Remembering Hawaii’s Russian connection

Remembering Hawaii

Artist Louis Choris depicted the “Port of Hanaruro” upon his arrival to Honolulu in 1816.

On November 21st, 1816, the Russian Naval brig Rurik landed in Hawaii during its three-year expedition of Asia and Oceania. The Rurik was under command of Otto von Kotzebue, a lieutenant in the Russian Navy who had already been to “Owaihi” as a member of a previous Russian expedition in 1804.

Unlike his infamous European predecessor James Cook a few decades prior, Kotzebue’s time in Hawaii passed without scandal or incident. The crew of the Rurik included two naturalists and an artist, qualifying its voyage as a scientific one. As such, the primary purpose of their stay in the islands was to observe and record. Kotzebue wrote a detailed account of his trip with the roll-off-your-tongue title “A Voyage of Discovery into the South Sea and Bering’s Straits, for the Purpose of Exploring a North-East Passage: Undertaken in the Years 1815-1818.” 

“Kamehameha, King of the Sandwich Islands,” pen and water color painting by Louis Choris, 1816.

The book recorded many garden variety aspects of Hawaiian society that all European explorers documented — what people wore, how they lived, accounts of royalty — but one aspect of Hawaiian life he particularly took note of was the food.

“The food of the lower classes consisted chiefly of fish, yams, sweet potatoes, tarro-root, bananas, sugar-canes, and bread-fruit,” he wrote. “Those of higher rank also indulged in pork, and the flesh of dogs, prepared in the same manner as on the Society Islands…These people were particularly clean, and their cookery was preferred by Englishmen to that of their own country.”

In another entry, he recalled the impressive appetite of Queen Namahana: “How much had passed the royal mouth before my entrance, I will not undertake to affirm; but it took in enough in my presence to have satisfied six men! Great as was my admiration at the quantity of food thus consumed, the scene which followed was calculated to increase it. Her appetite appearing satisfied at length, the Queen drew her breath with difficulty two or three times, then exclaimed, ‘I have eaten famously!’” He then recorded how servants massaged her roughly to aid digestion, in order for her to resume eating again.

The Rurik’s artist Louis Choris painted portraits of Kamehameha the Great and Queen Kaahumanu, as well as scenes from island life. Most of his paintings can be found at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. 

“Ka’ahumanu, Woman of the Sandwich Islands,” pen, ink wash and watercolor painting by Louis Choris, 1816.

Kotzebue would return to the islands as a captain in 1824 and 1825, totaling five stays in Hawaii over the course of his lifetime.

A map of Otto von Kotzebue’s voyages.

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