In mid-October 1815, two hundred years ago this month, a German doctor set sail from one of Russia’s fledgling American outposts. Georg Anton Schäffer, an employee of the Russian-American Company (RAC) boarded the Isabella with the ostensible purpose of earning the favor of the Hawaii’s King Kamehameha. But when he landed on Hawaii, Schäffer set the wheels in motion for a chapter of failed Pacific conquest since smothered in archives, forgotten by all but a handful of scholars.
The tale of Russia’s abortive attempt to claim the Hawaiian archipelago – then called the Sandwich Islands, sighted by Europeans for the first time only 37 years prior – includes as much autocratic realpolitik as it does imperial fumbling. It may not even be correct to call the affair a wholesale “Russian” attempt to conquer the islands; there’s no evidence that either the emperor or the foreign minister ever supported a formal annexation of the archipelago and eventually they “categorically rejected” the opportunity, as historian N. Bolkhovitinov wrote.
Rather, it was the RAC, Russia’s foremost vehicle for North American expansion, which set its gaze on the Pacific islands. The islands’ sandalwood and tobacco was too good to pass up. The strategic placement in the Pacific would link Russia into prime shipping lanes, and the opportunities for grain and other harvests could help prop the empire’s impoverished Pacific Rim outposts in Okhotsk, Kamchatka, and Sitka. It seemed a lucrative target for expansion.
Russians had maintained trading ties with the islands for over a decade, though their engagement was not nearly as deep as that of the expanding U.S. government. In early 1815, a company ship laden with furs ran aground on the island of Kauai – its goods reportedly seized by the local king, Kaumualii. Schäffer was dispatched to the islands to help engineer the return of the company’s goods, preferably by winning the favor of King Kamehameha on the big island of Hawaii. Schäffer, however, seemed an odd choice to lead the mission.
“There is just not a lot known about Schäffer,” Patricia Polansky, a Russian bibliographer at the University of Hawaii, told The Diplomat. “Certainly nothing I know about here in our local Hawaii archives, which I have worked in many times.”
A surgeon by trade, Schäffer was perhaps best known for his attempts at supporting the tsar against the Napoleonic invasion. As biographer Lee Croft wrote, Schäffer’s efforts to back Russia came in the form of trying to construct a “shark-shaped, hydrogen-filled, rotor-wing-powered balloon from which to drop timed-fuse explosives” on invading forces ahead of the Battle of Borodino in 1812.* As to why the RAC selected Schäffer from their roster to head the mission to Hawaii, history doesn’t have a clear answer.
Nonetheless, Schäffer led the campaign, and landed on the archipelago in November 1815. The physician arrived to find a set of islands churning with local politics, the intricacies of which Schäffer was almost certainly unaware. The big island of Hawaii remained under the nominal reign of Kamehameha, “the Napoleon or Peter the Great of Polynesia,” according to Bolkhovitinov. By the time of Schäffer’s arrival, Kamehameha had earned the position of sovereign over the entire archipelago – save for the northernmost islands of Kauai and Niihau. Ruled by Kaumualii, these two islands stood autonomous – with de facto independence, according to historian Peter Mills – from the remainder of the archipelago, sending an annual tithe to the sovereign but avoiding Kamehameha’s wholesale rule.
At the time, the entire archipelago retained a form of internationalized independence; while the English had presented the Sandwich Islands as a gift to King George III in 1794, going so far as to raise the crown’s flag over the islands, London opted to forgo outright annexation in order to focus on outposts in Australia and the surrounding environs.
Still, it didn’t take long for suspicions to latch themselves onto Schäffer. The surgeon “found tact and diplomacy of little help,” according to historian Richard Pierce. British and American traders on the islands – including Kamehameha’s chief adviser – quickly voiced their suspicions about his intentions, resulting, as Schäffer wrote, in a wealth of “abuse and slander” against him. According to Pierce, “some of the King’s advisors even urged that [Schäffer] be killed.” Fortunately for the physician, he managed to swing his medical prowess and cull the King’s favor. He soon convinced Kamehameha to grant him land for a factory on the island of Oahu.
However, conditions at the factory rapidly deteriorated. Supplies remained sporadic. American and British advisers kept up their pressures, resulting in “attempts on [Schäffer’s] life,” writes Bolkhovitinov. As such, Schäffer sought and gained an audience with Kaumualii, who quickly unspooled a tale of political woe on the physician. According to Kaumualii, Kamehameha had swiped Kaumualii’s rightful place on the Hawaiian throne and this since-forgotten king, with two islands to his name, was ready “to assent to anything which would gain him an ally.”
Schäffer responded swiftly. On May 21, 1816, firmly in his guise as representative of the RAC – and, by extent, tsarist reign – Schäffer watched Kaumualii pledge himself and his crown to Emperor Alexander I, and agree to exclusive trading rights with Russia and the RAC. The RAC backed Schäffer’s moves. As Aleksandr Baranov, who’d originally assigned Schäffer his task, wrote, should peaceful means fail, “the whole island of Kauai should be taken in the name of our Sovereign Emperor of all the Russias and become a part of his possessions.” But Kaumualii gave his islands and his stewardship freely to Russia, parading in a Russian naval officer’s uniform, in honor of Kauai’s new sovereign.
And that wasn’t all. A few weeks later – “[l]osing all touch with reality,” wrote Bolkhovitinov – Schäffer signed a “secret treaty” by which he would receive some 500 of Kaumualii’s men to lead a military charge against the remaining islands. Once occupied, the islands would not only cut all trade with the United States, but Russia would receive “carte blanche for this expedition and all assistance in constructing fortresses on all islands.” Schäffer pledged ships and ammunition for the assault. Meanwhile, as he continued construction on a pair of new forts and raised the Russian flag over Kauai, the surgeon awaited the RAC’s approval. Schäffer’s line of logic was straightforward:
Through these holdings Russia will soon obtain able and experienced seamen. The Chinese will have to allow the Russian flag to wave in Canton. The English and Americans will have their trade cut off. … The Sandwich Islands must be made a Russian West India and a second Gibraltar. Russia must have these islands at any cost! … No power in the world has more right to these islands than Russia!
But Schäffer’s hopes for a tsarist Pacific paradise fell on wary ears. Where the RAC stood willing to seal trading rights on several islands, concerns about a full-fledged assault on the British- and American-dominated islands stalled Schäffer’s designs. As the RAC forwarded the request to St. Petersburg (the capital of Russia from 1713-1728, 1732-1918)*, American forces uprooted Schäffer from his Oahu outpost, even leading a failed attempt to drag the Russian flag from its Hawaiian perch. RAC employees soon received further threats from their American counterparts – along with Kaumualii, whom the Americans threatened to kill if he didn’t abandon Schäffer.
“There was no way we could oppose our enemies; our forces were weak,” Schäffer wrote. Failing even to hang on to the holdings he’d maintained, a disgraced Schäffer left Hawaii for good on July 7, 1817.
His departure, in the end, was likely for the best. When St. Petersburg received Kaumualii’s offers of annexation and learned of Schäffer’s plot to conquer the remainder of the Hawaiian islands for Russia, St. Petersburg blanched. Between the unreliability of Kaumualii and the simple matter of distance – to say nothing of risking the ire of the “adventurous” Americans – both the emperor and his foreign minister nixed the idea. Not only had the RAC lost the toehold Schäffer earlier gained, but the surgeon botched the wholesale annexation attempt, leaving Hawaii’s status as independent up to the Americans flooding the archipelago with traders and missionaries.
The Hawaiian Schäffer affair remains one of the first territorial flashpoints between Russia and a budding United States, but would soon be overshadowed by higher profile dealings in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. (To say nothing of what would come in time: alliances and enmity, World Wars, revolutions, a Cold War, detente, and now Crimea and Syria.) Nonetheless, while Schäffer remained chagrined by the entire debacle, he found a mote of historical justice. As the surgeon warned, should Russia pass on Hawaii, it would lose its “possessions on the northwest shore of America, and the Americans of the United States would take possession of them in short course.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article refers to Moscow in a way that implied it was at the time the capital of Russia, it was not. From 1713-1728 and 1732-1918 St. Petersburg functioned as the capital of imperial Russia. Schäffer was, however, involved in the defense of Moscow in 1812. This has been clarified in the text, The Diplomat apologizes for the error.