History Friday: The Russian Exploration of America (pt 1)

I’ve wanted to learn more about the Russian exploration and colonization of the Americas for ages, and while rummaging around in the attic of a 120 year old house I serendipitously happened across Caughey‘s History of the Pacific Coast, published in 1933, which has an entire chapter devoted to the subject.

One of the interesting things about the exploration of the North Pacific is just how late it occurred–even in late 1700s, we basically had no idea what was up there. Before the construction of the Suez and Panama canals, the north Pacific between modern-day Russia and Alaska was about as far away from Europe as you could get. By sea you might circumnavigate Africa, which offered little in the way of good places to take on fresh food and water–the Dutch had to send their own people to raise cattle on the Cape of Good Hope because the local hunter-gatherer population simply didn’t have enough food to trade for–and then circumnavigate Asia, making your way through cannibal (and probably pirate) infested waters along the way. Just getting to the Indonesian spice islands and back left a great many men dead of scurvy. Alternatively, you could round South America and brave the tumultuous, Antarctic waters around Tierra del Fuego–if you had permission to land at Spanish ports along the way. Alternatively, you could go by land–by trekking across Siberia and then building a boat, or by crossing the Atlantic, Lewis and Clarking it, and then building a boat. No matter which direction you head, it’s a long trek and you’ll probably die–and the Russians did it first.

How they did it is a tale in itself.

As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes.

“Up to the middle of the eighteenth century the Pacific Ocean had been a Spanish lake, with English and Dutch freebooters intruding only occasionally. From Panama to beyond San Francisco exploration and settlement had been y the Spaniards, unchallenged and unaided. The opening of the North Pacific, on the contrary, was the work of several nations. Russians led the way under Vitus Bering, the Dane Spain sent expeditions to investigate the Russian activities, to check British aggressions, and to substantiate her ancient claim to the entire northwest coast. British traders came overland and by sea, and Americans likewise used a two-fold approach…

“From our perspective the overrunning of Siberia was a preliminary to Russian expansion in America; from the Russian standpoint Siberia far outweighed Alaska. But whether regarded as the tail or the dog, the eastward movement across Asia must be recognized as an epic achievement, comparable to the American westward march to the Pacific. “A century sable hunt half round the world” labels it succinctly. It was a century more or less; from the Urals to Okhotsk the Russians were only sixty years, to Bering Strait a century and a half. Sables were the chief incentive, but salt works, escape from the czar’s rule and his justice, silver mines, mammoth ivory,and exploitable natives were supplementary attractions. Half round the world is only a mild exaggeration. …

Yermak Timofeyevich, born sometime between 1532 and 1542 – August 5 or 6, 1585
Yermak Timofeyevich, born sometime between 1532 and 1542 – August 5 or 6, 1585

“Stroganof’s salt mines in the Urals served as the point of departure, and Yermak, quondam tracker along the Volga and more recently a river pirate, actually initiated the movement. He came to the salt mines in 1578 with almost a thousand Cossacks, a fugitive from the justice of Ivan the Terrible. For years Trans-Ural tribesmen had been bringing in valuable furs to trade, and Stroganof used this as a lure to speed the departure of his guests. He provided guides to conduct Yermak to the Ob with its reputed riches in sables.

EvX: “Yermak” is sometimes spelled “Ermak.”

“The Tatars resisted courageously. But except that they had horses and fought customarily as cavalrymen, they were at a disadvantage as great as that of the Aztecs against Cortes. Field artillery, firearm, arquebuses, and suits of mail gave the Cossacks victories over forces ten or even thirty times their number. After several battles Yermak captured Sibir, a Tatar village whose name was to be extended over all Siberia. His position was insecure, however, and gift of foodstuffs from non-Tatar tribes were very welcome. A present of sables was sent to the czar, who thereupon forgave these erstwhile river pirates, commissioned Yermak his agent, and sent him reinforcements.

Surikov's "The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak"
Surikov’s “The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The Khanate of Sibir, also historically called the Khanate of Turan,[1][2] was a Turco-MongolKhanate located in southwestern Siberia. Throughout its history, rule over the Khanate was often contested between members of the Shaybanid and Taibugid dynasties; both of these competing tribes were direct patrilineal descendants of Genghis Khan through his eldest son Jochi and his fifth son Shayban (Shiban). The Sibir Khanate was itself once an integral part of the Mongol Empire, and later the White Horde and the Golden Horde.

The Sibir Khanate had an ethnically diverse population of Khanty, Mansi, Nenets, Selkup and Siberian Tatar people. The Sibir Khanate was the northernmost Muslim state in recorded history.

EvX: “Muslim” probably misrepresents the extent of conversion away from traditional steppe shamanism. The Khanate of Sibir only lasted for about 100 years, from 1490-1580 (khanates come and go.) The last Khan of Sibir, a fellow by the name of Kutchum, (or Kuchum) sealed his own fate when he decided to raid Stroganov’s trading posts, resulting in Yermak’s expedition.

But back to Caughey:

800px-ob_watershed“Old blind Kutchum Khan, in spite of frequent reverses, was still in the field against the Russians. On a stormy August night in 1584 he sent his cavalry against Yermak’s camp on the Irtysh. Completely surprised, this group of fifty Cossacks was annihilated. Yermak fought his way to the river, and seeing no other chance, plunged in, attempting to swim to the boats. His heavy armor dragged him to the bottom, where the Tatars discovered his corpse a few days later. They are said to have inflicted great indignities upon it and then to have buried it with equally great honors.

“Yermak’s defeat and death disheartened the Cossacks. They voted to abandon Sibir and retreat to Russia. A reinforcement met them on the way and they faced about toward Sibir, but Tartar forces prevented its reoccupation, and instead, Tobolsk was founded (1587) as the capital of this frontier.”

EvX: For thousands of years, horsemen have boiled out of the steppes, overwhelming, massacring, and raping the farmers of Europe and Asia. Wave upon wave of Indo-Europeans, (aka Yamnaya,) Tatars, Turks, Mongols, Khazars, and others conquered everything from the shores of Spain and Britain to the coast of China, from the tip of India to the frozen north of Siberia. Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes may have killed 40 million people in a single lifetime.

Finally the Russians conquered them back, and even–during the Soviet era–occupied Mongolia.

To be continued…

Adoption pt 2: when Genghis Khan kills your parent and makes you his little brother

In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford brings us a fascinating adoption account:

In the long history of steppe warfare, a defeated tribe was looted, some members taken prisoner, and the rest left again to their own devices. … In his defeat of the Jurkin, however, Temujin [Genghis Khan] followed a radical new policy that revealed his ambition to fundamentally alter the cycle of attack and counterattack and of making and breaking alliances.

(In short, he executed all of the Jurkin’s leaders.)

He then took the unprecendented step of occupying the Jurkin lands and redistributing ht remaining members of their group among the households of his own clan. … Temujin took them into his tribe not as slaves, but as members of the tribe in good standing. He symbolized this by adopting an orphan boy from the Jurkin camp and presenting him to Hoelun [his mother] to raise in her ger [yurt] not as a slave but as her son. By having his mother adopt the Jurkin boy, as he had her previously adopt one each from the defeated Merkid, Tayichiud, and Tatars, Temujin was accepting the boys as his younger brothers. …

In a final display of his new power, Temujin ended the Jurkin episode with a feast for both the victorious Mongols and their newly adopted relatives.

In Genghis Khan, Conqueror of the World, Leo de Hartog recounts a similar story:

While they were plundering a Tatar camp the Mongols found a small boy. Genghis Khan took the boy and gave him to his mother, Ho’elun, who adopted him as her son. She called the boy Shigi Qutuqu. There is another version of the story. The child was taken by Genghis Khan in 1182-3, after a raid against the Tatars. He and Borte [Genghis Khan’s wife] at that time had no children. He gave the young tatar to Borte, who brought him up as an adopted son. … Some call him a stepbrother of Genghis Khan, others his adopted son. Shigi Qutuqu, who was very intelligent, later became lord chief justice of the Mongol empire.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan, famous softie

Genghis Khan’s sympathy for the orphans of war may have been due to his own childhood experiences; when he was nine years old, his father was murdered by the Tatars and he, his mother, and brothers were driven out of their clan, rendered essentially homeless. Later he was captured and enslaved by the Tayichiud. (Obviously he escaped.)

Approximately 1 in 200 people today appears to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, making him the one of the most evolutionarily successful humans in all of history. (If not the most successful.)

If we want to get technical, some of those folk are probably descended from Genghis Khan’s brothers, making Genghis Khan’s dad history’s most successful guy, but Genghis Khan achieved that success by conquering one of history’s biggest empires, and Genghis Khan’s dad achieved his success by siring Genghis Khan.

While I don’t normally advocate “be like Genghis Khan,” simply because I like being alive, if Genghis Khan thought adoption was a good idea, maybe it can be a viable evolutionary strategy.


Tomorrow: A bit of historical and cross-cultural context