could really distinguish himself by seizing the whole of Hawaii for the RAC.

Luckily, manipulation was
Schäffer's stock in trade. To strengthen his hand, imperial aid was obtained by greatly exaggerating the commercial opportunity to the Russian Court. When it was subsequently discovered that the cargo had been seized by Kaumualii, he deftly negotiated the transfer of a share of the local whaling rights and sandalwood trade to the RAC in exchange for firearms to defeat Kamehameha. But when Kaumualii mysteriously died and the company gradually expanded operations, it became increasingly clear that Schäffer had pulled off quite an impressive feat. His quixotic plot had actually managed to establish a de facto Russian protectorate over the island of Kauai.

The RAC fleet comprised just nine ships and the remainder were the small warships engaged in the routine circumnavigation trips conducted to provide sailing experience. Despite their pathetic lack of sailing power, it was a sufficient naval footprint to establish a small Russian port on Kauai. Further Russian investment in the Far East would follow , but the protectorate continued to remain acutely vulnerable due to its remote location and distance from the Russian Empire.

Tension also arose with the British Empire over the North Sandwich Islands where Captain Cook had perished. The threat of British occupation was becoming increasingly inevitable and, to avoid this eventuality, the Russian Kauai protectorate was seized by the United States. This wanton act of aggression brought the Americans into the Crimean War despite the conflicts of interest with the British. The military action was succeeded by a further conflict in the late nineteenth century as the USA forced the Russian Empire out of the Pacific and then off the North American continent.

The Russian Premier Count Witte despaired that "[the] insane [Tsarist] regime was a tangle of cowardice, blindness, craftiness, and stupidity." The rotten Russian Empire finally collapsed in 1905 after disastrously losing a conflict with the Japanese. A new republic arose that allied itself with Anglo-France. The consequences of seemingly minor regional conflicts had been learnt the hard way by all three Great Powers, and they wisely avoided entanglement in the Austro-Serbian War of 1914.

Author's Note from Wikipedia:

In reality, mounting resistance of Native Hawaiians and American traders forced Schäffer to admit defeat and leave Hawaii before his triumphant reports from Kauai reached the Russian court. The Hawaiian spectacular, as it was called by contemporary Russians, became a significant financial blunder for the company.

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