The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 486-489
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Hawai'i's Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History, by Peter R Mills. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. ISBN0-8248-2404-0; xi + 295 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$39.00.
Is Fort Elisabeth merely a Russian fort, as western narratives portray, or is it also a structure sharing similarities to Hawaiian heiau, as the author of this book suggests? Certainly, the Russians did construct a fort near the mouth of the Waimea River on the west side of Kaua'i in 1816. Equally undeniably, Native Hawaiians participated in its construction during the period when paramount chief Kaumuali'i asserted sovereignty and independence from Kamehameha. The historical narratives pertaining to Fort Elisabeth detail the agendas, activities, and perspectives of the Russians and other westerners, but they ignore earlier Native Hawaiian historical associations with this place. Peter Mills believes the lack of Native Hawaiian perspectives in these historical narratives must be redressed if we are to develop a more balanced narrative of the history of this structure and its environs and a better understanding of our collective past.
The author argues three points. First, by focusing extensively on the few years of Russian association with the fort, historical narratives fail to portray the more than thirty year history of Native Hawaiian association with this structure. Second, an integration of Native Hawaiian narratives is essential if we wish to obtain a more accurate and collective narrative of the history of this structure, its environs, and its historical roots. Fort Elisabeth sits on a sacred landscape on the east bank of the Waimea River. Descriptions of this sacred landscape in early western narratives indicate that Native Hawaiian chiefly residential complexes and heiau (religious structures or places) were present; that it was used as a pu'uhonua (place of refuge); and that it was a battleground for contending rulers of Kaua'i. Third, recent archaeological studies of the structural remains, features, and artifacts, both inside the fort ruins and [End Page 486] nearby, provide another source of primary data valuable for producing a more complete narrative.
Mills briefly reviews each of the significant western historical narratives and selects excerpts to illustrate particular Russian agendas, perspectives, and events. He presents them in chronological order, including narratives written by (1) individuals with direct associations with the Russian-American Company or the fort, (2) individuals writing several years after the departure of theRussian-American Company, and (3) historians writing decades later. Based on his review, the author derives three important conclusions. First, the narratives portray the construction of Fort Elisabeth as a Russian event, and the history of the fort essentially ends with its abandonment by the Russian-American Company. Second, they portray Hawaiian culture as static, rather than dynamic and fluid. This contradicts extensive historical and archaeological evidence of culture change within and among island communities from prewestern times. Third, they marginalize Native Hawaiians, including their history, culture, and active participation in all aspects of cultural exchange with foreigners.
Mills argues that constructing a more balanced and complete narrative of Fort Elisabeth, one that portrays it as more than a Russian fort, requires examining this structure within the broader cultural milieu in which it was built and used. To this end, he devotes over half of the book to providing a historical overview that characterizes Native Hawaiians as active participants in their interactions with foreigners. This overview spans more than a hundred years of Hawai'i's history, beginning before the arrival of westerners (Captain Cook) in 1778 and ending with a description of a government survey of the fort ruins in 1885. By then, Fort Elisabeth had been abandoned by the Russians for almost seventy years.
Mills creates a descriptive narrative of specific social, political, and religious aspects of Hawaiian culture. He provides details about important Hawaiian leaders, their battles, conquests, and struggles for sovereignty or dominance, and he argues that Kaumuali'i formed an alliance with the Russian-American Company to bolster his...