Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in.

He was born outside St Petersburg,  near the Finnish border, to a small merchant.  The place was too small for his restless feet and at fifteen he ran off to Moscow where he apprenticed to a German firm and learned  how trade was done in the big city.   He married, had a daughter,  then left his family behind while he headed east to Irkutsk, Siberia, to get into the act.  He did well enough in various enterprises.  To encourage the local trappers there, he had built a vodka distillery and a bead factory so he would have something worth trading.  It worked out fine until some disgruntled trappers for reason unrecorded torched the place one night.  (Another story goes that they simply robbed him of the pelts he had just traded for guns.) Baranov was then offered a job a little further east, exploring the possibilities of the Aleutian islands and the Alaska coastline.

In 1790 he sailed for Kodiak island, with its distinctive bears, and despite some early tension (tomahawks vs. flintlocks,  several dead on both sides), he eventually settled in, learning the native languages and getting some trade going.  Uneasy times, what with the weather and locals and the rare ships that only sporadically brought in the vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables that guarantee a life without scurvy.

Uneasy times, but he was a persevering sort of man and later pushed on to New Archangel (now Sitka)   In 1799,  Tsar Paul I  approved the formation of the Russian American Company, the first Russian joint stock company, and Baranoff was named the local general manager.  The ukase at least eliminated Russian competition, but the job itself was by no means easy.

Alternating friction and peace with the indigenes was an ongoing pattern in the early years, and Baranov himself was wounded more than once in various actions.  Bad weather,  irregular communication from home,  hostile locals,  unsuitable personnel (the corporate heads sent Baranov a ship full of serfs, peasants, and cranky priests, apparently as much in punishment as for opportunity) were more a drain on resources than a well of utility.  Tlingit warriors burned Fort St. Michael on Sitka island in 1804, and again, the problem of how to feed the employees arose.  His luck changed with the arrival of a Russian ship that had stopped first in Hawaii and brought food and supplies courtesy of that Kingdom’s ruler Kamehameha.  (Happy relations with that unlikely island deepened when the Russians stopped by on the way home with furs – you don’t have to live in cold latitudes to appreciate a good fur.)

As a general policy,  Baranov made diplomacy do the work of war,  and in short order had a thriving little operation going.  He welcomed ships from all nations, and everybody gained.

He also gained the respect and even the cooperation of the locals.   They were the ones who did the actual seal and otter hunting and Baranov was intelligent enough not to alienate this key component of the operation.   He also recognized that talent could come from anywhere.   To ensure an engaged, competent back office operation, he had schools built and natives taught the skills of the modern world.   He also encouraged the hunters to go further afield in the search for game,  even as far south as California.

Intermarriage was encouraged – his own wife (or at least, the woman he introduced to guests as his wife) was a middle aged Inuit.  Despite his early troubles with the clergy, he also encouraged the Russian Orthodox church and over time got the Orthodox priests to proselytize the indigenous population with rather less ham-fistedness than did other denominations.  The proselytizers were enjoined to persuade gradually and incorporate what local peculiarities they could into the orthodox boundaries, and to have patience on other matters (polygamy, e.g.), on the understanding that evolutionary change tends to go down better than not.

His own personality was ebullient, even passionate.  He liked a crowd and entertained virtually all comers with food and drink.   If angry, he threw plates.  And always, he came up with new and different ways of improving both the bottom line and the power of the Russian Empire.

For his larger vision was to make Russia a great Pacific power, extending his country’s holdings  from Kodiak to Spanish territories to  Hawaii and even beyond. Indeed, for one brief shining moment he was named First Chief of the Islands by King Kaumualii of Hawaii when that ruler was playing off the diverging interests of Russia, Britain, and America.   Some less than diplomatic moves saw the Hawaiian dream die a quick death,  and absent a northern passage, the whole Pacific Ocean was becoming more trouble for Russia than it was worth.

Later administrators did less well in the job he founded and although an 1825 treaty with Britain created the boundary lines that we have become used to,  by 1861 the Russians were heartily sick of the place.    A few million dollars were more welcome than the ongoing carrying costs of the place, and so it came under American trust.

Baranov himself came to the end of his run in 1818 when he was briefly taken down on changes (later dis-proven) of financial malfeasance.  He took the opportunity of sailing south, where the warm apparently did not agree with him. He became ill in Dutch held Indonesia and died soon thereafter.


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