23 July 2014

Unusual Journeys: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian America

The merchant adventurer who could have made California a Russian colony

In Stephen R Bown’s excellent history of the “Merchant Kings – When Companies Ruled The World”, one story stands out. Aleksandr Baranov of the Russian American Company was not a larger-than-life buccaneer, but a calm, organised man with the face of a bureaucrat who earned the loyalty and respect of his followers.

After nine tough years on Kodiak Island, extending Russia’s hold on Alaska despite his own fluctuating health, Baranov was appointed Governor of the Russian American Company, with a charter giving him powers over the Pacific coast of America.

Baranov was a careful man: he went as far south as he could without overextending his long supply lines from Irkutsk. He set up a fur-trading outpost on Sitka Sound, but after he departed, the Tlingit natives attacked it, killing many Russians and stealing a fortune in furs. He assembled one of the greatest invasion forces ever commissioned by a private company, with over 300 vessels, and retook “New Archangel”.

His most unusual voyages did not involve Russians at all. It was so unprofitable to ship his fur pelts all the way to China via Russia that he entered into a web of commercial relationships with American sea-captains and traders, making him one of the first “globalisers” in an age of protectionism.

Baranov dreamed of establishing a base on Hawaii, and of conquering Spanish California, but his empire was really a commercial one, not military. Unusually for a “Merchant King”, he died in his old age, his fortune already generously given away to dependents.

You wonder what California and Hawaii would be like had they been Russian colonies..!

Piers Alexander

Piers Alexander's novel of the Glorious Revolution, The Bitter Trade, is now available as an ebook and paperback (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bitter-Trade-Piers-Alexander-ebook/dp/B00JGN9GT8/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1)