The “Discovery” of the Marshall Islands


Adelbert Von Chamisso

Adelbert Von Chamisso was born on January 30, 1781. He was the son of a French nobleman who fled to Germany in 1792 “to escape the guillotine.” At fifteen he became a page to the Queen Consort of Frederick William II. Two years later, he entered military service and stayed behind when his parents returned to a more moderate France in 1800. He wrote verses, first in French and then in German, and published the Muses Almanac in 1804–1806. In 1812 he entered the University of Berlin to study nature. Then in 1815, on a lark, he applied for the position of botanist aboard what would be the second Russian expedition of discovery around the world. Due to the ill health of a formerly appointed naturalist, he was granted the position on board the Rurik.

Chamisso published A Voyage Around the World with the Romanzov Exploring Expedition in the Years 1815–1818 in the Brig Rurik in 1836

This was only two years before his death and long after the captain of the voyage, Otto von Kotzebue, published his account in 1821. The painter on board, Louis Choris, had published his magnificent Voyage pittoresque autour du monde in 1822. Adelbert Von Chamisso’s account is a work of nostalgia. He harkens back to a more exciting time in his life, when he bore the hardships he endured at sea through the eyes of a younger and healthier man. In his foreword, he frankly asks, “But will the dew not have evaporated from the flowers, will not their fragrance have blown away?” He must have written his account of this voyage from meticulous logs, as it appears as fresh today, over two hundred years later. Much acknowledgement goes to Henry Kratz, the translator and editor. Also to the University of Hawai‘i Press for reviving this account from history’s dustbins into the light of day and for speakers of English.

Kratz’s introduction begins

Magellan’s expedition traversed the Pacific in the early sixteenth century, and his path around the world was followed by Sir Francis Drake and others, but the vast expanse of the South Seas remained terra incognita to Europeans for a long time thereafter. The lush palm-studded islands of Polynesia and Melanesia and the blazing atolls of Micronesia slumbered on for a couple of centuries, unseen by European eyes, unmolested by European guns, uncorrupted by European mores. While Luther defied Pope and Empire, while Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, while Louis XIV basked in the magnificence of Versailles, while England, France, Spain, Holland and Portugal divided up the American continents among themselves, indeed, while Washington’s army shivered at Valley Forge, the South Sea islanders continued to live in thatched huts and worship idols even as their ancestors had done for centuries before.

Who could have put it better?

Chamisso traces the path of the voyage via the Canary Islands to the coast of Brazil. Then around Cape Horn to Chile. Then to Easter Island before arriving in Kamchatka, Russia, in the summer of 1816. The ship provisioned there before sailing north to St. Lawrence Island and still farther north to what is now called Kotzebue Sound. The purpose of the voyage was to discover a northwest passage between the Arctic Circle and what is now Canada. The explorers however found only ice when, in the first days of September and with winter approaching, they turned back. They retreated by way of what is now Unalaska Island in the Aleutian group before arriving in San Francisco, then under Spanish rule. It is only when the voyagers sail again westward to the “Sandwich Islands” that the heretofore mostly matter-of-fact narrative of dark seas, rock and ice turns to the lush greens and blues of the “South Seas.”

The expedition reached Hawai‘i in November 1816

This was thirty-seven years after the natives killed Captain Cook and during the last years of Chief Kamehameha’s rule. Hawaiian life would change radically after the chief’s death, with the kapu system abolished due to the influence of American missionaries. Chamisso, writing with the benefit of hindsight, states that he begged the captain to allow him to stay another year. He wanted to gather fauna and flora and to record the culture and language before it became too late. Alas, Captain Kotzebue denied this request, and in mid-December, the ship departed for the Marshall Islands.

The trade winds rapidly swept them twenty-four hundred miles south-westward to the Radak atolls within a period of two weeks. They would sojourn in Radak for three and a half months. They visited Mejit, Wotje, Maloelap, Aur, Likiep, Ailuk and Utirik. The native peoples had probably experienced the occasional Spanish galleon or American whaler. The Rurik however, was the first ship of discovery containing an educated class prepared to record what they saw.

Here the narrative turns flowery with Chamisso’s descriptions of the “Radakians,” as he calls them:

“Their own gentleness and goodness allowed them to have confidence in the more powerful strangers. We became friends without reservation. In them I found pure, uncorrupted customs, charm, grace, and the gracious bloom of modesty.”

It was during this period that Louis Choris drew his romantic sketches of what he saw as an idyllic if isolated lifestyle. It was in the Radak chain that he met Kadu, “one of the finest characters I have met in my life. One of the people I have loved most….” Kadu, an Eastern Carolinian from Woleai, had drifted up in his proa and had settled among them. He quickly decided to join the Russian voyage and to abandon his two wives and daughter. The explorers headed north in the spring of 1816, provisioned at Unalashka (now Unalaska) and again attempted to locate the nonexistent northwest passage. However, foul weather and the captain’s ill health required that they abandon the attempt. They returned to Radak by way of Hawai‘i, where Kadu found that his wives had taken others during his absence. Citing love for his daughter as reason to stay, he relinquished his goal to return to his homeland and disembarked the ship for good.

The Rurik sailed on to Guam and Manila, where it underwent major repairs, and then returned home by way of the Cape of Good Hope

In his introduction, Katz explains that Chamisso lived some twenty-one years after his return. His experiences aboard the Rurik provided a degree of prestige and allowed him employment as a botanist at the Schöneberg herbarium in Berlin. He married shortly thereafter. Toward the end of his life, his poetry became popular, and he published a complete edition of his poems in 1836. May history look kindly upon this first gentle soul who diligently recorded life aboard a brig that traveled the world. Its mission, a vain attempt to find what did not exist, may have failed. However, Chamisso’s humanity, and that of those aboard, has left us a solid and memorable record of what life ashore was like during that time.

Without doubt, one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I find myself, also late in life, reminiscing over the years I spent in these same picturesque atolls. Just over two hundred years have passed since that historic Russian voyage and nearly a quarter of that since I first stepped foot upon those shores as a young Peace Corps Volunteer. The adventures that, like Chamisso, I had amid these same charming people will last me the rest of my life, and I have felt a similar need to tell the story of what I experienced. See The Legends of Ḷainjin Book One.

Von Chamisso, Adelbert. A Voyage Around the World with the Romanzov Exploring Expedition in the Years 1815–1818 in the Brig Rurik, Captain Otto von Kotzebue. Translated and edited by Henry Kratz. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1986.


  1. Interesting to know history of these voyages to our south Pacific seas.

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