“The spectacle of the hula, the festive dances of the Oahuans, filled me with admiration." - "Rurik's" Voyage around the World

30 July 1815: The 180-ton brig “Rurik“, sailing under Imperial Russian colours and commanded by the Russian lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue, left Kronstadt (today a part of St Petersburg) in search of the Northwest Passage and what was to become the second Russian global circumnavigation.

“The spectacle of the hula, the festive dances of the Oahuans, filled me with admiration. The words celebrate the fame of some prince. In the dance, the human form represents itself in a constant flow of easy, unrestrained motion in every natural and graceful position." (Adalbert von Chamisso, “Voyage around the World”)

Louis Choris (1795 - 1828) - "Rurik" dropping anchor near St Paul's Island in the Bering Sea, illustration from Chamisso's "Views and Remarks on a Voyage of Discovery, and Description of a Voyage Round the World" (1817)

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russia and Tsar Alexander I began to develop a keen interest in trade with Asia. On top of that, Russia had established a colony in what is today Alaska that could only be supplied over 5.000 miles of wilderness by the overland route through Siberia. The fabled ice free Northwest Passage through the Arctic connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean seemed to be an ideal trade route for Russia as well as every other European seafaring nation.

Almost a Gauguin - Choris' drawing of women on the beach of the Sandwich Islands (1817)

“Rurik”, named after the legendary Varangian lord of Ladoga and Novgorod, set forth right into the other direction at first, rounding Cape Horn during Winter 1815/16 and sailing north to Chile and then into the tropical Pacific and Oceania away from the usual trade routes. Aboard were, besides Kotzebue’s 25 crew, the painter Louis Choris and the Franco-German naturalist and well-known Romantic poet Adalbert von Chamisso. Together with von Kotzebue’s account of the journey, all three men left invaluable scientific and artistic records.

Louis Choris: "Danse des femmes dans les iles Sandwich." (1817)

Besides Chamisso’s vivid account of “Rurik’s" visit in King Kamehameha the Great’s newly founded Kingdom of Hawai’i, his travelogue includes further descriptions of fauna and flora as well as fascinating descriptions of the people living in places like Othaite (Tahiti) and other Polynesian islands, as well as men and women, their clothing and customs from the northern Pacific area, where the “Rurik” sailed next, Kamchatka and the Innuit living in what was then Russian America, bitterly criticising the conduct of the Europeans there.  At least they bequeathed the word “Parka” to the Europeans' languages spoken at home, an Aleutian word meaning “animal skin”.

Louis Choris: A Chuckchi family in front of their home near the Bering Strait (1817)

With Kotzebue’s health and “Rurik's" seaworthiness slowly deteriorating, the ship returned via the Philippines, the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope to St Petersburg, arriving there after a three years’ expedition without having achieved her original goal – finding the Northwest Passage. It was finally discovered by Amundsen in 1903, not quite, at least not until 2009, ice free. Kotzebue sailed again to the Pacific and completed his third circumnavigation of the globe in 1826 – he made his first with the Russian Admiral von Krusenstern in the frigate “Nadezhda” in 1806. Chamisso became curator of a natural history museum in Berlin and Choris was finally killed by Mexican bandits in Veracruz. 

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