Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Sea Otter Skins and the China Trade

Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov,
painting by Mikhail T. Tikhanov, 1818
 In the summer of 1792, Alexander Baranov, the 45 year old manager of the Russia’s Kodiak colony, chanced upon the British ship Phoenix in Prince William Sound, commanded by Hugh Moore, and his first mate, Joseph O’Cain, an Irish Bostonian. The three men hit it off immediately, using German to communicate and Boston rum to lubricate their new friendship.

From Moore and O’Cain, Baranov learned that American and British ships were carrying sea otter skins from southeast Alaska directly to China, where they were traded for luxury goods which were carried back to Boston and London at great profit. Baranov also learned that Southeast Alaska was far richer in sea otters than the Aleutian and Kodiak grounds, depleted by fifty years of relentless exploitation.

Baranov had been struggling to keep the Russian colony supplied with food, clothing, and hardware, which had to come by land across Russia, and then by ship from Siberia. The sea otter skins which paid for the supplies had to go back the same way to Irkutsk, and then to China where they were sold to keep rich people warm in the winter.

Sea Otter 1778, by John Webber,
ship's artist on Captain cook's third voyage of discovery.
But communication between Alaska and Russia was tenuous, and the colony often went several years without a supply ship. Baranov realized that if he had ships of his own he could eliminate the colony’s dependence on the Siberian route. He persuaded a British shipwright and adventurer, James Shields, to build the Phoenix in Resurrection Bay. It was the first ship built in Russian Alaska.

Baranov also decided to build a fort in Sitka to have access to the sea otters in Southeast. The Tlingit natives were not friendly, but the Russians prevailed, and soon the new station was providing the lion’s share of the annual harvest.

The Phoenix never sailed to China, but it made the trip between Okhotsk and Kodiak until it was lost off Kodiak in May 1799. All 90 people on board died, including James Shields and the Archimandrite of Kodiak. The loss of the ship and the supplies it was bringing to Alaska was devastating.

The following spring Joseph O’Cain was in Spanish California as first mate on the Enterprise, trying to trade foodstuffs for sea otter skins. California produced more food than it could consume however, and trade was going badly. O’Cain remembered his conversations with Baranov eight years before about the Alaskan supply problem, and told the captain of the Enterprise about this potential opportunity.  As it turned out, no Russian ship had arrived in Kodiak in several years, and the colony was desperate when the Enterprise arrived. Trading was brisk and O’Cain headed for Canton loaded with sea otter skins. He vowed to be back for more as soon as he could.

But when O’Cain returned in October 1803, as captain of the O’Cain, a 280 ton ship with eighteen cannons, and loaded with supplies and rifles, Baranov had no sea otter skins to trade.  A year earlier Sitka had been overrun by the Tlingits and Russia’s access to the Southeast sea otter grounds was gone.

The two men pondered the problem until O’Cain had an idea- if Baranov supplied the native hunters and kayaks, O’Cain would sail to Spanish California, hunt through the mild winter there, and split the harvest with the Russians, fifty, fifty.  Baranov jumped at the plan, with the condition that the ship’s cargo be held in Kodiak as security.

In three months, the O’Cain’s hunters killed 2,000 sea otters while the Spanish authorities watched, cowed by the ship’s cannons. Baranov traded his share of the harvest for the O’Cain’s food, supplies, and firearms, which he used to rout the Tlingits in Sitka.

Whampoa in China 1835 by William John Huggins
Peabody Essex Museum
O’Cain sailed for Whampoa, just downriver from Canton, China, where he traded  $100,000 in sea otter skins for tea and silk, which he sold in Boston to great advantage. He and his partners in Boston reckoned that a few more such voyages would set them up for life. In 1806 O’Cain sailed out of Boston in command of a brand new ship, the 340 ton Eclipse, bound for California and his old friend in Alaska, Alexander Baranov.

O’Cain loaded furs in Kodiak, sold them in Canton and then sailed for Okhotsk to take on supplies for Kodiak. In October 1809 however, the Eclipse was wrecked south of the Alaska Peninsula on its way to Kodiak. 

Baranov sent a rescue mission but the relief ship too foundered in a northwest storm on the west side of Kodiak. Some of the men stranded on Sanak made it safely to Unalaska, but O’Cain drowned in the surf off Unimak Island. (Read our January 2015 blog post about that here:  

Baranov and O’Cain’s grand design, brilliant as it was, to use Yankee ships to carry Russian America’s trade, worked only as long as there were sea otters to kill. But like many resource extraction schemes, the drive for profit overwhelmed the resource, and the economic viability of Russian Alaska evaporated. When Russia decided to sell, the Boston sea captains who had come to know Alaska well were singularly poised to advise William Seward on the fire sale opportunity of future harvests of timber and fish, and gold.

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