Schäffer affair: Wikis


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The Schäffer affair was an incident between 1815-1817 when Georg Anton Schäffer attempted to take the Hawaiian Islands for Russia. In 1815 Schäffer sailed to Hawaii to retrieve the Company goods seized by Kaumualii, chief of Kauai island. A simple mission led by an inexperienced but ambitious physician unfolded into a major blunder for the Company. Kaumualii, who sought outside help in his domestic rivalry with king Kamehameha, invited Schäffer to his island and manipulated him into believing that the Russian-American Company could easily take over and colonize Hawaii. Schäffer, "losing all touch with reality",[1] planned a full-blown naval assault of the rest of Hawaiian islands and sought support for his "conquest" in Saint Petersburg. Mounting resistance of Native Hawaiians and American traders forced Schäffer to admit defeat and leave Hawaii in July 1817, before his triumphant reports from Kauai reached the Russian court. The Company recognized a loss of not less than 200,000 roubles but continued entertaining "The Hawaiian project" until 1821. The Company then sued Schäffer for damages, but after an inconclusive legal standoff found it easier to let him go back to Germany.



The Russian-American Company maintained "more or less regular ties"[2] with Hawaii and its king Kamehameha I[3] since 1804.[2] Governor Alexander Baranov arranged an exploratory expedition to the islands in 1808; his deputy Leonty Hagemeister proposed purchase or outright takeover of Hawaiian land, but this opportunity was not followed and the business was limited to irregular purchases of foodstuffs, salt and sandalwood.[4]

On January 30, 1815 Bering, a Company ship carrying furs[5] worth around 100,000 roubles,[6] dropped anchor near Waimea.[5] Bering's captain, James Bennett, intended to purchase foodstuffs for Russian Alaskan settlers.[5] On the next night Bering ran aground in a storm; two months later the stranded crew was evacuated from Kauai by Albatross.[5] Bennett reported that the ship and its cargo was seized by chief Kaumualii[5][6][7] (King Tomari in contemporary Russian sources[8]). Bennett and two other American captains employed by the Company pressed Baranov to wage an armed punitive expedition against Kaumualii.[6] The proposal stirred long discussions between Baranov and his deputies; Baranov clearly favored a peaceful solution.[9]

Arrival at Hawaii

The island of Kauai, domain of chief Kaumualii and Schäffer's original target.

Baranov dispatched the mission to Hawaii, with Georg Schäffer in full command, in October 1815. The choice of Schäffer, a physician, remains a mystery; quite likely, according to Nikolay Bolkhovitinov, Baranov simply had no one else on hand.[6] He instructed Schäffer to present himself as a harmless explorer, obtain Kamehameha's favor, and then demand compensation for the looted shipwreck, for example, in sandalwood.[6] If this business proceeded smoothly, Schäffer was to seek Kamehameha's patent for a monopoly in sandalwood trading. Baranov's letter politely warned Kamehameha that a failure of Schaffer's mission would leave him no choice but an armed incursion against Kaumualii.[6] According to Peter Mills, the true nature of Schäffer's mission remains disputed but the scholars agree that Baranov wanted it to remain secret.[10]

Schäffer reached Hawaii on board the Isabella in the beginning of November 1815.[11] What happened between Kamehameha and Schäffer is known only through Schaffer's own unreliable narrative.[12] According to Schäffer, at first the king, influenced by John Young and the American skippers, displayed outright anti-Russian sentiment[11] John Young, the British advisor to Kamehameha, was certain that Schäffer's "naturalist" persona was merely a cover.[13] By the end of December 1815 Schäffer restored Kamehameha's good disposition through medical services to the king and queen Ka'ahumanu.[11][13]

Failure of diplomacy

The king[11][13] (or, according to Daws, Ka'ahumanu and her brother[14]) granted Schäffer parcels of land and permission to set up trading stations; Schäffer built a small house but soon left the island of Hawaii for Oahu.[11] According to Schäffer, his peaceful exploration of Hawaii was interrupted by "agents working for Hunt and Ebbets",[11] who even made attempts against his life.[11] Oahu seemed to be a safer place "where the people are better disposed to foreigners".[11]

At about the same time, in February 1816, Baranov sent reinforcement - the Otkrytie with lieutenant Podushkin in command.[11] If Schäffer's mission fails, instructed Baranov, Podushkin had to take the whole island of Kauai into Russian possession, "avoiding sacrifice of human life if possible".[11] An alternative account, provided by Mills, states that Podushkin's orders were limited to delivery of thirty Aleuts into Schäffer's disposal and then proceeding further on his own business.[15] Podushkin reached Oahu in May 1816; another Russian ship, Ilmen,[16] unexpectedly showed up for repairs at the same time.[1] Schäffer remained in command of all Russian forces in the area, now having the two ships[1] that, according to Hagemeister, were all that was necessary to seize Hawaii.[6] Schäffer and Podushkin arranged the final meeting with Kamehameha who again resisted extortion; the Russians immediately set sail for Kauai and reached their target on May 16 [O.S. May 8] 1816.[1]

Illusion of a conquest

Fort Elizabeth, 1817.

Five days later Schäffer "apparently achieved the impossible":[1] rebellious Kaumualii humbly pledged allegiance to the Tsar of Russia on behalf of all Hawaiian islands, agreed to reimburse the Company for the losses of 1815 and granted it a monopoly in sandalwood trade.[1] The chief himself, dressed in Podushkin's uniform, hoisted the flag of the Russian-American Company over Kauai.[17] Another treaty, signed in July, provided the Russians with 500 local soldiers for the conquest of Oahu, Lanai, Maui and Molokai: "The King (Kaumualii) provides Doctor Schäffer carte blanche for this expedition and all assistance in constructing the fortresses on all islands... and he will refrain from all trade with citizens of the State (sic) of America".[1]

The treaty also placed Schäffer in charge of constructing the new forts and trading stations.[15] More than three hundred Hawaiians under Schäffer's command laid down and built Fort Elizabeth, a traditional European star-shaped fortress, built of stone and adobe.[18] By the end of Schäffer's Hawaiian adventure, Fort Elizabeth was practically complete and armed with cannons.[18] Schäffer also laid down two small earthen forts, Alexander and Barclay, this time without Hawaiian assistance.[18]

Enthusiastic Schäffer sent victorious messages to Baranov and to imperial authorities in Saint Petersburg, requesting a full-blown naval expedition to protect "his fantastic achievements".[19] He provided Kaumualii with two new ships,[19] the larger of these, Avon, was worth twice as much as the merchandise taken by Kuamualii in 1815 (200,000 roubles[18] vs. 100,000). However, Kaumualii had no intention to forfeit his possessions; he manipulated Schäffer into "losing all touch with reality"[1] and used the Russians for his own benefit in his standoff with Kamehameha, planning to conquer more islands.[1] Early historians, starting with Otto von Kotzebue,[20] suggested that Kaumualii's revolt was prompted or even led by Schäffer[21] but, according to Mills, the chief "sought to align himself with any foreign power that could help him".[22] During the War of 1812 he sided with the Americans, but by 1815 this alliance fell apart[22] and Schäffer's arrival conveniently filled the empty slot in Kaumualii's plans.[23]

Neither was Baranov inclined to finance a war; he denied payment for the purchase of Avon and warned Schäffer against further political and business blunders.[19] The Board of Directors of the Russian-American Company was not informed of the whole affair until the spring of 1817.[24]

Defeat and surrender

Schäffer spent the summer of 1816 exploring Kauai; he invented Russian names to local landforms but named the finest of them, the Hanalei River valley, in German: Schäfferthal.[25] Breakup of his "empire" began in September 1816 when he had to evacuate the colony in Oahu, yielding to the threat of force.[19]

In December 1816 Schäffer received an unexpected "reinforcement": the Russian military brig Rurick captained by Otto von Kotzebue dropped anchor at Hawaii in the middle of a circumnavigation.[19] Kamehameha, unaware of Kotzebue's true disposition, manned the coast with 400 soldiers[26] (or loyal volunteers, according to Mills[27]) ready to repel the expected landing. Kotzebue managed to persuade the king of his peaceful intentions[26] and made it clear that the Imperial government has nothing to do with Schäffer's delusions; he left without ever visiting his compatriots on Kauai.[25][27]

The standoff between Kaumualii and Kamehameha continued; the king was now supported by the Americans who allegedly promised him five ships to be used against Kaumualii and his Russian allies.[8] American traders even tried to pull down the Russian flag raised on Kauai and were repelled by Kaumualii's guards.[25] June 29 [O.S. June 17] 1817, according to Schaffer's records, all his American employees excluding George Young, the skipper of Kadyak,[28] changed sides and deserted him.[8] Local Hawaiians "bundled Schäffer into a boat" and tried to force him out of Kauai, but he returned and was then forced to board one of his ships.[25] Only then did Schäffer admit his defeat; he dispatched George Young to bring seaworthy Ilmen to Sitka[28] and then sailed to Honolulu on the crippled, leaky Kadyak.[8]

The Kadyak entered Honolulu harbor under the white flag of surrender[8] or, according to Daws, under the Russian flag flying upside down, a sign of distress.[29] Kamehameha's chiefs warned the Russians that they will immediately arrest Schäffer but then backed off;[25] according to Schäffer's deputy Taranov, the change in attitude was influenced by the Americans seeking to salvage prized sandalwood from the holds of the sinking Kadyak.[28]

On July 19 [O.S. July 7] 1817 Schäffer forever left Hawaii for Canton, courtesy of his former patient captain Isaiah Lewis.[28][30] Between sixty and one hundred[27] Russians and Aleuts from the Kadyak were left stranded on Oahu until the spring of 1818.[27] Schäffer reached Macau where he received support from Anders Ljungstedt,[31] a Swede who occasionally worked for the Russian-American Company.[32] Ljungstedt arranged Schäffer's travel to Rio de Janeiro, from where he embarked to Europe.[32] During his brief stay in Rio Schäffer obtained an audience with princess Maria Leopoldina,[33] and presented his unique collection of natural exhibits from the Hawaii. The princess who soon became Queen of Brazil remembered the gift and remained a supporter of Schäffer in his Brazilian ventures.

Immediate aftermath

The "Hawaiian spectacular performed by Doctor Schäffer"[34] cost the Russian-American Company, according to Bolkhovitinov, 200,000 roubles.[34] Mills evaluated Schäffer's direct expenses at 230,000 roubles[35] and noted that the Russians wasted their resources in Hawaii while the Americans profiteered by supplying Alaska from Hawaii.[35] The Company left substantial supplies on Kauai and the managers in Sitka seriously considered sending another armed expedition to repossess them.[35]

The Board of the Company in Saint Petersburg received the first news of the Hawaiian affair in the spring of 1817.[24] On March 22 (April 3), 1817 the Board instructed Baranov to dismiss Schäffer as soon as he completes his mission; they openly distrusted the German and feared the international complications that could hurt the core business.[24]

Schäffer's victorious reports of his treaty with Kuamualii were delivered to Saint Petersburg in August 1817,[24] more than one year after the event and after Schäffer's flight from Hawaii. At about the same time European newspapers picked up rumors of Russian expansion in the Pacific.[24] The directors of the Company now leaned to supporting Schäffer and requested tsar's approval to proceed.[24] The approval depended on the opinion of foreign minister Karl Nesselrode who in turn relied on the opinion of Count von Liven, the ambassador in London.[36]

The Board, waiting for Nesselrode, indulged in drafting business plans for Schäffer who was then already on the way to China.[36] In December 1817 Nesselrode received von Liven's report from London: according to the ambassador, the disadvantages and risks of a Russian protectorate over Kauai outweighed any possible gains.[37] On March 8 [O.S. February 24] 1818 Nesselrode finally voiced an unfavorable opinion on "Doctor Schaffer's thoughtless ventures".[37] Tsar Alexander concurred and denied state support to the Company's operations in Hawaii.[37]

The directors, however, petitioned the government for at least an approval of their limited presence in the Hawaii, which was granted in August 1818.[38] In the same month Kotzebue returned to Saint Petersburg, bringing bad news of the events that happened more than a year before; the directors received letters from Schäffer himself, the most recent dated April 1818, from Rio de Janeiro.[39]




  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 60.
  2. ^ a b Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 57.
  3. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1997, p. 276-277, describes the contacts between captain Yuri Lisyansky and Kamehameha. The king displayed interest in purchasing seagoing ships and selling foodstuffs to the Company.
  4. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1973, pp. 57-58.
  5. ^ a b c d e Mills, p. 23.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 58.
  7. ^ Mills, p. 110, writes that plundering of shipwrecks and burning houses was a normal Hawaiian custom.
  8. ^ a b c d e Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 62
  9. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1997, p. 281
  10. ^ Mills, pp. 23-24.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 59.
  12. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1997, pp. 282-283, outlines gaping inconsistencies in Schaffer's medical records and concludes that his business reports were even less reliable. English translations added further errors, reinforcing the feeling of unreliability.
  13. ^ a b c Mills, p. 24.
  14. ^ Daws, p. 51
  15. ^ a b Mills, p. 25.
  16. ^ Russian: Ильмень - Bolkhovitinov 1998, p. 289; incorrectly rendered as Il'mena in the 1973 English edition.
  17. ^ Mills, p. 112
  18. ^ a b c d Mills, p. 26
  19. ^ a b c d e Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 61.
  20. ^ Mills, pp. 34-35, discusses the reasons why Kotzebue or his translator Juan Elliot de Castro could have made this error.
  21. ^ Mills, pp. 33-44, provides a bibliography of historians who explored the subject and traces the change in their understanding of events.
  22. ^ a b Mills, p. 106
  23. ^ Mills, p. 107.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 63
  25. ^ a b c d e Daws, p. 52
  26. ^ a b Bolkhovitinov 1973 61-62.
  27. ^ a b c d Mills, p. 28
  28. ^ a b c d Bolkhovitinov 1997, p. 289
  29. ^ Daws, p. 53.
  30. ^ Full name of Lewis as in Mills, p. 28 and Daws, p. 53; Bolkhovitinov provides only initials.
  31. ^ Mills, p. 30. Bolkhovitinov spells the same name as Lungstedt.
  32. ^ a b Bolkhovitinov 1997, p. 297.
  33. ^ Gomes, p. 19
  34. ^ a b Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 71
  35. ^ a b c Mills, p. 29.
  36. ^ a b Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 64.
  37. ^ a b c Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 65.
  38. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 67.
  39. ^ Bolkhovitinov 1973, p. 68.



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