Peter R. Mills is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo. His initial purpose in writing Hawai'i's Russian Adventure may have been to present an analysis of archeological "digs" at Fort Elisabeth, a star-shaped lava-rock structure constructed by native labor in 1816-7 at the direction of George Anton Schaeffer (1779-1836), a commissioner of the Alaska-based Russian-American Company, on the former heiau of Pa'ula'ula o Hipo on the bluff above the eastern bank of the Waimea River on the southwest shore of Kaua'i. And indeed this purpose is very well served in this book. But the book is much more than that, and certainly more than a relation of "Hawai'i's Russian Adventure," as the title indicates. It is not now less than the best historical treatment of the changing values in Hawai'ian society in the first half of the nineteenth century, meaning the post-contact, the post-kapu, but still pre-plantation period (1778-ca. 1880). It does give primary attention throughout to events on Kaua'i and keeps track of the changing significance of the Waimea "Russian Fort," but treats quite comprehensively the life-changing events of the post-contact era in all of Hawai'i. It is no easy task of scholarship to weave a coherent and instructive narrative out of all the oral genealogies, legends, and tales of the bygone Hawai'ian ali'i (nobility), kahuna (priests), and maka'ainana (commmoners). Just the proliferation of multiply related Hawai'ian names presents a formidable challenge, as does the meaning of many polysemic Hawai'ian word roots. But factor in the scores of written observational accounts by a polyglot array of foreign sea captains and the stories of denominationally diverse Christian missionaries and you have a daunting challenge indeed. This diversity of information sources caused problems for all the previously published historians of the "Russian adventure" in Hawaii, including modern scholars like Ralph S. Kuykendall, Klaus Mehnert, Richard A. Pierce, Nikolai Bolkhovitinov, Walter Judd, and Edward Joesting, whose work Mills criticizes for a general colonialist bias that did not give the native Hawai'ian decision makers sufficient credit for advancing their own causes independent of foreign manipulation. Mills endeavors throughout to focus on the decisions of the Hawai'ian native decision makers, beginning with the relationship between Kamehameha and Kaumuali'i and continuing through Kalanimoku's quelling of Humehume's rebellion and the succession of the Kamehamehas' Kaua'i governors into the 1860s. This focus constitutes what his title calls "A New Look at Old History." I have to admit that I find this characterization of these previous scholars a bit disrespectful. They are the giants upon whose shoulders Mills now stands. Their work may show a colonial bias, but the actions of the foreign powers they describe were undeniably colonial in intent, in my opinion, and what Mills perceives as a bias in these scholars is really just a reflection of the related facts. And, I don't agree that these scholars' treatments demerit the decision-making roles of the Hawai'ian rulers either. But these disagreements with Mills' scholarly tone do NOT diminish my admiration for his mastery of the many sources, his extraction of the most significant information from them with a level of detail unprecedented in the previous scholarship.
The text is a delight to read, both for lay and expert readers. The relation of Kaumuali'i's life and its motivations and consequences is particularly fascinating, including as it does new information from arcane sources on his sons Humuhume and Keali'iahonui, his Queen Kekaiha'akulou (Deborah Kapule) and his relationships with Ka'ahumanu and Keopuolani. The total picture here is unsurpassed and valuable to future treatments. On Mills' archeology too I can only express my admiration, though I am among the lay readers here. My own curiosity extends to the Royal residence adjacent to Fort Elisabeth that George Anton Schaeffer built for Kaumuali'i in 1817. Schaeffer's Russian record indicates that this stone residence, which Kaumuali'i termed "Papa'ena'ena" as he had also named his previous thatched hale upriver from there, had human sacrifices placed under it, something that Schaeffer had extracted a promise from Kaumuali'i NOT to have done under the Fort itself. That is why Mills' relation of possible graves under the fort's flagpole are very interesting to me. Who may be there...a perished Kaumuali'i grandson, a shot mutineer, executed convicts? Mysteries remain. One of them is why the State of Hawaii does not remove the rusted-out shell of a 1980s Honda car from the weeds over the site of the last Royal residence on Kaua'i and give the place an appropriate marker. All in all, Mills' work here, history well bolstered by archeology (or vice-versa), sets the current standard of scholarship on this fascinating period in Hawai'ian history. There are some editing glitches, allowing two errantly listed dates of 1799 (instead of 1779) for Captain Cook's death and Kaua'i Ali'i-nui Kaneoneo's removal from power in the same paragraph on p. 61. But these are few and do not distract the reader. Mills' acute commentary in his notes add much. The bibliography is extraordinarily comprehensive and useful, yet there are some egregious lacunae...works on Kaumuali'i by the Rev. John M. Lydgate (first English biographical treatment) and the compendium by Kristin Zambucka, for example. But Mills' provision of the 24 illustrations and 8 tables is a real boon to understanding the topographical and social context. Despite my quibble on the author's tone, I think this is an excellent work and very valuable to a total understanding of the period described. Highly Recommended.