Kauai, Hawaii, 2 March 2015
Here we are in the remains of the largest Russian fort in Kauai. Russian fort you say? Yes, there’s an interesting story behind that.
Kauai had been supplying food to Russian ships in exchange for pelts from about 1806. In 1815 a Russian ship the Behring went aground in Waimea Bay and King Kaumuali‘i salvaged the cargo of seal pelts. The Russians then sent the German Georg Anton Schaffer to retrieve the pelts or obtain compensation. He first went to visit Kamehameha in Hawaii and Oahu for assistance but fell out of favour and instead went to Kauai. Then he saw an opportunity.
Kaumuali‘i had ceded Kauai to Kamehameha in 1810 to avoid a war he could not win. When Schaeffer arrived, Kaumuali’i accepted a Russian protectorate and Schaeffer persuaded him that with Russian assistance he could shake off Kamehameha and establish an empire over Oahu, Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Schaeffer and the Russians would get rights to the valuable sandalwood growing on Oahu and quite a bit of land including half of Oahu.
As a prelude to military operations, Schaeffer built three forts in Kauai including Fort Elizabeth, the largest one, at the mouth of the Waimea River. The bubble burst in 1816 when the fort was almost completed. Russian Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue arrived, disowned Schaeffer and informed Kamehameha that Schaeffer did not have Russian support. Commercial advantage was one thing but having only recently ejected Napoleon, Russia did not want to start a war in the Pacific with England and France.
In 1817, American settlers persuaded Kaumuali‘i that Russia and the US were at war and that he was risking more than he realised. (There was of course no war). Consequently, Kaumuali‘i ejected Schaeffer and he fled the Hawaiian Islands.
Kaumuali‘i died in 1824 and the fort saw action a few months later when his son staged an unsuccessful rebellion against Kamehameha III. It was abandoned in 1853 and decommissioned in 1864. In 1862, the fort contained 60 flintlock muskets, 16 swords, 38 cannon, 6 “heavy guns” and 24 “little guns”. Now there is only the base of the fort remaining. It is of an impressive size, though. It is an irregular shape about 90 metres by 140 (300 feet by 450) and was originally 6 metres high (20 feet).
A view from the walls of the fort, looking towards Waimea Bay.
The mouth of the Waimea River, from near the fort.
You can see the distant offshore island, Ni’ihau more clearly in the infrared image, at the horizon on the left. This was purchased by Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864 and passed down to her Robinson descendents.
There is a native population with a main village on the coast facing away from Kauai. Essentially, they are not allowed to leave and others are not allowed to visit. Their primary language remains Hawaiian and they live largely without modern technology and paraphenalia. It is possible to briefly visit the island but not to meet the locals. It is also a seabird sanctuary and was reafforested by the Robinsons (who by the way are not Swiss).
The Robinson family also own over 50,000 acres on Kauai, mainly in the wild undeveloped part, and have a keen interest in conservation.