Russian Voyages and James Cook

Historian of Science Simon Werret on the Russian maritime empire, sale of Alaska, and the role of trade in reclamation of remote lands

videos | May 15, 2018

We normally think of the Russian Empire as an empire of land that covers the great Eurasian landmass. But for about 30 years in the early 19th century the Russians thought as maritime empire, an overseas empire that was centered on the Russian navy, on the imperial navy and traveling around the world on ships to get to Alaska. The question I am interested in here is: why did they do that? What was that all about? The key person in understanding this is Captain James Cook, the English navigator, who in the 1760s undertook three navigations of the world voyages, on which he looked at things such as the transit of Venus, mathematical measurements to work out the distance between the Sun and the Earth. He met the coast of Australia, he investigated the question of whether there was a Southern continent in the Antarctic, which there wasn’t, and whether there was a North-West passage, could you get from the Pacific to the Atlantic by traveling over the top of North America.

Cook was very famous in his time, and, I think, he had quite a profound impact on Russian navigators and Russian culture in the late 18th – early 19th centuries. Captain Cook was something of a hero for a series of Russian captains, who took voyages across the oceans in the pursuit of this maritime power.

There was some contact between the British and the Russians around Cook’s voyages in the 1760’s and 1770’s. News of Cooks voyages actually came back to Europe via Russia. The Russian court of the Empress Catherine II was in a good position to hear about the voyages when they were happening. Her enthusiasm of the Cook was apparent of the time, but not a huge number of people appeared to have shared it. Certainly there were people in the Russian academy of Sciences, who were excited about the Cook’s voyages, people like Peter Simon Pallas, famous naturalist of the time. But there wasn’t a huge reaction.

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Nevertheless, Сatherine and her government were aware that Cook was making the inroads into the North Pacific, into the areas around the Aleutian Islands, Kamchatka and Alaska. They were sensitive to that, they didn’t want to allow a foreign power to get a hole there. The English were certainly interested in that area and what potential it had. In 1780 there was a book published by an Englishmen, who lived sometime in Russia, called William Cocks. It was an account of various discoveries that Russian voyagers had made in the region around the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. It was essentially saying what else is there to get hold of.

There was also a tradition of Russian fur traders, who would move gradually east across Siberia into Kamchatka and the Aleutians to get furs, which they would sell. Over time they intermarried with people who lived in that regions and developed quite a thriving trade. The Russian government was interested in that trade and so were private individuals. Towards the end of the 18th century there was a Russian-American company formed, which was designed to go over to Alaska and start controlling the fur trade.

Now, all of this is going on and the Russian government is thinking it might be advantageous to send an expedition out to the region to assess it, to map the area and hopefully avoid falling it into the wrong hands. They actually hired one of the Cook’s former crewmembers, man named Joseph Billings to lead an expedition in the 1780’s out to the region for this purpose.

The Billings expedition lasted quite a long time and had some results, but it didn’t really lead to anything. Then there was a fairly quite period until the early 19th century, when the Russian government started to take voyages out to regions much more seriously. In part that was due to the fact that in 1790’s government had sent 14 young Russian officers to Britain to train with the Royal Navy on the ships of East-Indian Company. Whiles they were on the ships, these 14 Russian officers had developed a very healthy enthusiasm for British navigation and particularly for Captain Cook. It was those 14 officers who went to Britain, who would ultimately lead a whole series of voyages around the world for the Russian government through the imperial Navi that would take control over this fur trade in Alaska.

Adam von Krusenstern was foremost among these individuals. In 1805 he set sail with another Russian officer Yuriy Lisyansky and they took two ships “Nadezhda” and “Neva”, and they traveled to England, where they bought English scientific instruments, and then they set off across the Atlantic, went down to South America into the Pacific ocean, then up to Alaska, where they were to provision Russian-American company, who was based there, and keep an eye on what they were up to.

It was a very important voyage for establishing trade, for managing this region. One of the interesting things about it is that the officers were almost emulating Captain Cook in a way they operated. They had extremely high regard for him. One might even say that they were ecstatic about him. There were sort of hero-worshiping Cook among these officers.

Other Russian officer who followed Krusenstern and Lisyansky had a similar kind of attitude to Cook. They often referred to him in their journals as the “Immortal Cook”, “The finest, greatest navigator the world has ever seen”. This is interesting because it reflects a moment in Russian culture that can be explained by the work of semiotition Jury Lotman, who talked about theatricality in Russian society in this period.

What Lotman said is that in the 18th century Russians had been expected emulate Europeans in the way they behaved. They were dressed up like western European noblemen, and they had to learn foreign languages, and so on. This changes slightly at the beginning of the 19th century, when that had become an internalized process, a regular feature of Russian life.

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The kind of emulation the Russian elite was involved in was more theatrical. It was more about pretend to be a neo-classical heroes, Greek and Roman heroes, or very poetic and very dramatic figures, people like Napoleon or Byron. If you think of Andrei Balkonsky in “War and Peace”, he wants to be Napoleon, he is only well when he is on the battlefield.

Lotman says it was a feature of Russian life of this period. I would say that the way these Russian navigators responded to Cook was just like that. He is a kind of romantic hero, whom they wanted to emulate. That goes a long way to explaining how they behaved on the voyages. They often followed Cook’s routes, they went to places Cook had gone. It is almost like a Cook’s tourism, where they go to the spots he landed, they looked for bullets in the trees where he had fights with Pacific islanders. They followed all of his practices: they would name paces after their first lieutenants, which is something Cook did. But if Cooked named somewhere first, they would never touch the name.

The thing that is the most fascinating is that when they are navigating, they would take Cook’s measurements as a standard against which to calibrate their own instruments. So, if they took a measurement of where they were, and it didn’t match with what Cook had said, they would believe Cook, but not their instruments. It is an incredible reaction to him, and I think it is quite fascinating.

Lotman’s understanding of Russian culture helps to explain the circumnavigation, which lasted for about 30 years. In the end the Russian government’s fascination with Alaska died away for a various reasons with the famous Alaska being sold of eventually, and the voyages disappeared. But for a few decades they were a fascinating part of a Russian history.

Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science, University College London
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