The Hawaiian Island of Kauai is one of the last places you would expect to find a Russian fort, right?
In an Anthropology reading course I took during the first year of my undergraduate degree, when I was not stumbling through a Tim Ingold article (the darling of Aberdeen
University) I was usually asked to read an accounting of an encounter between the ‘white man’ and the ‘natives’. In a very shallow interpretation friendly for us first year students, the message to take away from reading these stories was that ‘because of Anthropology, we never have to have a cultural misunderstanding again. We now know to respect what we think is insignificant or unimportant.’ (Notice the active key word: ‘think’… as in we
still THINK this way, we just KNOW we are in the wrong). News flash- building companies do not need to hire an Anthropologist to know that leveling a sacred site is wrong. We all know wrong from right, and personally, I think that trying to overcomplicate such a simple concept is where we have gone off the rails.
Anyways, back to the Russians…
Just as Captain Cook was not expecting to be killed by the Hawaiians, we do not expect to be finding Russian forts on the opposite side of the world on a tropical island. Circling back to my previous paragraphs about right versus wrong, the Hawaiians have been receiving the wrong end of the stick for some time now, and continue to. So why should they care about what OTHER people have come and built on THEIR island?
A few weeks ago I took a short trip with my fiancée to visit my parents while they were staying on the island of Kauai. As a child I had visited Fort Elizabeth before, but it had been many years so I walked through the fort with my fiancée who had never been to the island before.
The historical overview in a nut shell is that the fort was the largest of three built on the island between 1815 and 1817 under the direction of George Anton Schaeffer, and agent with a Russian-American company (The plot thickens… the Russians were there because they were working with the Americans). They made an alliance with King Kaumualii to build forts and conduct trade, but the deal did not work out. They were ordered to leave in 1817, and the Hawaiians finished and occupied the fort until 1864 when the fort was ordered to be demolished.
According to the information panels at the site, ‘There has been no archaeological work conducted on these remains to confirm the historical labels placed on these foundations.’ Curious. Obviously a plethora of historical evidence and oral history provides the information we have, but there have been no excavations. A man named George Jackson res a map of the fort in 1885 that illustrates the basic outline of the fort and where specific designated spaces are. Check out the slideshow below to see more pics.
SO why no excavation? Lack of funding, lack of interest? Not high profile enough? It is also possible that test pits or metal detectors have not turned up anything interesting enough to make pursuing a large scale excavation worthwhile. The site is a State Historical Park, and is protected under regulation- this is often more than many sites ever have.
Archaeology can become complicated in indigenous areas, and like I mentioned at the beginning, I am not up to date on the state regulations for archaeological excavations on heritage sites in the Hawaiian Islands. These histories that are shared between differing peoples during the colonial periods are often difficult, painful, and no longer valued. Sites that were erected by others so to speak, are not always as seen as a part of the indigenous historical story line. Their peoples were not treated well, and were often taken advantage of or the victims of disease.
Why should resources be invested in investigating, preserving, and curating these histories?
There are the obvious reasons- so they do not happen again. Then we can go a step further, and remember that this is history, be it ugly or not. This history still belongs in our lives, and we need to empower each other to value what has happened. These stories are relevant to the living communities today, and we can in no way decide in this moment what will become important to the children of the future.
Hawaii did not turn out to be the paradise or land of plenty that the Russians had anticipated it would be. In addition, this was not the last time that the Russians and the Hawaiian Islands would see each other. At the turn of the century, the Hawaiian Board of Immigration imported around 1,500 Russian workers to farm their sugar cane plantations. It has been interpreted as a ‘last ditch attempt to whiten the Hawaiian Islands’. What it resulted in, was a disaster- between the language barrier, unfulfilled promises, and measles outbreaks many Russians fled to the mainland. What few that remained behind were sent for after the Russian revolution by Lenin to return to their homeland. I love this photo pictured above it is so haunting (Image credit: A Family Portrait From the Russian Passport Application Album/Russian Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa). If you want to read more about this subject, check out this article on PRI.
I found this very interesting, especially when reflecting upon the power that the sugar
cane has had on Hawaii for so long. I remember taking a tour of a sugar cane plantation as a child, and lamenting for those who worked in the field- what a hard, hot, miserable, and labor intensive job. Now, the last sugar can plantation on Kauai is set to close next year. Sugar from cane is inefficient compared to the yield from beets. Funny how things circle around. Thanks for reading.
Peace and long life.