The story about Kaua‘i’s “Russian Fort” begins when the Russian ship ‘Bering’ became stranded on the shores of Kaua‘i’s Waimea Bay on January 31, 1815. The ship’s cargo and the sailors’ possessions were confiscated by Kaua‘i’s ruler, Kaumuali‘i.
The Russian-American Company (the owner of the ship and its cargo) sent Russian Georg Anton Schäffer to the Hawaiian Islands to retrieve the cargo or seek appropriate payment.
Later that year, Schäffer arrived in Honolulu. There, Kamehameha granted him permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor.
But, instead, Schäffer began building a fort and raised the Russian flag. When Kamehameha discovered this, he sent several of his men to remove the Russians from O‘ahu, by force, if necessary. The Russians judiciously chose to sail for Kaua‘i, instead of risking bloodshed.
Once on Kaua‘i, Schäffer gained the confidence of King Kaumuali‘i, when he promised the king that the Russian Tsar would help him to break free of Kamehameha’s rule.
Although Kaumuali‘i had ceded Kaua‘i to Kamehameha in 1810, he generally maintained de facto independence and control of the island, following his agreement with Kamehameha.
It is believed that Kaumuali‘i considered it possible for him to claim rule over Kaua`i, Ni`ihau, O`ahu, Maui, Moloka`i and Lana`i, if he had Russian support. The Russians meanwhile were searching compensation for lost trade goods, as well as expanded trading opportunities.
Kaumuali‘i and Schäffer had several agreements to bring Kaua‘i under the protection of Russia, as well as weapons and ammunition from Schäffer, in exchange for trade in sandalwood.
Kaumuali‘i also used the engineering skills of Schäffer to lay out a plan for a fort (commonly referred to as Fort Elizabeth) which Kaumualiʻi had constructed next to his own residence, and for which he obtained a Russian flag from Schäffer, that he raised over his fort.
Three Russian forts were built on the Island of Kaua‘i: Fort Alexander, Fort Barclay and Fort Elizabeth;
The site, was known as “Pā‘ula‘ula” or “Hipo” by Hawaiians, and is on the eastern headlands of Waimea River overlooking the harbor, across from Lucy Kapahu Aukai Wright Beach Park.
Archaeological data and historical accounts show that the Hawaiians had used the site – perhaps for a ‘monumental architecture’ like a heiau (temple) or a pu‘u honua (refuge site) – during a time when chiefs on different banks of the Waimea River were engaged in warfare, and used it as a burying place for ali`i even in 1822.
In many ways, it is similar to Ahuʻena heiau in Kailua that Governor Kuakini also converted into a fort.
Schäffer called the fort “Fort Elizabeth” after the Empress of Russia, Elizabeth Alexeievna (also known as Louise of Baden). Although the country’s influence never fully established itself in Hawai‘i, Schäffer hoped his alliance would strengthen their ties to the Hawaiian Islands.
The boulder-built fort stands as a reminder of Russia’s short-lived presence (1815-1817) in the Hawaiian Islands. Massive stacked-stone walls of the fort are a mixture of Hawaiian construction techniques and Russian fort design.
The fort, originally with walls 20 feet high and built in an irregular octagon shape (in the shape of a star,) was fortified with several cannons.
In 1817, however, it was discovered that Schäffer did not have the support of the Russian Tsar. He was forced to leave Hawaii, and Captain Alexander Adams, a Scotsman who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, raised the Kingdom of Hawai‘i flag over the fort in October 1817.
Russian Fort Elizabeth eventually went under the control of Kamehameha supporters and years later was used to put down a rebellion by Kaumuali‘i’s son, Prince George (Humehume.)
Russian Fort Elizabeth is now a State and National Historic Landmark and is part of the State Parks program, under DLNR. You can take a free, self-guided tour of the property.
It has a great view of the west bank of the Waimea River (where Captain Cook first landed in Hawai‘i) and of the island of Ni‘ihau across the channel.
Thanks to Peter Mills for information on this subject, as well as from his book, “Hawai‘i’s Russian Adventure.” This image shows Fort Elizabeth in an 1885 map. In addition, I have added other images of Fort Elizabeth in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook page.