When we think of Russia’s interest in Hawai‘i, we initially (and, typically, only) think of “Russian Fort Elizabeth” in Waimea, Kaua‘i. However, Hawai‘i’s interactions with Russia go well beyond that, yet only short-lived.
In the early-1800s, multiple foreign interests, including Russia, were developing trading relationships with Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i served as an important provisioning site for traders, whalers and others crossing the Pacific.
The Russian story starts when three-masted Behring wrecked on the shores of Kaua‘i’s Waimea Bay early on the morning of January 31, 1815. The Behring had a load of seal skins/otter pelts bound for the Russian-American Trading Company in Sitka, Alaska.
Russian-American Company’s governor, Alexander Baranov, sent German-born Georg Anton Schäffer (1779-1836) to the Hawaiian Islands to retrieve the cargo (he wanted to exchange the furs for sandalwood.)
Schäffer first landed in Honolulu and, under the pretext of building a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor, began building a fort and raised the Russian flag. Kamehameha had him removed and Schäffer then voyaged to Kaua‘i.
There, King Kaumuali‘i, who had ceded Kaua‘i to King Kamehameha I in 1810, had seized the Behring’s cargo and had the valuable pelts taken to his home in west Kaua‘i.
Schäffer quickly gained favor with Kaumuali‘i – and, reportedly, Kaumuali‘i was considering joining forces with Russia to reclaim his rule from Kamehameha (that Kaumuali‘i had ceded over 5-years before.)
On May 21, 1816, and without the knowledge or approval of Czar Alexander Pavlovich, Kaumuali‘i signed a document that put Kaua‘i under the protection of the Russian Empire.
In return, Schäffer promised Kaumuali‘i protection and an armed Russian warship to lead an attack on Kamehameha’s forces. (Baranoff later informed Schäffer that he was not authorized to make such agreements.)
On July 1, 1816, Schäffer and Kaumuali‘i entered into a secret agreement to use Schäffer’s (purported) Russian authority to reclaim Kaua‘i from King Kamehameha I, and also to launch expeditions against other islands that Kaumuali‘i felt he had a hereditary right to rule.
Kaumuali‘i had thoughts of conquering Maui, Lānaʻi, Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, which he felt to be his right based on lineage.
Subsequently, Kaumuali‘i gave Schäffer Hanalei valley and two or three other valuable pieces of land. Schaffer went to Hanalei on September 30 and renamed the valley Schäffertal (Schäffer’s Valley.)
Schäffer began work on two earthen fortresses in Hanalei: Fort Alexander (named after the Czar Alexander and built in what is now Princeville – by the valet parking at the Princeville Resort); and Fort Barclay, named for Russian general Barclay deTooly and built nearer to Hanalei River.
Unlike Waimea’s Fort Elizabeth (with massive stone walls,) Fort Alexander had low earthen walls. While the Waimea Fort bears the Russian name, reportedly, Schaffer’s main focus for the Russian-American Company was not Waimea, but Hanalei, and they spent most of their time around Princeville.
Schäffer’s grandiose gestures were not confined to fort-building. He was also able to take possession of the ship Lydia and promptly gave the Lydia to Kaumuali‘i.
Meanwhile, rumors of Schäffer’s activities had filtered back to the Czar’s court. On November 21, 1816, Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue arrived in Hawai‘i on the Russian Navy brig Rurik.
He repudiated Schäffer’s acts, informing King Kamehameha that Schäffer and Kaumuali‘i did not have the support of the Russian Emperor.
On May 8, 1817 the Russians were expelled from Hawai‘i; some of Schäffer’s men left for Sitka and Schäffer was provided safe passage from the Hawaiian Islands.
It wasn’t until August 1818 that all parties had agreed that Kaua‘i had indeed been abandoned by the Russian-American Company, and for a couple of years following that, efforts were still being made to recover from the damage done by Schäffer.
An outline of the foundation of Fort Alexander may be seen on the lawn at the St. Regis Princeville Resort.