Russian-American Company

(RAC)
   The Russian-American Company (RAC) ( Rossiisko-Amerikanskaia kompaniia ) was Russia’s first joint-stock charter company; it oversaw the Russian Empire ’s North American colony - “Russian America,” mainly present-day Alaska - from 1799 until its transfer to the United States in 1867. The RAC was involved in a number of ventures, including the importation of tea and other products from China into Russia, but its primary specialty was the North Pacific fur trade. The company’s distinguishing characteristic was its reliance on indigenous hunters to harvest marine mammals. It should be noted that there were never more than about 600 Russian colonists in all of Russian America at any one time. These colonists lacked the specialized skills necessary for hunting sea otters. To compensate for this lack of personnel and skills, the RAC employed thousands of Aleuts, Alutiiqs and “Creoles,” people of mixed Russian and indigenous parentage.
   The RAC was formed in 1799 out of the remnants of several Siberian merchant companies. Some of the merchants and government officials reasoned at the time that a single united Russian company, with government support, would be better equipped than the smaller companies to compete in the North Pacific fur trade against British and American rivals. They also hoped that a large united company would be more effective in securing potential territorial expansion. The RAC’s name and structure indicate that it was modeled on the charter companies of other European countries, such as the Hudson ’ s Bay Company and the East India Company of Great Britain. The mechanism of an ostensibly commercial company managing territory, populace, and resources on behalf of an empire had been unprecedented in Russia’s colonial experience. Placed under the emperor’s protection, and granted for a period of 20 years the exclusive right to profit from the resources of Russian America, the RAC functioned in practice as the Russian Empire’s colonial contractor. The charter was renewed and revised twice in 1821 and 1844, and the company continued to preside over Russian America until 1867. With each charter renewal, the RAC became more enmeshed in Russia’s imperial bureaucracy: that said, the company maintained its commercial function to the very end.
   Merchants and nobles could purchase RAC shares. Those who owned 10 or more were eligible to vote at the annual general meeting of shareholders. The shareholders elected by majority vote four, later five, directors, who headed the main office of the company, located after 1800 in St. Petersburg. The main office functioned as the company’s headquarters: it made the central business decisions, kept the government apprised of the company’s activities, and sent orders to the colonial administration in Russian America and various RAC offices throughout Russia.
   The colonial administration of Russian America was headquartered on Kodiak Island before 1808 and at Novo-Arkhangel’sk - present-day Sitka, Alaska - from 1808. Before 1818, the chief manager (in effect, governor) of Russian America was Aleksandr Baranov, a merchant with extensive experience in the Siberian and North American fur trade. After his retirement, only officers of Russia’s imperial navy served as governors of Russian America. These naval officers, who belonged to the noble estate, were selected by the RAC main office from a list of eligible officers, and served in Novo-Arkhangel’sk for terms of up to five years. For a number of reasons, ranging from the precipitous fall in the population of marine fur- bearing animals to general conditions on the fur market, the RAC’s fortunes peaked in the early nineteenth century and declined after Baranov’s departure. In 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company of San Francisco purchased the North American property of the RAC.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Dmytryshyn, Basil. “The Administrative Apparatus of the Russian-American Company, 1798–1867.” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 28/1 (1994): 1–52;
    Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Viking, 2001;
    Vinkovetsky, Ilya. “The Russian-American Company as a Colonial Contractor for the Russian Empire.” In Alexei Miller and Alfred J. Rieber, eds. Imperial Rule. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004, pp. 161–176;
    Wheeler, Mary E. “The Origins of the Russian-American Company.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 14/4 (1966): 485–494.
   ILYA VINKOVETSKY

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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