Last week, we took a look at the seemingly bizarre occurrence of Russia selling Alaska to America. As the saying goes: “If it wasn’t real, you couldn’t invent it.” Let’s examine this pivotal moment in history further.
One of the key players in the story is Alexander Baranov, a distinguished Russian trader who sat at the helm of the Russia – America company and embraced not only his official role, but also the new land and its inhabitants. There is no way to do justice to the sheer breadth and diversity of Baranov’s story here, so I’m forced to present only a few scant details.
Following the 1784 establishment of the Fort Alexander (Cook Inlet) and Three Saints Bay (Kodiak Island) outposts by merchant Grigory Shelekhov, it became apparent that a capable individual was needed to nurture and maintain the functionality of fledgling Alaskan commerce, especially as previous overseers had proven inadequate. Baranov was appointed governor in 1790 and presided over the most successful period of the whole Alaskan endeavour. To appreciate the value of the trade under his control we can look to the eponymous Baranov museum (Indonisian language site) via Alaska.org:-
In fact, the sea otter fur trade was what drew Westerners to Alaska, with one pelt worth two years’ salary to a Russian!
He called himself the “Russian Pizarro” – a reference to the Spanish conquistador Fransico Pizarro, who, unlike Baranov, was instrumental in the fall of the new culture that he encountered. Baranov exceeded his remit as a captain for Alaskan trade and felt truly connected to his new surroundings -teaching Russian agricultural techniques to the natives (with varying degrees of success), building schools, and taking the daughter of an Aluet chief as mistress. They would ultimately marry, following the death of his Russian wife.
Although contracted to serve at his post for five years, commencing in 1790, he continued in some capacity until 1818, such was his dedication. Finally, retirement beckoned.
The rot sets in
Issues of mismanagement began to arise following Baranov’s departure. The whole endeavour had been a difficult one, with in-fighting, ground-level resentment of Barnov’s status, disillusionment with Shelekov’s “promises” and even armed conflict with rival company settlers!
The vast -and seemingly unstoppable- profitability of the Russia-America enterprise tempted those who sought to exploit the situation for their own short-term benefit -whilst risking the longevity of enterprise as a whole. Baranov had grave doubts about the calibre of men under his command and their suitability for the role at hand. Without his control, things were set to decline.
Amongst his successors, gross, self-appointed wage increases were common, combined with slashed trading prices for local furs, in order to maximise profitability further -much to the chagrin of the natives.
Other lines of trade (such as the tea and ice mentioned in our previous article) were introduced to bolster the company’s decline – while those in charge maintained their financial drain. Ongoing mismanagement (and the harsh environment) rendered these compensatory measures ineffectual, adding even more liability to the proceedings. The tide of success had begun to turn.
Initiatives introduced to revive flagging fortunes wavered, creating more problems still. Alaska couldn’t easily support proven Russia farming methods that readily nurtured crops and livestock back home -a problem exacerbated by locals unfamiliar with imported stock and its care. The ground was unyielding and a local knowledgebase of foreign methods simply didn’t exist in any case – why would it?
In an attempt to find more favourable ground, farming and colonisation projects headed south. Ivan Kuskov established the Fort Ross outpost in 1811 on the warmer, Californian coast. With more favourable conditions, surely the raising of cattle and the production of food crops would be viable there? Products could be then sent North to support the “mother” colony and the industry on which it depended.
Sadly, this too failed, and with Russia’s mounting issues on the global stage, the whole Alaskan enterprise started to become a burden, and then, a liability. Drastic action was called for.