restricted access The Russian-American Company as a Colonial Contractor for the Russian Empire
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The Russian–American Company as a Colonial Contractor for the Russian Empire ILYA VINKOVETSKY “The Russian American Company could not fail of becoming in time of so much importance that the smaller East Indian Companies of Europe would not be able to stand in competition with it. ”1 INTRODUCTION The Russian–American Company (Rossiisko-Amerikanskaia kompaniia, also referred to here, for convenience’s sake, as the Company and the RAC) holds a crucial place in the history of Russia’s colonialism between its founding in 1799 and the transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Literature on the formation of the RAC tends to stress its evolution from the merchant-run, Siberia-based fur trading companies that preceded it.2 Yet I would stress the Company’s novelty in the Russian setting, and emphasize that only with the creation of the RAC did the Russian government commence the conscious construction of a colony in North America (“Russian America”). The Russian Empire’s government viewed the RAC as a contractor to operate the Russian American colony. This contractor functioned simultaneously as a private company and as a colonial administration in the service of the Empire. COMPANY STRUCTURE The Russian–American Company was chartered in 1799. It was a jointstock company, placed under the Emperor’s protection (pokrovitelstvo), and granted for a period of twenty years the exclusive right to manage the resources of Russian Empire’s American colony.3 The charter was renewed twice, and the Company continued to exist until the transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Any subject of the Russian Empire had the right to purchase Russian–American Company shares. In practice, the shareholders were merchants and nobles. Those shareholders who owned at least ten shares were eligible to vote in the annual general meeting of shareholders (obshchee sobranie aktsionerov). By majority vote, they elected four, later five, directors, who headed the Main Office (Glavnoe pravlenie) of the Company. These directors administered the Company’s entire business, with the assistance of the staff of the Main Office. The Main Office was in charge of IMPERIAL RULE keeping the imperial government apprised of Company activities. It was also the Main Office that sent orders to the colonial administration (kolonialnoe pravlenie) in Russian America, which was subordinate to it.4 The lands claimed by the Russian Empire on the Aleutian and Kurile Islands, and along the coast of North America comprised of the Company’s main territorial base. Russian America had a single administrative capital— Novo-Arkhangelsk (present-day Sitka, Alaska) from 1808 on, Kodiak prior to 1808—where the colonial administration was headquartered, and from where the colony was administered. The colony was divided into seven administrative districts (otdely), each with its own local office—Sitka; Kodiak; Unalaska; Atka; the Kuriles; the vast Northern District (headquartered in the Mikhailovskii redoubt), and, from 1812 to 1841, the Ross settlement in northern California.5 The managers of the local offices were appointed by and answered to the chief administrator (glavnyi pravitel, or governor) in Novo-Arkhangelsk. These local managers had their own subordinates to manage the Company’s various settlements and outposts. In 1850 the RAC also opened a branch office in San Francisco, which was utilized to negotiate deals with American companies.6 The chief administrator, who headed the colonial administration from Novo-Arkhangelsk, oversaw all these branch offices. In 1831, the office of assistant chief administrator was created ; like the chief administrator, his assistant was always a naval officer selected by Company directors from a list of qualified candidates supplied by the Naval Ministry in St. Petersburg.7 The RAC had a sizable infrastructure beyond Russian America. Besides the Main Office, which after 1800 was located in St. Petersburg, the Company maintained a system of branch offices throughout the country. The Kiakhta office on the border with China was small, employing only a manager , a clerk, and several scribes, but its small size belied its significance to the Company. It was in Kiakhta—and only in Kiakhta until the forced opening of China’s sea ports to Russian and other foreign merchant vessels in the 1840s—that the RAC could trade furs directly to the Chinese for products including tea, nankeen, and sugar. The Kiakhta trade was important but sporadic; Chinese merchants sometimes halted purchases from the Russians without explanation. The RAC at times sold other products at Kiakhta (Breslau cloth, for example), but the furs from America formed the bulk of its trade...


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