Nicolai Petrovich De Rezanov - Encyclopedia

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NICOLAI PETROVICH DE REZANOV (1764-1807), Russian nobleman and administrator under Catherine II., Paul I. and Alexander I., was one of the ten barons of Russia, and, for his services to the empire, was rewarded with the court title of chamberlain. In 1803 he was made a privy councillor and invested with the order of St Ann. He was also the author of a lexicon of the Japanese language and of several other works, which are preserved in the library of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. He was the first Russian ambassador to Japan (1804), and instigated the first attempt of Russia to circumnavigate the globe (1803), commanding the expedition himself as far as Kamchatka. But Rezánov's monument for many years after his death was the great Russian American Fur Company; and his interest to students of history centres round the policy involved in that enterprise, which, thwarted by his untimely death, would have changed the destinies of Russia.and the United States.

Meeting (in 1788) Shelikov, chief of the Shelikov-Golikov Fur Company, Rezanov became interested in the merchant's project to obtain a monopoly of the fur trade in those distant dependencies. Conscious of latent energies, and already tired of the pleasures of a dissolute court, he became a partner in the company, and rapidly developed into a keen and tireless man of business. At the death of Shelikov in 1795 he became the leading spirit of the wealthy and amalgamated but harassed companies, and resolved to obtain for himself and his partners privileges analogous to those granted by Great Britain to the East India Company. He had just succeeded in persuading Catherine to sign his charter when she died, and he was obliged to begin again with the ill-balanced and intractable Paul. For a time the outlook was hopeless; but Rezanov's skill, subtlety and address prevailed, and shortly before the assassination of the emperor Paul he obtained his signature to the momentous instrument which granted to the Russian-American Company, for a term of twenty years, dominion over the coast of N.W. America, from latitude 55 degrees northward; and over the chain of islands extending from Kamchatka northward and southward to Japan. This famous "Trust," which crowded out all the small companies and independent traders, was a source of large revenue to Rezanov and the other shareholders, including members of the Imperial family, until the first years of the 1 9 th century, when mismanagement and scarcity of nourishing food threatened it with serious losses if not ultimate ruin. Rezanov, his humiliating embassy to Japan concluded, reached Kamchatka in 1805, and found commands awaiting him to remain in the Russian colonies as Imperial inspector and plenipotentiary of the company, and to correct the abuses that were ruining the great enterprise. He travelled slowly to Sitka by way of the Islands, establishing measures to protect the fur-bearing animals from reckless slaughter, punishing or banishing the worst offenders against the company's laws, and introducing the civilizing influence of schools and libraries, most of the books being his personal gifts. He even established cooking schools, which flourished briefly.

At the end of a winter in Sitka, the headquarters of the company, during which he half-starved with the others, he bought a ship from a Yankee skipper and sailed for the Spanish settlements in California, purposing to trade his tempting cargo of American and Russian wares for food-stuffs, and to arrange a treaty by whose terms his colonies should be provisioned twice a year with the bountiful products of New Spain. He cast anchor in the harbour of San Francisco early in April 1806, after a stormy voyage which had defeated his intention to take possession of the Columbia river in the name of Russia. Although he was received with great courtesy and entertained night and day by the gay Californians, no time was lost in informing him that the laws of Spain forbade her colonies to trade with foreign powers, and that the governor of all the Californias was incorruptible. Rezánov, had it not been for a love affair with the daughter of the comandante of San Francisco, Don Jose Arguello, and for his personal address and diplomatic skill, with which he won over the clergy to his cause, would have failed again. As it was, when he sailed for Sitka, six weeks after his arrival, the "Juno's" hold was full of bread-stuffs and dried meats, he had the promise of the perplexed governor to forward a copy of the treaty to Spain at once, and he was affianced to the most beautiful girl in California. Shortly after his arrival in Sitka he proceeded by water to Kamchatka, where he despatched his ships to wrest the island Sakhalen of the lower Kurile group from Japan, then started overland for St Petersburg to obtain the signature of the tsar to the treaty, and also personal letters to the pope and king of Spain that he might ask for the dispensation and the royal consent necessary to his marriage. He died of fever and exhaustion in Krasnoiarsk, Siberia, on the 8th of March 1807.

The treaty with California, the bare suggestion of which made such a commotion in New Spain, was the least of Rezanov's projects. It was sincerely conceived, for he was deeply and humanely concerned for his employees and the wretched natives who were little more than the slaves of the company; but its very obviousness raised the necessary amount of dust. His correspondence with the company, and with Zapinsky, betrays a clearly defined purpose to annex to Russia the entire western coast of North America, and to encourage immediate emigration from the parent country on a large scale. Had he lived, there is, all things considered, hardly a doubt that he would have accomplished his object. The treaty was never signed, the reforms of Rezanov died of discouragement, the fortunes of the colonies gradually collapsed, the Spanish girl who had loved Rezanov became a nun; and one of the ablest and most ambitious men of his time lies forgotten in the cemetery of a poor Siberian town.

See Bancroft's History of California, and Alaska; Tikmenev's Historical Review of the Origin of the Russian American Company; Rezdnov-Zapisky Correspondence; Travels of Krusenstern and Langsford, &c. (G. A. *)

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