Russia's Hawaiian Fortress: The Old Russian Fort on Kauai, 1817-1853

One of the most impressive man-made structures on the beautiful “Garden Island” of Kaua’i County, Hawaii’s most populated, westernmost island, relating to military history and warfare studies is the Russian constructed (1817) Fort Elizabeth. Its walls and defensive structures still stand today, albeit in ruins, outside of Waimea on the southwestern Kaua’i coast on the eastern banks of the Waimea river mouth overlooking Waimea Bay, directly off what is today the Kaumuali'i Highway. These ancient overgrown red volcanic rocks and ruined outer defenses are all that remain of the Russian Empires attempts to colonize and intervene in the Hawaiian Islands (Mokupuni o Hawai‘i) from c.1815-1817.

Russian Fort Elizabeth, Waimea, Kaua'i (Taken by the author)

To understand the importance of Russian influence and the importance of Kaua’i one must look to the decades of fighting inter-Island warfare which had all but come to end following the unification of the Hawaiian islands, save for the island of Kaua’i, into the Kingdom of Hawaii by King Kamehameha I (b.1758-1819) from 1795-1810. See the post, King Kamehameha, The Conqueror & The Wars of Hawaiian Unification, 1782-1795, for more.

Russian Fort Elizabeth

The Russian Fort on Kaua’i was constructed by a German employee of the Russian-American Company, Georg Anton Schaeffer (b.1779-1836), who had landed on the southeastern coast of Kaua’i in the spring of 1815. Mr. Schaeffer was on official business attempting to recover Russian American Company goods seized after a shipwreck by the chief and last king of Kaua’i, Kaumualiʻi (b.1778-1824). Chief Kaumualiʻi had sworn allegiance to King Kamehameha avoiding a costly invasion and war of control for the island of Kaua’i. King Kamehameha had attempted and failed twice before 1810, the year that Kaumualiʻi finally relinquished his throne and became a vassal chief of Kamehameha.

Mr. George Anton Schaeffer, Russian-American Company agent (Taken by the author)

His close relations with the Russians (and by extension the Russian-American Company) and with Mr. Schaeffer point to the Kauaian chiefs’ likely desire to use Russian military might or at the very least the threat of Russian intervention to win back independence for his kingdom. The Russian-American Company had in fact worked out a deal in which Schaeffer would supply warships, 500 men, and the artillery needed to launch an invasion of Kamehameha’s islands. In return Schaeffer would receive a sandalwood monopoly and other concessions on Kaua'i.

Schaeffer’s Fort Elizabeth was named so in honor of Tsar Alexander’s wife, Empress Elizabeth (b.1779-1826). It was a rather impressive defensive structure-unlike any seen in the history of the Hawaiian islands up to this period. It was most unique amongst the other Russian-American Company Forts which had built in the early 19th century in Alaska and California (Fort Ross, built in 1812) in that it was made of stone and now wood. Its walls were built much higher than the company forts of old and since wood was lacking near the coastal regions of Fort Elizabeths present day site, Waimea volcanic sea rock and beach stone were ideal alternative building materials.

The original steps to the top of the walls of Fort Elizabeth (Taken by the author)

The “irregular octagon” style fort on Kaua’i was constructed from April to October of 1817, its walls were built to be over 20 feet high at certain points and between 10-15 feet thick with a total coverage of around 300 to 450 square feet. The Fort was abandoned before 1818 when it was realized that Schaeffer did not have Tsar Alexander’s support and that Kaumualii was not willing to risk his life against the might of King Kamehameha.

There were crew quarters and an officers mess hall built in the Russian Fort on Kaua’i. In addition there was housing built between 1817-1853 which could hold some 20-30 families. Gardens and other smaller outhouses were present within the fort as well. There was also a company “factory” which was most likely a makeshift armorer, storehouse, and company warehouse from 1817-1825.

View looking into the interior the Russian Fort Elizabeth (Taken by the author)

Fort Elizabeth was guarded by multiple guns (cannon artillery), no less than six or seven during the Russian and later Kingdom of Hawaii’s occupation of the fort. With gun emplacements the Russian Fort Elizabeth would hold an important strategic point in Kaua’i for more than 35 years thereafter. Overlooking Waimea Bay-it became the greatest fortification ever built on the island of Kaua’i. The Russian Fort was likely much larger and better built than both of the now lost Forts Alexander and Barclay on the northern coast of the island.

Fort Elizabeth 1824-1853
Fort Elizabeth became the sight of a notable rebellion in the year 1824. In what can be called Prince Kaumualii’s Rebellion, the Fort was attacked by Humehume (Prince George Kaumualii) the eldest son of King Kaumualii and later became the sight for a bloody, one-sided battle. Prince George Kaumualii was a US Marine Corps and later US Navy veteran who had fought in the War of 1812. The young prince had served aboard the USS Wasp during its victorious encounter against the HMS Reindeer in the English Channel, June 1814. He later lived abroad in America for a time studying at a secondary school in Connecticut before eventually returning to the Hawaiian Islands in 1820.

Prince Humehume

In what became possibly the bloodiest battle or engagement since the days of Kamehameha’s Wars of Unification from c.1782-1795, Humehume’s rebels attacked Fort Elizabeth in an attempt to gain control of the fort and therefore de facto control of the island of Kaua’i in August 1824. His father had been exiled to Honolulu and had recently died so Prince Humehume believed perhaps that his timing was impeccable and raised a revolt with some 350 followers. They were very poorly armed and led.

The view standing in the center of the Russian Fort (Taken by the author)

A Royalist army, 1300 warriors or more, led by the Chief of Mauai Hoapili and chief Kalaimoku as well as a number of other Hawaiian nobles loyal to King Kamehameha II eventually landed on Kaua’i to crush the rebellion. Soon after they routed Prince Humehume’s army. In this battle, 100 or more rebels were slain to just one Royalist casualty in what is known today as a brief but very bloody skirmish. The bodies of the dead rebels were left on the battlefield where they fell and eventually wild pigs came to devour them.

For this reason the slaughter of the battle came to be called the ‘Aipua‘a, or Pig Eater. It was to become the last major engagement related to the Unification Wars of King Kamehameha who had died in 1819. Humehume escaped on horseback to mountains whilst his supporters were killed or exiled to other islands.

Chief Kalaimoku eventually captured Humehume and sent him to Honolulu on the Island of Hawaii as well. The Prince would die one year later of influenza. Kingdom of Hawaii soldiers soon garrisoned the Russian Fort Elizabeth and occupied it until the c.1853. The Russian Fort remained armed and in functioning condition however until the year 1862 when it was dismantled and its remaining armaments sold or removed to the other more populous islands’ forts and garrisons.

The Warfare Historian posing atop the Ft. Elizabeth battlements holding a copy of A Military History of Sovereign Hawaii by Neil B. Dukas, August 2013

Suggested Further Readings
James Jackson Jarvis & Henry M. Whitney, History of the Hawaiian Islands (Harvard).

Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, Revised Edition (Kamehameha Schools, 1961-1992).

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