Russia on Kauai: The Farce that Caused Kauai to Fall
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History of Fort Elizabeth on Kauai
Fort Elizabeth on the island of Kauai traces its history back to 1816; but, the story behind it tells the tale of one man who wreaked havoc in the Pacific between Hawaiian, American, Russian and international politics from the tiny island of Kauai. George Anton Scheffer, a surgeon of the Russian-American Company, was assigned to recover the valuable cargo of a Russian ship that had run aground near Kauai. Well-traveled, highly educated and with a charismatic personality to rival that of any car salesman, Scheffer was left to his own devices and duped King Ka’umu’ali’i of Kauai into thinking that he was a powerful man who spoke for Russia.
Leading up to King Ka’umu’ali’i and Scheffer's first meeting, the Hawaiian Islands had been in constant warfare in an attempt to conquer one another for more than 500 years. But, unlike all the other islands in Hawaii, Kauai was able to maintain its independence for over 5 centuries. The island had already survived two attempts from Kamehameha, who had gathered a formidable army of warriors of more than 10,000 strong! But the growing power of Kamehameha I was evident and it was obvious to King Ka’umu’ali’i that his time was running short. Kamehameha I already had a heavy hand in politics due to Hawaii's prime location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
As Kamehameha The Great began to conquer each island one by one in the late 18th century, Kauai was the last and greatest prize of his conquest. But despite having the good fortune to escape Kamehameha’s invasion twice, in reality, the people of Kauai and King Ka’umu’ali’i were living in fear of the powerful army of Kamehameha I. They desperately wanted to find a way to defend against Kamehameha I and remain an independent island. All they needed was an opportunity.
With the impeccable timing of a skilled salesman, in walks George Anton Scheffer of the Russian-American Company who has been sent to Kauai to retrieve the lost cargo. The two men meet and hit it off like best buds. Scheffer recognized immediately that King Ka’umu’ali’i greatly feared being conquered by Kamehameha I and desired power in his own right. Jumping at this incredible opportunity, Scheffer worked an amazing deal in just one day. King Ka’umu’ali’i not only promised to restore the remaining cargo, but also pledged his allegiance to the Russian Czar / Emperor Alexander I, promised to supply precious sandalwood, provisions for Russian ships, and even allowed factories and buildings to be built anywhere on Kauai.
In return, Scheffer (without approval or informing his higher-ups) promised King Ka’umu’ali’i the backing of the Russian empire, a fully armed ship, and even made him a line staff officer in the Russian Navy. He guaranteed Russia's help in overthrowing Kamehameha I and promised King Ka’umu’ali’i that he would be the ruling monarch of Hawaii - a sweet deal for both men.
Wow! These wise guys must have thought, what a brilliant plan... at least on paper! If only Scheffer had been a true Russian diplomat. In reality, Scheffer was only a doctor working for a Russian trading company. He had absolutely no power - nor any right to act on behalf of the Russian government. However, for about a year, Scheffer and King Ka’umu’ali’i continued to live in their dreamland and busied themselves with their secret plan. To make matters even more bizarre, Scheffer was originally from Germany!
In 1816, they constructed a military fort made of lava rocks. The fort was perched on the edge of Waimea Bay and was given the name Fort Elizabeth, named after the empress of Russia at that time. Back in its glory days, almost 200 years ago, Fort Elizabeth's walls were 20 feet tall and 17 feet wide and were shaped like a star. There was even an armory, a barracks, and an officer's quarters and the fort was stocked with guns, swords and artillery.
The bigger the lie, the harder they fall. Soon it became clear that Scheffer's proposal and promises were totally bogus, and Scheffer’s boss quickly fired him for both overstepping his bounds and failing in his original mission - to retrieve the lost cargo. As for King Ka’umu’ali’i, once the farce was up, he had no choice but to accept his subordinate rule under King Kamehameha The Great.
Fort Elizabeth Today
The "Russian Fort" still stands today although it has not aged well. The fort looks more like a pile of rocks as it was dismantled and decommissioned in 1864. The dry grass is tall and overgrown and many of the rocks have tumbled off due to the wind and rain. Just imagine what this fort must have been like in those days - with the Russian flag flying over the fort on the Island of Kauai. But time changes all things, including opinions and perspectives.
With Russia's war on Ukraine affecting today's economies and challenging beliefs, Hawaii lawmakers have proposed changing Fort Elizabeth's name to Pāʻulaʻula - the first documented name used by Hawaiian soldiers stationed at the fort. Some believe that Hawaii needs to dig deep and make a concerted effort to keep Hawaiian history alive for future generations. Others believe that by not keeping Fort Elizabeth, Russian history and the story of George Anton Scheffer and King Ka’umu’ali’i will be rewritten and forgotten.
If Fort Elizabeth is renamed to Pāʻulaʻula, will history rewrite itself as the fort King Ka’umu’ali’i built as his last stand? Or, will the entertaining story of George Anton Scheffer continue to live on as the main character in the history of Pāʻulaʻula?
What do you think?
Fort Elizabeth Update
On June 9, 2022, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) voted unanimously to change the name of Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park to its Hawaiian name, Pāʻulaʻula. It's the earliest documented name used by Hawaiian soldiers who were stationed at the fort and most likely got its name from the signature red Waimea dirt in the area.
The name change has been a sensitive issue for many, but one of the biggest reasons for the unanimous vote was to address the attempts by Russians and Russian-Americans to use Pāʻulaʻula to push Russian propoganda and policy. As anyone could expect, this has not gone well especially with local Kauai residents and those of Hawaiian descent. The name change also comes at a sensitive time in world politics as Russia's war on Ukraine continues.
As Pāʻulaʻula finds its place in the islands, it will be interesting to see what affect this will have on future historical locations that do not use their Hawaiian name as their official name. Diamond Head State Monument (Leahi), Hawaii's biggest attraction, comes to mind as its prestige is acknowleged worldwide.
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