Sunday, June 27, 2010

Representations: Boki and the Russians

Mikhail Tikhanov, (portrait of Boki aboard the sloop Kamchatka, c1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia

What's with the sour face? Was Boki being a party pooper? I doubt it. He was probably just drunk. Maybe he was a tad uncomfortable, too. Here he is on the deck of a ship in Honolulu harbor. Everyone around him is speaking Russian. He's had too much to eat and too much to drink, and perhaps the Russian fare that they brought up from down below was not sitting well in his stomach. With the sun beating down on his head, he is sweating in his oppressive ʻahuʻula (feathered cape) and mahiole (feathered helmet). Boki wore this outfit only on important state occasions, and this was one of them: feasting with the visiting Russian explorer, Captain Vasily Golovnin.

The ship's resident artist, Mikhail Tikhanov, was apparently more interested in the traditional Hawaiian feathered garments than he was in the men wearing them. That's why he added a profile view of Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, the Governor of Maui, behind Boki, in order to feature the distinctive shape of the mahiole helmet. And another mahiole of a different style was placed right in front of Boki, seemingly floating or being held by Boki's left hand. Compared to the better-known portrait of Boki and his wife by John Hayter (see this image in an earlier post), Tikhanov's representation shows us a rather weak, unromantic individual, almost the butt of the Russians' joke here, which may well be that: we'll make you feel special today as we wine and dine you in your feathered garments, but once the alcohol sets in (as Boki's eyes reveal it already is), we'll take what we need and want from you. We (Russia) are the great empire, and you (the Hawaiian Kingdom) are our potential colony.

Why were Russians in Honolulu in 1818?

So what is this all about? What were Russians doing in Honolulu in 1818? Well, Captain Vasily Golovnin was an explorer who, in the tradition of the great Russian navigators Vladimir Atlasov and Vitus Bering (the Bering Strait is named after him), was sent by the Russian state to explore the Pacific world in even greater detail. See, Imperial Russia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was much like Imperial USA of the nineteenth century, except where the Americans desired to keep pushing further west, the Russians desired to go east. These forces eventually met on the Pacific coast of North America from California in the south to Alaska in the north. But Hawaiʻi, too, was a meeting ground of the world's great empires: the Russians had conquered much of Alaska, establishing their colonial capital of Sitka there by the turn of the nineteenth century; they had also established Fort Ross near San Francisco, California, by 1812. Russians had visited Hawaiʻi as early as 1804, and in the 1810s they began to turn up the juice on their imperial plans to include Hawaiʻi within their great Pacific empire!

Golovnin had already traveled the world once, in 1807-1809. When he wasn't sailing, he lived on the very outskirts - the frontier - of imperial Russia. He lived in Kamchatka, on the Pacific Ocean, and elsewhere in Russia's Far East, even in Alaska (or Russian North America as it was then called). But even though he was a frontiersman and explorer, his reports traveled somewhere totally different: to the imperial capital of Saint Petersburg. The knowledge that he gained about the different peoples, places, and resources of the Pacific world were meant to inform the Russian government of what was out there for the taking.

From 1817-1819 Golovnin traveled across the Pacific as captain of the Kamchatka. This time he made important stops along the Alaska coast and in Hawaiʻi where his crew, including the artist Tikhanov, observed and studied the indigenous peoples. When Golovnin and his crew arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in October 1818, they encountered the tail-ends of a surprising scene of Russian-Hawaiian conflict. A german doctor, Georg Schaffer, had taken it upon himself, after arriving in the islands upon a Russian-American Company ship, to seize the islands on behalf of the Russian empire! He failed, but what he did accomplish was to cause the Hawaiian Kingdom to lose trust in their Russian trading partners. Schaffer had joined up with the defiant aliʻi (the ruling chief) of Kauaʻi, Kaumualiʻi, who had long refused to submit to Kamehameha's conquest of his islands: Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. These islands were now "vassal states" of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but throughout the 1810s and early 1820s Kauaʻi and Niʻihau teetered on the edge of the Hawaiian empire, always ready to regain their sovereignty should the decisive opportunity arrive. Schaffer's plans may have looked like that opportunity for a while: he built a grand fort, Fort Elizabeth, adjacent to the Waimea River where most of Kauaʻi's trade took place. But in the end it simply took the Russian government to step in and say "who is this Schaffer guy, and what is he doing in Hawaiʻi in our name?" to end the whole ordeal. Without government support, Schaffer's plan for the Russian conquest of Hawaiʻi ended quickly and quietly.

The Waimea River, Kauaʻi.
Here occurred the first sighting of haole in Hawaiian history (1778: Cpt. Cook) and here also was once a bustling port of trade in the early nineteenth century, a great location for a fort...

A view from inside Russian Fort Elizabeth in Waimea, Kauaʻi. Built in 1816 by Hawaiians under the direction of Georg Schaffer, the Russian flag came down pretty soon after it was built. The Hawaiian Kingdom utilized the fort until the 1860s. Today it stands as a testament to the once-possibility that Hawaiʻi could have become a Russian colony!

Dinner with Golovnin and Boki

Who was Mikhail Tikhanov? Hard to say. He was a Russian painter, but perhaps he was so many other things. All we know are his paintings from this one trip (1817-1819) with Cpt. Golovnin. He was apparently told to capture what makes the different peoples of the greater Pacific unique: so he focused on clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, tattoos, anything cultural about the way that Pacific peoples used their bodies and their material resources. He also made images of the flora and fauna of the places where he went. All of this information was useful to the Russian Empire, especially information on the habits, wants, and needs of the indigenous people within and on the borders of their empire; if Russia could satisfy these peoples, then they could achieve access to the resources they wanted from these peoples: furs from the Alaskans and sandalwood from the Hawaiians.

Tikhanov, Aleut in Festival Dress in Alaska (1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia
(Source: Wikipedia)
Tikhanov focused on the unique material cultures of the peoples he and Golovnin encountered. Understanding how different peoples used and valued material goods was useful information for an empire attempting to gain access to both new products and new consumers.

More examples of Tikhanov's paintings can be found on the website for the California Academy of Science's exhibit, Russia's Great Voyages.

I want to know more about how Boki and Tikhanov interacted. David Forbes, in his book Encounters in Paradise, tells us that on October 27, 1818, Cpt. Golovnin of the Kamchatka dined in Honolulu with a number of Hawaiian and haole officials, including William Heath Davis Sr., an American merchant and soon-to-be father of William Heath Davis Jr.; Boki, the Governor of Oʻahu; and Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, the Governor of Maui.

The following day, Cpt. Golovnin returned the invitation and hosted the Hawaiians on board his ship, the Kamchatka. Boki, Kahekili, and others, showed up dressed in their finest, most traditional aliʻi costume: including all the feathered garments they could muster (see my earlier post on feathers and featherwork to understand what these garments symbolized). The Hawaiians ate dinner with the Russians in the afternoon onboard the ship. Gifts were exchanged: Boki gave Golovnin ten pigs - useful food for a long voyage at sea; Golovnin gave Boki a telescope - a foreign material object embodying the mana of Russia's most powerful men.

After the food and the gifts, then what? How long did Boki and his fellow aliʻi and their wives spend onboard the ship? Was there music? Was there dancing? Did Boki actually pose - stand still - for Tikhanov, or had Tikhanov whipped off a pencil sketch during the ceremonies and then created Boki's stance and facial expression only after the fact? 

Tikhanov, Boki and Hekili on the sloop "Kamchatka" (1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Thankfully we have this more involved painting by Tikhanov to help us better understand the context of Boki's, and the Hawaiian aliʻi's, relationships with the Russians onboard the ship. Here the frame of Tikhanov's portrait has zoomed out, revealing the world around sour-faced Boki. There is surprisingly not much more to Boki's costume than the headshot already revealed. Boki dressed traditionally, with nothing but a kapa (tapa) malo (loincloth) on his body underneath the ʻahuʻula and mahiole. But Boki's costume is not complete without the material objects in his hands: in his left hand is a half-full bottle of alcohol; in his right hand is a glass full of the drink. So that explains why Boki looked so drunk in his headshot! He really was drunk! But what does Tikhanov care? Well, we have to imagine how this image would have been viewed back in Saint Petersburg. What would the imperialists in Saint Petersburg have learned about Hawaiians from this image? For one thing they would have learned that Hawaiian leaders, such as Boki, enjoyed alcohol. That's actually really important information: Boki is depicted as "won over" by the niceties of the Russians. Alcohol works. Just think how much harder building the Russian empire would have been if none of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific world enjoyed Russian liquor!

To Boki's right are two Hawaiian women - aliʻi wives (we can tell from their costume) - sitting atop of Russian cannons. Here is a great contrast: docile, semi-clad women and a drunk leader, all seemingly impervious to the cannons and cannonballs right beneath them, impervious to the military and/or geopolitical posturing underscoring the whole Russian performance: the feast, the exchanging of gifts. Of course, Boki and his friends would have known exactly what they were getting into. They were more than willing to give sandalwood to the Russians in exchange for goods of foreign manufacture, including alcohol. The cannons surely did not scare them: they had just expelled Georg Schaffer from the Hawaiian Kingdom and had reasserted their sovereignty...

What else is going on in the painting? Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, Governor of Maui, is facing away from Tikhanov, apparently talking to someone, perhaps showing off his spear. Hidden behind the aliʻi women is a servant holding a kahili (feather standard).

Isn't it interesting that these five Hawaiians are lingering off alone in a corner of the ship? Where are the Russians? Why are these two different groups not mingling and laughing together? Can you imagine how awkward that afternoon must have felt for the Hawaiians? How much Russian could they speak? What about English? Was English their lingua franca? What if, under the circumstances of being the Russians' guests, Boki felt obligated to hold the bottle of alcohol, obligated to drink? Clearly we cannot overestimate the performative aspect of that afternoon upon the Kamchatka. Not only were the Russians performing (and posturing as I've said), but so were the Hawaiians. This was grand performance art; the layers of meaning caked up like paint by Tikhanov are incredibly hard to peel away after the fact.

Of all the Hawaiians, I imagine Boki most enjoyed himself that day. Why? Because for the next ten years he seems to have always gotten himself into these situations. He was well known for making many haole (foreigner) friends, for being attached to drink, for giving haole whatever they wanted or needed in exchange for what he wanted: status, power, and the material goods to prove it. Boki's life is actually easiest to understand backwards: starting with his untimely death at sea on an incredible mission to colonize a South Pacific island to support Hawaiʻi's sandalwood trade, and then tracing backwards from this moment of insanity to understand how sandalwood become important for him, how material wealth became important for him. This view of Boki helps illuminate how the seeds planted on the deck of the Kamchatka in 1818 - the overture of Boki's foreign relations - eventually led him to sacrifice his own world and his own life for the pursuit of power and profit. 

For more on Boki and Russian representations of Hawaiʻi, see:

Gavan Daws, "The High Chief Boki," Journal of the Polynesian Society 75, no.1 (1966): 65-83.

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1992).

And of course, if you happen to be in Saint Petersburg, visit the Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts.


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