Russian Pacific Colony of Atuvai, Nigau, Ovagu, Mauvi?

Here’s a surprising passage from volume 7 (1973) of the Hawaiian Journal of History, whose back volumes are now online at the Oceania Digital Library Project hosted by the University of Hawai‘i Library’s digital repository.

On 21 May (2 June) 1816 G. A. Schäffer apparently achieved the improbable. In a solemn atmosphere Kaumualii—”King of the Sandwich Islands of the Pacific Ocean, Atuvai [Kauai] and Nigau [Niihau], and Hereditary Prince of the Islands of Ovagu [Oahu] and Mauvi [Maui]”—humbly requested “His Majesty the Sovereign Emperor Alexander Pavlovich … to accept the mentioned islands under his protection” and promised eternal allegiance to the “Russian scepter.”

This passage comes from a translation by Igor V. Vorobyoff commissioned by the Kauai Museum of an original publication in Russian: Bolkhovitinov, N. N., “Avantyura Doktora Sheffera na Gavayyakh v 1815-1819 Godakh,” Novaya i Noveyshaya Istoriya, Russian, No. 1, 1972, pp. 121-137. Here is a bit more historical context from the same article.

The history of Russian America is rich with striking events, courageous voyages, grandiose projects, and rather modest practical results. One of the oddest and most exotic episodes in the history of the Russian-American Company (RAC) was the Hawaiian adventure of Dr. Schäffer….

At the start of the 19th Century King Kamehameha (1753-1819), who was referred to as the Napoleon or Peter the Great of Polynesia, became the sovereign of the entire archipelago with the exception of the two northernmost islands, Kauai and Niihau, where his rival Kaumualii was entrenched. Kamehameha’s attempts at organizing an invasion of Kauai in 1796 and 1804 were foiled by natural calamities—first by a violent storm, and latter by a plague epidemic. The superiority of his forces was so obvious, however, that in 1810 Kaumualii decided to officially recognize his vassalage and agreed to pay a modest annual tax….

On 8 May 1819 Kamehameha—the most outstanding Hawaiian ruler, the founder of a united monarchy, and one of the great statesmen of his times—died at an age of about 70. In the summer of 1821 Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho moved Kaumualii from Kauai to Oahu where from that time on he lived as an honored prisoner, but this did not keep him from marrying Kamehameha’s widow, the famous Kaahumanu….

In 1820 an agent from the American Consulate and the first group of missionaries arrived in Hawaii. Sandalwood traders, and later American whalers witnessed increasing business. “The political relations of the people and king,” reported M. I. Murav’yev to St. Petersburg on 15 (27) January 1822, “remain as before; the king squanders, the people suffer, and the Americans get richer, but not for long: Sandalwood is becoming more difficult to get by the hour and, consequently, its price is going up.” … The general conclusion to which the governor of Russian possessions in America came was entirely unequivocal: “In truth I do not know how the Sandwich Islands could be useful to us, especially under the present circumstances. Schäffer performed a humorous comedy for which the company payed very dearly, and I do not think that it could be resumed. But there is no obstacle whatsoever, nor can there be any, simply to finding a berth there while enroute and replenishing the stocks with fresh provisions.”

Words in Kaua‘i dialect of HawaiianLANGUAGE NOTES: During the 1810s, Hawaiian dialects did not yet have a standard dialect or spelling system, so the Russian transcriptions (here transliterated into Latin equivalents) of Hawaiian names represent their own practices, including the representation of foreign /h/ as g (Cyrillic Г) and [w] as v (Cyrillic В), and ignorance of phonemic glottal stops.

Hawaiian /h/ is not guttural like Russian /x/, and there is an established tradition of transcribing foreign /h/ as g, as in gegemoniya ‘hegemony’, gumanizm ‘humanism’, or Gitler ‘Hitler’. Still, it’s a bit amusing to see Hanalei rendered as “Gannarey.”

The Hawaiian [w] sounds transcribed as v in the excerpts cited above do not correspond to the Hawaiian phoneme /w/, which is in fact slightly fricative in some contexts. The [w] sounds written as v in Atuvai, Ovagu, and Mauvi are just predictable transitions between a round vowel /o, u/ and its adjacent unrounded vowel /a, e, i/. But a real /w/ gets the same treatment in “Vegmeyskaya” [Waimea] Valley, which turns up elsewhere in the article.

The western dialects of Hawaiian retained earlier *t, which is reflected in Standard Hawaiian as /k/, the reflex in the eastern end of the archipelago, from which the western islands were subjugated. In many English sources from the early 1800s, the name of Kaua‘i is spelled Atooi or some variant thereof, while the name of Kaumuali‘i is spelled Temoree, Tamoree, and the like, from Teumuali‘i or Taumuali‘i (and the name of his rival Kamehameha is sometimes rendered as Tamehameha, Tamaamaah, etc.).


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Filed under Hawai'i, language, Pacific, Russia, U.S.

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