Wahi Pana: Waimea’s Russian Fort Elizabeth

#142 in the Moʻolelo series

Mana, in the Waimea district of Kauaʻi is the driest place in Hawaiʻi with only 10 inches of rain per year. This is ironic since Waiʻaleʻale, the wettest place on Earth, is also on Kauaʻi. It was here that intrigue brewed with Kaumualiʻi allying with the Russians as a possible political move to break Kauaʻi away from Ko Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina (“Hawaiʻi’s Islands,” the unified Hawaiian archipelago).

Russian Fort Elizabeth. Reconstruction by Dr Alexander Molodin and Dr Peter R Mills, 2015.

The Russian Fort Elizabeth was the brainchild of Dr. Anton Shcaeffer of the Russian American Company in collaboration with Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi. No longer “King,” because of pledging allegiance to Kamehameha, Peter R. Mills’s 2002 book Hawaiiʻs Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History claims that he had no intention of actually surrendering Kauaʻi. Iʻm not sure that this is true.* In the documentary O Hawaiʻi, Tom Coffman notes that Kamehameha wondered at the time: what he was to make of the fort being built by Russians on Kauaʻi?

According to the National Park Service:

Utilizing a design by Dr. Schäffer, Hawaiian workers under the direction of Kaumualiʻi constructed a fortified complex on the east bank of the Waimea River that, for a time, flew the Russian flag. Known as Fort Elizabeth, it was a blend of European military architecture and Hawaiian building materials. The fort was constructed with star-like projections common in early 19th-century European forts, but utilized Hawaiian materials including rocks from a former heiau (place of worship) in the construction of the walls. The fort’s shape was an uneven octagon 300 feet by 400 feet, with 20-foot high walls that varied in width from 25 to 40 feet.

While the fort was still under construction, Dr. Schäffer received news that the Russian government rejected the treaty he had negotiated with Kaumuali’i. The Russians did not want to defend the islands controlled by Kaumuali’i from both Kamehameha and the American sailors and missionaries who had established a favorable relationship with the King and his government. Instead, the Russian government informed Dr. Schäffer that he had overstepped his responsibilities. This news spread quickly, forcing Schäffer to flee the island before being attacked. He made his way to Russia where he was removed from his job and sent back to Germany.

Humehume (l) and Kaumualiʻi (r)

Kaumualiʻi’s son Humehume had returned home to Kauaʻi after his upbringing in Massachusetts and saw himself as rightful heir to Kauaʻi (and Oʻahu!). (See the post Humehume and the “Kidnapping” of Kaumualiʻi). “George Prince Tamoree [Kaumualiʻi]” as he was called, saw the fort as the base of power on Kauaʻi and attempted, unsuccessfully, to seize it in the early 1820s.

*As I have written before, Kaumualiʻi fulfilled his promise to Kamehameha to receive Liholiho (who ended up “kidnapping” him!), which suggests to me that he bargained with Kamehameha in good faith. After all, his life was spared at the unification negotiation in 1810.

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