R is for Nikolai Rezanov

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!
Nikolai Rezanov

Nikolai Rezanov

In a parallel universe somewhere, all Hollywood movies are made in Russian, the Beach Boys are called пляжные мальчики and the American Civil War pitted east against west rather than north against south. And all because their Nikolai Rezanov didn’t die prematurely of a fever.

Rezanov was born in St Petersburg in 1764 to an impoverished noble family, although he spent much of his early years in Eastern Siberia after his father was made the chairman of the Province Court Civil Chamber in Irkutsk.

He was a bright boy and was fluent in five European languages by the age of fourteen. Rezanov joined the military and served in the Izmailovski regiment and was responsible for the protection of Catherine the Great during her trip to the Crimea in 1780.

He left the military and joined the Pskov civil court where his energy and organisational skills marked him out for promotion and in 1791 he joined the staff of Gavrila Derzhavin who was private secretary to the Empress.

But court life didn’t really suit Rezanov. He had previously met Grigory Shelikhov, of the Shelikhov-Golikov Fur Company and became interested in their commercial activities in Alaska. He married Shelikhov’s daughter and became a partner in the company and when Shelikhov died in 1795 Rezanov set about putting the business on a par with the East India Company.

He had almost convinced Catherine to grant his company a charter when she inconveniently died in 1796. It took over five years to persuade her successor, the rather unbalanced Emperor Paul, to sign the charter which he did in 1801, granting the Russian-American Company dominion over the Pacific-Northwest Coast of America for twenty years.

This brought together the disparate smaller companies and independent fur companies that generated great profits for Rezanov and the shareholders.

As part of his other duties, Rezanov had to go on a mission to Japan to sign a trade treaty. Though the six months he spent there brought no results, he didn’t waste his time. He learned Japanese, compiled a Japanese dictionary and wrote An Introduction to the Japanese Language. Both books were sent to the president of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

But things were not going well in Alaska. When Rezanov returned, he found the people on the verge of starvation and even buying a boatload of foodstuffs from an American captain was only delaying the inevitable unless he could find alternative supplies.

Rezanov determined to sail south to New Spain on what is now the Californian coast carrying furs and other goods to exchange for supplies and he lay anchor in San Francisco harbour.

His aim was to negotiate a treaty with New Spain to provide his colonies with food twice a year, but although he was treated with courtesy, the governor was forbidden from having dealings with any foreign power which is effectively what Rezanov represented. However, a romance was to intervene.

The widower Rezanov fell in love with Concepción Argüello, daughter of the Spanish commander. They intended to marry, but the Catholic clergy would not countenance this without a dispensation from the Pope, so Rezanov was forced to return first to the colony and then to Russia to make the necessary arrangements.

He left New Archangel for mainland Russia to get the royal consent to the treaty, and also personal letters to the Pope and king of Spain to agree the marriage, but it was not to be. Rezanov died of fever and exhaustion in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, on 8th March 1807 leaving his ambition of securing the west coast of America for Russia unfulfilled.

Rezanov's Tomb

Rezanov’s Tomb

As for Concepción Argüello, she became a nun and spent the rest of her life in a convent as the first Dominican nun in California.

Rezanov’s grave was destroyed by the Bolsheviks, but in 2000, a new memorial was built in Krasnoyarsk in the couple’s honour. On one side it reads: ‘Nickolai Petrovich Rezanov 1764 — 1807. I will never forget you’, and on the other, ‘Maria Concepción Argüello 1791 — 1857. I will see you never more’.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 13th November 2013

    A love story AND American history.

  • bettyl 13th November 2013

    Your contributions are always fascinating and fact-filled!

  • ChrisJ 13th November 2013

    Fascinating! Who knows, if he had fulfilled his ambition, all we in California may have been speaking Russian.

  • Kate 13th November 2013

    Quite a busy fellow with an interesting life. Kate, ABC Team


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