A Tale of Two Enclaves: Contested Sovereignty in the Mediterranean – Gibaltrar and Ceuta

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

They lie on different continents, just a shade over 28 kilometres from each other, on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the common denominator for both is Spain. Their situations are in some ways the mirror image of each other – one, Gibraltar, is a tiny piece of the United Kingdom within the natural geography of Spain, and the other, Ceuta, is a tiny piece of Spain within the natural geography of Morocco. Geologically, both landscapes are physically dominated by a large chunk of limestone rock, viz. the Rock of Gibraltar and Monte Hacho (both probably are heavily fortified). Another thing they have in common is that the sovereign state in possession of each enclave is fiercely determined that its unilateral hold over the territory is not negotiable.

Spain’s Places of Sovereignty
In discussing the tiny, controversial entities of Ceuta (known as Sebta in the Arab world) and Gibraltar, it is necessary to introduce a third entity into this binary equation – Melilla, because this territory located 225km east of Ceuta is linked to it by circumstance. Melilla, although overshadowed by the higher profile of Ceuta, shares its peculiar status – both are minuscule Spanish territories incongruously appended to the Moroccan state, which in turn claims sovereignty over both enclaves. And certainly, when it comes to advocating sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, both sides treat them as a “job lot”❈.

The following table is a snapshot of the comparative basic data on the three enclaves:

Comparative Table of the Spanish & British Enclaves

StatusOverseas TerritoryAutonomous CityAutonomous City
Area Size6.8km18.5km12.3km
Population32,194 (2015)82,376 (2011)78,476 (2011)
Ethnic CompositionGilbratarians, Other British, Maghrebis, Maltese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, IndiansArab Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, IndiansArab Riffian Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, Indians
Ceded to parent country 1713 (England, later UK)1668 (Spain)1668 (Spain)
Source: Wikipedia


Walking through the streets of Gibraltar it’s hard to miss the very visible signs of ‘British-ness’ or ‘Anglo-ness’ in the territory … red telephone boxes, Leyland double-decker buses, fish-and-chips shops, “English atmosphere” pubs, British bobbies, Union Jacks and the like. It is after all a BOT, a British Overseas Territory – and there are scarce few of those left on the world map! To the residents of the Rock these trappings are an unequivocal testimony to the loyalty of Gibraltarians to the United Kingdom and the British Crown.

Brexit for Gibraltar?
The vote last June by Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the EU was nowhere more momentous in the United Kingdom than in Gibraltar. Gibraltar, in contrast to most elsewhere in Britain, voted 96 per cent to stay in the Common Market[1]. Energised, the Spanish government seized on the Brexit opt-out to push the Gibraltar sovereignty issue again, calling for joint sovereignty of the two countries. With the unpalatable prospect for Gibraltar of being denied vital access to a single European market thanks to the British decision, Madrid believe (or hope) that they can leverage Gibraltarians into a rethink of their future options.

Gibraltar for its own part has argued for a special relationship post-Brexit with the European Union (as has Scotland)[2]. Madrid however has turned up the heat on Britain and its Iberian BOT, initiating tighter border controls, a deliberate go-slow affecting all vehicles and persons crossing into the British Overseas Territory from Spain. Already in 2013 the Spanish government threatened to charge motorists €50 to cross the border, restrict flights as well as investigate the tax status of 6,000 Gibraltar residents who own investment properties in Spain[3].

Gibraltar Chief Minister Picardo stressed that the implementation of a ‘hard’ border by Madrid would impose hardships on both sides, pointing out that 12,000 workers cross daily to work in the construction and services industries on “the Rock”[4]. But the stalemate persists and border-crossers continue to endure (up to) six-hour delays into and out of Gibraltar⊛.

The simmering tensions have aggravated underlying issues between the two European disputants in recent times … the Brits in 2014 asserted that there had been over 5,000 unauthorised incursions of Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters during 2013[5]. Local fishermen from Spain have complained that the construction of an artificial reef in Gibraltar in 2013 has imperilled the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen by depleting local fish stocks[6]. Spain has also objected to the presence of British warships in Gibraltar’s port as an unnecessary provocation[7].

The Rock-cum-Fortress
A minor incident involving a US nuclear submarine and warning flares in the Port of Gibraltar in April 2016 also drew Madrid’s displeasure (notwithstanding the fact that the port is a frequent maintenance stop for US subs)[8]. Some suspicions seem to be fed by prolonged antagonisms. Spaniards have expressed disquiet about the 1,400 foot high limestone Rock, a fortress-like structure in itself, hinting darkly at the possibility that the Gibraltarians may have fortified it[9].

Another point of Spanish aggravation on the frontier has been the issue of smuggling. A recurrent problem since the 1990s, Spain sees Gibraltar as the conduit for an estimated 1½ billion contraband cigarettes as well as drugs, mainly hashish (from Morocco) coming into Spain each year … resulting in a massive loss of customs revenues for Madrid who accuse the British and Gibraltarian authorities of turning a blind eye to the illicit activities[10].

Gibraltar – the historical issue
The Catholic King (Philip V of Spain) … yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar together with the port, fortifications and forts thereun belonging … the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever❞.
[Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, 13 July 1713]
(Note no reference in the legal document of Spain ceding the territorial waters of Gibraltar to the English victors)

Bay of Gibraltar ca.1704
The British secured the tiny enclave of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession, having (with the Dutch) captured the peninsula from Spain early in the war and then been granted ownership of it as part of the spoils of war in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The longevity of Britain’s occupation of Gibraltar is one the arguments used to validate possession of this remote, non-contiguous part of the UK. Spain counters that the English takeover in 1704 was as interlopers in a conflict provoked by a Spanish dynastic dispute, and the English claims on Gibraltar were limited by the Treaty and did not include the isthmus, the area of the current airport and Gibraltar’s territorial waters[11].

A choice of principles: Self-determination Vs territorial integrity
Britain argues that its right to retain Gibraltar rests primarily on the issue of self-determination, pointing to the fact that the citizens of Gibraltar twice voted by massive majorities to remain part of the UK (1967 and 2002)¤. Despite being embedded in an Hispanic milieu, the people of Gibraltar culturally self-identify as British.

The Spanish counter-argument has been that the validity of its sovereignty lies in the realm of territorial integrity. In support of this Spain has cited UN Resolution 1514 (XV) (the UN principle of territorial integrity): “any attempt✥ at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Spain also argues that the passage of UN Principles of Decolonisation resolutions in the 1960s [2231 (XXI) and 2353 (XXII) ‘Question of Gibraltar’] affirms that the principle of territorial integrity prevails over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination[12].

Ceuta y Melilla
As already mentioned the parallels between Britain’s Gibraltar and Spain’s Ceuta in particular, are stark … two small but strategically positioned enclaves, one almost on the southernmost tip of Europe and the other on the north-western point of Africa, both tacked on to the end of a foreign state. The seeming irony of Spain’s passionate advocacy of its right to absorb Gibraltar into the nation-state is not lost on Morocco who has pointed out that the presence of Spanish military on Ceuta and Melilla poses a threat to Moroccan national security (and territorial integrity), and argues that its existence contravenes the UN principle of decolonisation[13].

Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta (from Mon Abyla)
Spain’s basis for retaining its hold over Ceuta and Melilla rests on a number of criteria – longevity of occupation, right of conquest, the doctrine of Terra Nullis (historical justifications); national security and the territorial integrity of the state. As well Spain, like the UK, contends that the great bulk of its residents want to retain their Spanish status[14].

North Africa: Boundary disputes the way of the world
In North Africa, and in Africa generally, disputes between neighbouring states are legion (a 2015 estimate put it at close to 100 (active or dormant) border conflicts across the continent). And Morocco has had its fair share of them … with Spain over control of Western Sahara until Spain withdrew in 1975; and subsequently over the same territory embroiled together with Mauritania in a conflict against the Polisario Front (militaristic pro-independence group representing the Sahrawi people); in the 1960s contesting its border with Algeria[15].

A Spanish double standard?
Spain has gone to great pains to play down any perceived similarity that might be drawn between the situation of Gibraltar and that of its North African enclaves. Madrid portrays Gibraltar (officially a British Overseas Territory) as no more than a colonial remnant (“ripe for decolonisation”) … Gibraltar it argues should rightfully be politically reunited with Spain which it was part of until taken by force three centuries ago.

Ceuta and Melilla on the other hand, Madrid says, are integral parts of Spain and have been since the formation of the modern Spanish state, long predating the existence of modern Morocco as an independent, sovereign political entity (1956). The enclaves are semi-autonomous with the same status as the mainland (described by Madrid as “autonomous cities”), and under pressure Spain has hinted that it will offer Ceuta and Melilla greater autonomy[16]. Spain’s longevity argument could be countered by Moroccans who can point to an Arab presence in Ceuta and the other North African enclaves since the 8th century[17].

UN Committee 4: Non-Self Governing Territory status
Morocco’s claim on the Plazas, from a legal standpoint, is generally thought to be a weaker case than Spain’s on Gibraltar. Whilst the UN includes Gibraltar in a list of non-self governing territories (international entities whose eligibility for decolonisation the UN investigates each year), Ceuta and Melilla is not. This is because of the Barajas Spirit (Espiritu de Barajas), an agreement reached in 1963 between Spain’s General Franco and Morocco’s King Hassan II … Morocco agreed to deal with the Ceuta and Melilla issue bilaterally, with Spain separately, rather than submit it to the UN to be raised with other territorial disputes of the day such as Gibraltar. And because Morocco was preoccupied in the 1960s and ’70s with the recovery of southern territories (Sidi Ifni and Western Sahara), it delayed any action on Melilla and Ceuta and missed its chance to register them on the NSGT territories list for the UN to debate their future[18].

Ceuta/El Tarajal, a heavily-reinforced border wall
Spain, without pressure from a third-party, unsurprisingly, has played a straight bat to any attempts by Morocco to pursue the question of Ceuta and Melilla sovereignty. Spain fortified both enclaves and constructed razor wire border fences in the 1990s designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling from Morocco. Impoverished Moroccans and other, mainly sub-Saharan Africans have long sought an entry point into Europe and the EU through the two Spanish autonomous cities. Because of the ongoing attempts to breach the border, authorities later reinforced the walls with a 6m high double fence structure and a “no man’s land” strip (a neutral zone) separating the Spanish outposts from Moroccan territory.

Border wars
The enhanced security hasn’t stopped desperate African migrants from trying to scale the border walls of Ceuta and Melilla (many have been shot and a number killed by unfriendly fire from security forces on both sides of the fence[19]) … since 2015 there has been an increase in the number of break-in attempts. As recently as January 2017 1,100 African migrants tried to storm the border in a violent confrontation with Spanish border guards[20].

Other incidents in recent years have kept the disputed territories issue on the boil. In 2002 a potential flash point erupted when a handful of Moroccan soldiers captured a tiny, uninhibited rocky outcrop named Perejil Island (near Ceuta and part of the disputed Plazas), leaving five cadets in charge of it. The cadets were summarily and peacefully ejected by elite troops and Spanish sovereignty swiftly reinstated[21]. The visit of King Juan Carlos I to Ceuta and Melilla in 2007 (the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit the Plazas) succeeded in stirring up further ill-will between Morocco and Spain over the territorial dispute[22].

PostScript: Gibraltar, Mission seemingly Impossible – what gain is there for Spain?
In the context of the United Kingdom’s commitment to Gibraltar and its people’s unwavering determination to stay subjects of the British Crown, the likelihood of Spain regaining its former territory in the foreseeable future is exceedingly slim✜. Why therefore does Spain persist in what seems to all appearances to be a futile exercise against such odds?[23]

1967 Gibraltar Poll: endorsement of UK rule
Madrid’s objections to “British Gibraltar” derive from a mixture of motives – that Gibraltar continues to be (in the words of former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzáles) “a pebble on the bottom of Spain’s shoe” is an impediment to the country’s sense of national pride. Gibraltar’s existence as the only colony remaining in Europe is an affront to Spanish nationalists, and its continuation in the hands of a historic foe a reminder of the loss of Spain’s once great power status. A further driver for Spain in its quest is the perception that Britain has breached the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Article X states that if ❝the Crown of Great Britain (decides to) grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others❞. When the UK offered the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to determine their own future by referendum in 1967, it was (according to Spain’s interpretation) reneging on its 1713 agreement to allow the Spanish government the “first right of refusal” if Britain were to renounce its own claim to the enclave. Furthermore, Spain contends that Britain’s expansion of its territory in Gibraltar on land and sea also contravenes the Treaty[24].

Aside from these matters, the status quo in Gibraltar represents financial disadvantages for Spain, obstacles that regime change in the enclave could potentially provide a windfall for Madrid, eg, Gibraltar’s long-time role as a “smuggler’s paradise” (principally narcotics), which as Spain expert Gareth Stockey of Nottingham University states, continues to be “a drain on Spanish resources”. Similarly, Spain have sought to draw international attention to Gibraltar and its reputation as a tax haven (OECD “Grey List” of countries lacking fiscal transparency). Low-taxing Gibraltar has had negative spin-offs for its Hispanic neighbour’s revenues both in the collection of taxes for individual citizens and for companies. Madrid has tried to turn the spotlight on to the Rock’s company tax dodges … Gibraltar has had over 30,000 registered businesses (roughly parity with the territory’s population!) and only a 10% corporate tax rate (until 2011 it charged no company taxes for many businesses), compared to a 30% tax in Spain[25].

❈ there are three other minor Spanish territories in North Africa, which together with Ceuta and Melilla are known collectively as Plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”)
⊛ an even more disturbing prospect for Gibraltarians is the closure altogether of the border – many of them are old enough to recall the closure by President Franco in 1969, a blockade that ensued until 1982
¤ the 1967 referendum asking if the Gibraltarians were in favour of replacing British sovereignty with Spanish, returned a resounding 99.64% ‘no’ vote; the 2002 referendum with the question rephrased as “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” again definitively said ‘no’, 98.97%
✥ ie, in this instance the UK’s insistence on self-determination for the enclave
✜ especially when you take into account the total lack of an irredentist impulse from within the Gibraltar community

[1] ‘Gibraltar: 96% vote to stay in EU’, Euobserver, 24-Jun-2016, www Euobserver.com
[2] B Reyes, ‘EU parliament hears contrasting views on Gibraltar and Brexit’, Gibraltar Chronicle, 31-Jan-2017, www.chronicle.gi
[3] V Barford, ‘What are the Competing Claims over Gibraltar?’, BBC News Magazine, 12-Aug-2013, www.bbc.com
[4] B Hague, ‘Gibraltar caught between a rock and a hard place after UK’s Brexit Vote’, ABC News, 13-Oct-2016, www.abc.net.au
[5] ‘Gibraltar profile – Timeline’, BBC News, 16-Mar-2015, www.bbc.com
[6] R Booth, Gibraltar frontier conflict causing frustration for locals’, The Guardian,
[7] Barford, loc.cit.
[8] R Faith, ‘Spanish-UK Dispute over Gibraltar Flares Up Again after Warning Shot Incident with US Nuclear Sub’, Vice News, 10-May-2016, www.news.vice.com.
[9] Barford, op.cit.
[10] R Aldrich & J Connell, The Last Colonies (1998)
[11] Barford, op.cit.. The tiny Balearic island Minorca also fell to Britain in the wash-up of the Treaty of Utrecht – though unlike Gibraltar it was returned to Spain via the Treaty of Amiens (1802)
[12] ibid.
[13] Morocco takes the view also that Spain’s determination to pursue its claim to Gibraltar adds substance to Morocco’s argument in respect of the Plazas, G O’Reilly & JG O’Reilly, Ceuta and the Spanish Sovereign Territories: Spanish and Moroccan Claims, (1994). This uncomfortable comparison was not lost on King Juan Carlos either – documents declassified in 2014 reveal that the Spanish monarch conceded to the British ambassador in 1982 that Spain was reluctant to push too hard on Gibraltar for fear of encouraging Moroccan claims on its territories, F Govan (1), ‘Spain’s King Juan Carlos told Britain: “we don’t want Gibraltar back” ‘, The Telegraph (London), 06-Jan-2014, www.telegraph.co.uk
[14] O’Reilly, loc.cit.
[15] G Oduntan, ‘Africa’s border disputes are set to rise – but there are ways to stop them’, The Conversation, 14-Jul-2015, www.theconversation.com
[16] F Govan (2), ‘The Battle over Ceuta, Spain’s African Gibraltar’, The Telegraph (London), 10-Aug-2013, www.telegraph.co.uk
[17] ‘International Court of Justice – Morocco/Spain’, (Rumun: Rutgers Model UN), www.idia.net
[18] S Bennis, ‘Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain’s unequal sovereignty disputes’, The New Arab, 28-Jun-2016, www.alaraby.co.uk
[19] N Davies, ‘Melilla: Europe’s dirty secret’, The Guardian, 17-Apr-2010, www.theguardian.com.
[20] ‘Migrants storm border fence in Spanish enclave of Ceuta’, BBC News, 01-Jan-2017, www.bbc.co.uk
[21] though it was summarily repulsed, the would-be coup was seen as testing Spain’s resolve to defend Ceuta and Melilla, ‘Perejil Island’, Wikipedia, en.m.wikipedia.org
[22] Govan 2, op.cit.
[23] if the highly improbable were to happen and Spain recover its long-lost province, an interested observer might be Barcelona … the Catalans lost their autonomy in the aftermath of the Utrecht Treaty and it has been speculated that the restoration of Gilbratar might trigger a new call for Catalonian independence, ‘The Economist explains … Why is Gibraltar a British territory?’ (T.W.) The Economist, 08-Aug-2013, www.economist.com
[24] ‘Four reasons Gibraltar should be Spanish’, The Local (es), 08-Aug-2013, news@thelocal.es
[25] ibid.; L Frayer, ‘Once a Tax Haven, Gibraltar Now Says It’s Low-Tax’, (NPR Parallels), 17-Apr-2016 (broadcast), www.npr.org

Tsarist Russia in America’s Pacific Backdoor III: Hawai’i

Regional History

The story of the Russian-American Company’s (RAC) Hawai’ian ‘colony’ reads as a minor footnote in the history of Russian America. In fact, rather than amounting to a colony, the ephemeral Hawai’ian enclave might at best be described as a putative outpost. The first tentative contacts between the Russians of RAC and the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i) was in 1804 when Russian ships visited two of the islands, O’ahu and Kaua’i❈. RAC funded such circumnavigational expeditions from the early 19th century – one of its commercial aims to locate suppliers for its Russian-American settlements and markets for its manufactured goods (eg, China, Japan)[1].

Hawai’i: Fort Elizabeth
In 1807 RAC vessels began exchanging goods with the Hawaiian chieftains (animal pelts for foodstuffs and supplies). The following year RAC sent Lieutenant Hagemeister to Hawai’i to obtain salt (vital to Alaska for the preservation of both food and furs). Russian trade approaches were soon reciprocated by King Kamehameha I who had unified most of the Hawai’ian Islands under his kingdom[2]. Kamekameha exchanged correspondences with the governor of Russian Alaska at Sitka (New Archangel), Baranov, welcoming an annual trade between the two – hogs, batatas (sweet potato) and salt for otter pelts[3].

The Schaffer Fiasco – the “Hawai’ian Spectacular”
Around late 1814 early 1815 an RAC vessel was shipwrecked on Kaua’i and its company goods were seized by the island’s chieftain Kaumuali’i. Lieutenant Podushkin and George Anton Schäffer (a German surgeon in the Company’s employ) were sent to Kaua’i to recover the goods, but Schäffer, instead of following instructions, allowed himself to be embroiled in Hawai’ian politics and a plot hatched by Chief Kaumuali’i to regain power in the archipelago. Kaumuali’i and Schäffer entered into an alliance (without the approval of RAC!) – the Kaua’i king would provide 500 warriors + Schäffer would provide ships and ammunition for a military assault on King Kamekameha’s stronghold. The injudicious Schäffer embraced the quixotic notion that he was capable of paving the way for the RAC and the Russian navy to colonise Hawai’i[4].

Dr GA Schäffer
What followed was a bizarre 18-month misadventure during which Schäffer built fortifications at Waimea which he named Fort Elizabeth (Rus: Форт Елизаветы) and two smaller, earthworks forts on Kaua’i, made costly purchases of American ships without RAC authority, planted crops and failed to muster any native support for a Russian takeover of the archipelago (except for Kaumuali’i who was playing him for his own advantage) – all the while Shäffer was losing touch with reality and succumbing to delusions of grandeur (eg, naming the region of the island where the fort was, Shäfferthal). Schäffer’s faux colony finally came a cropper when Kamekameha’s influential clique of American traders ejected him from Hawai’i in 1817. Back in Sitka Baranov and RAC disavowed Schäffer’s actions and refused to pay the outstanding bills incurred by the German physician-cum-imperialist adventurer¤.



PostScript: Baranov, RAC and Russian designs on Hawai’i
Did Baranov at any stage perhaps want to go further than just establishing bilateral trade with the Hawai’ian chiefs? His written instructions to Lt Podushkin in early 1816 hint at something more imperially expansionist – Podushkin was told to secure King Kaumuali’i’s agreement to conduct trade and the construction of a Russian factory on Kaua’i, or failing that “… the whole island of Kauai should be taken in the name of our Sovereign Emperor of all the Russias and become a part of his possessions”[5]. After the War of 1812 broke out Baranov certainly sensed the chance to get a foothold in the Sandwich Islands and the lucrative sandalwood trade whilst the two combatants (Britain and the US) were likely to be distracted. Schäffer’s forcible removal from Hawai’i did not put an end to his advocacy … he continued to make grander and grander proposals to the Tsar that the islands be taken by force ASAP to safeguard all of Russian American possessions. And the delusional Schäffer was not entirely alone in running this line … after Baranov left Sitka elements of RAC continued to entertain Russia’s “Hawai’ian project” until 1821. The whole disastrous business was finally brought to a conclusion when Alexander I unequivocally expressed his disapproval of Schäffer’s scheme to integrate Hawai’i into the Russian Empire✥ (Alexander was very mindful of the necessity of not antagonising the European powers who used Hawai’i as a free port and regular trading station). Whether Russia and RAC harboured designs on Hawai’i or not, Washington was quick to react to the Russian incursion by establishing a consulate on Hawai’ian territory in 1820 – paving the way for the missionaries[6].

FN: Surprisingly, rather than disappearing without trace as you might imagine, the discredited Doctor Schäffer resurfaced in Brazil in the early 1820s, reinventing himself as an agent for Emperor Dom Pedro I securing large-scale emigration of Germans to newly independent Brazil.

❈ following upon Captain James Cook’s discovery of the Sandwich Islands in 1778 American and British traders had established close commercial ties with the Hawai’ians
¤ described by RA Pierce as “a fast-working interloper”
✥ this was not the end of Russian involvement with Hawai’i by any measure – a Russian political exile, Nikolai Sudzilovsky, was elected the first Senate president of Hawai’i in 1901 (socialist Sudzilovsky was both opposed to Hawai’i joining the US and hostile to Tsarist Russia)

[1] ‘First Russian circumnavigation – Russian Voyage’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[2] E Joesting, Kauai: The Separate Kingdom (1988)
[3] RA Pierce, Russia’s Hawaiian Adventure, 1815-1817, (1965)
[4] H Schwartz, ‘Fort Ross California – A Historical Synopsis’, Fort Ross Conservancy, (IP Unit, Dept of Parks & Rec. California, Feb 1977)
[5] A.A.Baranov to I.A.Pudushkin, Feb. 15, 1816, cited in Pierce, op.cit.
[6] ‘Georg Anton Schäffer’, Wikipedia, http://.wikipedia.n.em.org

Tsarist Russia in America’s Pacific Backdoor II: California

Cinema, Popular Culture, Regional History

The establishment by the Russian Empire of a colony in California in the early 19th century was a corollary of the earlier North American colony in Alaska. The inherent deficiencies that surfaced in the operation of the Russian American colony convinced the Russian-American Company that it needed to find new, more propitious outposts in the region that could service Russian America’s needs.

California: Fort Ross
Zealous over-hunting of the prized sea otters by the Russian-American Company et al in Alaska’s waters led the company to seek out new, profitable hunting grounds further south. After some early fur hunting expeditions (1806-11) confirmed the presence of abundant sea otters along New Spain’s Pacific coastline, RAC chief Aleksandr Baranov authorised his assistant Ivan Kuskov to find a suitable location in Northern California and establish a Russian colony.

Fort Ross
The location chosen by the RAC to settle its new colony in 1812 – on the “New Albion” shore to the north of Bodega Bay (today in Sonoma County)❈ – was carefully selected. It was close to but outside of the border that Spain had set as its northern-most jurisdiction (San Francisco). As well as the proximity to plentiful sea otter fields, the Russian-American Company wanted its Californian base to be close enough to facilitate trade with Alta (Upper) California.

The exact spot picked by Kuskov for the settlement was the site of an Indian village called Meteni by the local, Kashaya (Kashia Pomo) tribes. After negotiating the sale of the land with the Pomo[1], Kuskov built RAC’s fortress called Fort Ross (Rus: Фopт-Pocc). The other raison d’être of the Californian colony was to provide an agricultural base for the northern settlements (Alaska had proved too harsh an environment and its climate too raw to supply sufficient quantity or variety for the nutritional needs of its settlers).

Russian stamp commemorating 200th anniversary of founding of Fort Ross
By 1814 Kuskov’s men (which included Aleut natives from Alaska) had planted the beginnings of an orchard, a solitary peach tree, later adding more trees which would eventually yield grapes, apples, cherries, pears, quinces and bergamots. This fresh fruit was to prove important in preventing outbreaks of scurvy which had dogged the early Californian colony[2].

An inhospitable neighbourhood
As things transpired, the emergence of the Russian settlement at Fort Ross did provoke the displeasure of the Las Californias authorities who responded by establishing a new mission station and presido (fort) in the vicinity to check any attempt by RAC to colonise any parts of California further south. Early trade opportunities were impeded by Madrid which forbid its Californian outposts from having commercial transactions with Fort Ross (although a healthy contraband trade did exist)[3]. With the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819) by which the US acknowledged Spain’s claim to all land south of the Oregon country border, Russia was even further squeezed out diplomatically in California¤ (and forced to renounce its own Oregon claim[4]. After Mexico gained its independence from ‘Old’ Spain in 1821 it constructed its own forts (such as the Sonoma Barracks) not far from the Russian Fortress to hem it in[5].

Other drawbacks imperiling the viability of Russia’s Fort Ross colony
Otter hunting and shipbuilding

Hostility from Hispanic California and free-spirited westward-roaming American pioneers was not the only issue the Russians at Fort Ross had to contend with. By around 1817 the Californian coastline was displaying the same tell-tale signs of rapid depletion of the much sought-after sea otters that had plagued the Northwest Pacific and turned RAC’s focus southward ten years earlier. Being closer to both the US and Mexico and within the English’s sphere of operations, the competition for pelts in Alta California was even more intense. With the southern colony’s annual otter pelt catch declining every year, RAC tried diversifying its industries. For a while shipbuilding took commercial centre stage at the colony’s port at nearby Rumyartsev Bay … in a productive six years from 1818 six major vessels were built there. Unfortunately the Rumyartsev builders used Tanbark oak, which wasn’t suitable for ocean-going vessels and to make matters worse, seasoned it improperly so that the wood progressively rotted and all the ships were unseaworthy within a few years[6].

Ranching and animal husbandry
After the wood rot disaster shipbuilding in the colony ceased and Fort Ross switched his emphasis to agriculture and the development of its animal husbandry. New ranches opened up for stock-raising, especially from the early 1830s, with some success in the production of beef and mutton. A 1841 inventory of livestock at Fort Ross (taken just prior to the colony’s demise) listed 1,700 head of cattle, 940 horses and 900 sheep … indicating some marginal success in ranching – but to put it in perspective this was far behind the herd sizes of livestock achieved by the contemporary Spanish and Mexican Californian ranchers[7].

Grain production and other agriculture
RAC’s hope was that a colony in Alta California – with its better soils and pasture lands, plentiful timber and good water supply – would be conducive to productive and consistent yields of produce, and would become the granary for the northern outposts in Alaska. Flawed agricultural methods and planning however meant that this would remain a pipe dream. The colonists failed to rotate their crops and fertilise the fields adequately for arability. The type of farming at the ‘Fortress’ was more that of private plots producing fruit and vegetables for local consumption rather than exporting. The quantities sent north were never sufficient, nor were they consistent in quality. At different periods the Russian colony had to trade its manufactured goods♦ for grain and seed from New Spain, both for the colonists’ use and to ship north to Russian America’s capital, Sitka. From the late 1820s on occasionally there were good crops, but even in the most fecund times Fort Ross could only supply a mere 1/12th of RAC’s needs for Alaska[8].

The Fort Ross colony workforce
The colonists’ division of labour comprised the Russians and Creoles in one group of occupations, guards, overseers, artisans and cooks, and the Aleut men as hunters (Aleut women and other native tribes were allotted the more menial tasks). After the sea otter haul largely disappeared, the Aleut hunters were reassigned to herding and lumbering jobs. The calibre of men Kuskov had at his disposal was problematic … the Russian men were often described as “riff-raff” – the risk of desertion was always a concern and many were suspected of criminal intent. As for the native workers, most brought from Alaska were convicts under punishment for “crimes committed against the colony” and many of the Indians were considerable unreliable[9]. The lack of an ongoing, stable workforce added to the colony’s woes. Quantity as well as quality – a sheer lack of manpower also contributed to Fort Ross’s failure.

Endgame for Krepost’ Ross
The isolated colony struggled on through the 1830s trying to make a go of it commercially, but Fort Ross’ death knoll was sounded when the Russian-American Company signed an agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1839 … HBC would henceforth supply all provisions required by RAC’s Alaskan outposts[10]. RAC, pulling the plug, tried at first to sell Fort Ross to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then to the Mexican government, but were unsuccessful in both instances. Consequently Fort Ross’s Governor Rotcher managed to sell the Fortress and all its contents (including a disused schooner in Bodega Bay) to Californian settler pioneer and businessman Johann (John) Sutter for $30,000.

ↂ ↂ ↂ ↂ ↂ

PostScript: Fort Ross – the movie!
Intriguingly in a time witnessing a latent reheating of American/Russian superpower tensions, a Russian film company made a feature film about the Fort Ross colony (released in 2014 presumably as a celebration of the Fort’s 200th anniversary two years earlier). Written by Dimitriy Poletaev, Fort Ross is billed as a historical adventure/action/fantasy movie. I’m more than a little skeptical about how historically accurate it is … though it does contain a character called “Komendant Kuskov”. Basically, the plot revolves around a “Gen Y” journalist who find himself transported back to 1814 Fort Ross, coonskin caps, muskets, otter pelts and everything – courtesy of his malfunctioning iPhone! (the fantasy bit). The time-travelling protagonist finds himself embroiled in various intrigues and adventures and the film gives a few nods to the state of contemporary US/Russian relations. A part of the external footage was filmed at Fort Ross National Park – shots of the Russian River (Slavyanka) and the surrounding countryside – though the producers used the recently renovated original Fort Ross itself as a model to re-create a full-scale replica of the fort in Belarus.

❈ about 130km northwest of San Francisco Bay
¤ A further blow to morale was that Spain, Mexico, the US and Britain never recognised the legitimacy of Russia’s Fort Ross colony … although in the case of Mexico, it was prepared to do so provided Russia recognised it in return, but the conservative Tsar’s suspicion that the new Republic was a radical regime vetoed that diplomatic breakthrough (Schwartz 1977)
♦ such as barrels, bricks, furniture, soap, etc.

[1] ‘negotiated’ for almost sweet FA according to one account – Kuskov bought the area for a small quantity of clothing, bedding and tools, ‘History of the Russian Settlement at Fort Ross, California’, www.parks.sonoma.net/ross
[2] ‘Historic Orchard at Fort Ross’, Fort Ross Conservancy,www.fortross.org
[3] H Schwartz, ‘Fort Ross California – A Historical Synopsis’, Fort Ross Conservancy‘, (Interpretive Planning Unit, Dept of Parks & Rec, Calif. Feb 1977), http://fortross.org/lib.html
[4] ibid.
[5] ‘History of the Russian Settlement’, Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.n.em.org
[6] ibid.; Schwartz, loc.cit.
[7] Schwartz, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.
[9] AA Istomin, ‘Indians at the Ross Settlement – According to the censuses by Kuskov in 1820 and 1821’, (Fort Ross Interpretive Association, Jul 1992), www.fortross.org
[10] ‘Yukon/Alaska Chronology’, Explore North – An Explorer’s Guide to the North, www.explorenorth.com

Tsarist Russia in America’s Pacific Backdoor I: Alaska

Regional History

All school children in the United States learn the story of America’s acquisition of Alaska. In 1867 Tsarist Russia sold its vast Alaskan territory to the US for $7.2 million in gold bullion. It is together with the Louisiana Purchase the two great stories of mega-scale real estate acquisition in US history. The United States’ motives for acquiring Alaska at that time have been fairly well canvassed[1]. But less well-known is Russia’s role in Alaska and the North Pacific littoral prior to 1867 and the reasons for its eventual and permanent withdrawal from the region.

Russia’s move into Alaska was a natural outgrowth of the Romanov Empire’s expanding imperial reach eastwards. It was also driven by the need to find a new source of fur-bearing mammals❈. Siberia and the Russian Far East (Tartaria Oriental) had become rapidly depleted in stock and Imperial Russia was intent on exploring the lands and islands further east and, among other things, getting a stranglehold on the trade in pelts there[2].

Soon after Russian explorers first sighted the Alaskan shoreline in 1741, Russian hunters and fur traders (the promyshlenniki) began to move into the Aleutian Islands, a preliminary step to further expansion into the Gulf of Alaska. An outpost was established at Unalaska, from here the Russian traders encroached on Alaskan territory in a piecemeal fashion. Using the same strategy employed against the Siberian tribes earlier, the promyshlenniki coerced the indigenous Aleuts into hunting sea otters for them. The missionary zeal of Russian Orhodox priests, who were part of the colonial community in the outposts, played a role in the ‘pacification’ of the Alaskan native populations[3]. Contact with the Russians was also devastating to the health of indigenous Americans: it is estimated that 80% or more of Alaskan peoples were wiped out as a result of infectious diseases brought by the Europeans[4].

The Russian-American Company
A Russian foothold was established in 1784 on the peninsula, with the name “the Three Saints Bay Colony” on Kodiak Island. The settlement’s founder, powerful merchant Grigory Shelekhov used brutal and excessive force against native tribes that rebelled against his authority (eg, wholesale massacre of natives from the Alutiiq nation). But the nucleus of the Russian presence in Alaska was to be the Russian-American Company (RAC) (established in 1799). Headed by autocratic Chief Manager Aleksandr Baranov de facto governor of the Russian colony (till 1818), the Company effectively controlled all of Russia’s possessions in North America. RAC established a number of settlements including the Russian American capital, New Archangel (Novo-Arkhangel’sk), modern-day Sitka.

The Northern sea otter
(enhydra lutris kenyoni)
Russian over-dependence on the indigenous population
Food: the Russian colonists failed to establish self-sufficiency in food … a foul climate made for low or poor agricultural yields (not helped by the Russians’ inexperience in farming the local Tanana soil) and a lack of fresh food. This made them reliant on the local Indians for the acquisition of deer, fish, etc. The Russians also needed to trade with Hispanic California, the British in Canada and the United States for many of the foodstuffs they couldn’t grow in Alaska (wheat, barley, peas and beans, etc).
Labour shortage: the RAC labour force in Russian America was always well below requirements to make the colony thrive. Most Russian workers were not attracted to Russian America … too far from Russia, a particularly inhospitable, desolate climate, low pay, heavy work, sparse diet. The colony lacked essential infrastructure (no attendant medical doctor before the 1820s).
Unskilled providers of goods: RAC’ eye was on the prized sea otter trade (or “sea beavers” as they sometimes referred to them)✦, but the Russians themselves were not adept at pelagic hunting … the mustelid creatures proved especially elusive, without the superior hunting skills of the compliant Aleuts, RAC’s pelt haul (and therefore its profits) would have been vastly diminished.
Companionship and sex: the colony’s male to female ratio was heavily skewed in favour of men – at its nadir in 1819 there were 29 Russian men for every one Russian woman. An inevitable outcome of this was that many Russian men took indigenous mistresses, with the equally inevitable consequence of producing numerous Creole (or mestizo) offspring[5].

Tlingit resistance to Russian rule
The Russian colonists met with much stiffer resistance from the Tlingit or Kolosh Indians (southern Alaska) than it did from the eastern native tribes. The Tlingits were more war-like and equipped with firearms, and early on engaged in fierce warfare with the Russians. Unable to subjugate them like the Aleuts, the RAC resorted to an assimilation strategy, herding them in close to the reinforced New Archangel fort and engaging in barter with the Tlingit chiefs for fur skins and other, edible animals … RAC created a special ‘Kolosh’ market which allowed the Company to monopolise the trade in Alaska[6].

The Russian withdrawal from Alaska
Although RAC’s brief was to establish a network of settlements in Alaska and its chain of islands, it never managed to penetrate far into the Alaska landmass and so clearly failed to develop the territory as a whole. But this was not entirely down to the RAC and its leadership – as Oleh Gerus notes, had the Russian government taken “a more positive and imaginative approach to (the colony’s) potential”, it may be been a “viable enterprise'[7].

Deprived of adequate funding and support from Moscow, the RAC’s administrative and technological capacities were ultimately found wanting: the provisioning of the colony was way short of the mark, the Company was chronically unable to provide sufficient supplies for its personnel in Alaska … undernourished, understaffed and isolated in a raw, harsh climate, the men slowly drifted into apathy and alcoholism (at the best of times in Russia, not an atypically characteristic trait!)¤.

A trigger for the colony’s economic undoing was the over-farming of sea otters[8] – as had also occurred in Siberia. Diversification into coal-mining and other activities was tried but the lost economic return from otter pelts couldn’t be offset[9]. The Russian colony was also subject to fierce competition from American and British traders. By the 1860s RAC’s share value on the Russian Stock Exchange had plummeted and the quasi-government commercial venture was facing bankruptcy. The cost of transportation to and from the colony was an expensive burden for the Russian economy. Overall, from the 1820s, the colony’s expenses were rising at a much higher rate that its revenue[10].

Thus, clear economic reasons for the ultimate unravelling of Russkaya Amerika can be identified, and the $7,200,000 in gold sale price would have eased some of the burden on Moscow’s treasury, but James Gibson downplays the economic factor in the cession of the territory by Russia. He concludes that Russia’s decision was prompted more by political and geo-strategic considerations. The reversals suffered by Russia in the Crimean War, Gibson argues, exposed the vulnerability of Russian America to naval attack by the Allies (GB and France). The inability to match the might of the British Navy in Pacific waters helped convince Moscow that Alaska was a liability and a threat to its security in the event of new conflicts. Gibson continues, Russia’s over-stretched navy was not only unable to defend its Pacific colony from enemy warships, but even from the incursions of ‘freewheeling’ Yankee traders who roamed around the North Pacific trafficking in various goods and products in disregard of Russian authority[11].

Eastern Siberian Governor Muruvyov on the RUB5,000 bank-note
If Russian America was not viable as a base for Russian activities in the Pacific and eastern Asia, somewhere else needed to be found. The problem was solved by the Governor-General of Eastern Siberian Nikolay Muruvyov. Muruvyov’s plan was to refocus Russia’s Pacific Destiny on Asia – rather than North America. Whilst China was racked by internal strife (the Taiping Rebellion), Muruvyov took the opportunity to expand Russia’s imperial territory between the Amur and the Ussuri rivers. This waterway foothold gave Russia access to the Pacific at the Sea of Japan and led to the establishment in 1860 of the strategically important port of Vladivostok which became home to the Russian Pacific fleet[12].

PostScript: The Alaska Sale – why sell to the US and not Britain?
Britain already possessed a territory contiguous with Russian Alaska, British Columbia (including at that time the Yukon), so it made geographic sense for Britain to take over and control the northwestern chunk of the continent回. The Russian government’s decision was a political calculation, post-Crimea Britain was still very much Russia’s number one enemy, whereas with the US, if not exactly a friendly power, it had neutral relations. Moscow reasoned that with Alaska American, England’s British Columbia colony, ‘bookended’ by the US, would be under pressure. It was widely thought that given the US’s recent record of territorial aggression on its borders, it would be inevitable that British Columbia would eventually fall into its hands. The positive spin-off for Russian imperial and commercial aspirations in the Pacific would be Britain’s loss of its naval base on Vancouver Island[13].

❈ much in demand domestically in the Empire as Russia’s northern cold climate necessitated rugging up most of the time
✦ also much in demand by the Russians as a commodity to trade was walrus ivory
¤ the perception of the typical Russian on the ground was that Russian America was more remote and desolate than even Siberia! (JR Gibson 4)
回 as it transpired Britain for its part expressed little interest in buying Alaska

[1] enlarging the American dominion in the name of republicanism (Secretary of State Seward’s aggrandising ambitions which included eyeing off British Columbia and thus strategically flanking British Canada on its west); expanding the US base of its international commerce to Japan and China; knowledge of potential gold deposits in the territory, etc, JR Gibson (1), ‘The Sale of Russian America to the United States’, (PDF, 1983), www.eprints.lib.hokudai.ac.jp
[2] As well as domestic consumption, furs were also important to Russia’s export market. At one point furs were used as a monetary unit in Siberia due to a shortage of roubles, S Crawford Isto, The Fur Farms of Alaska: Two Centuries of History and a Forgotten Stampede, (2012)
[3] punitive measures against the Indians included displays of the superior technology of their weaponry, holding of family members as hostages, wholesale destruction of villages, reducing the Aleuts and after them the Kodiak tribes to the status of serfs, RM Carpenter, “Times Are Altered with Us”: American Indians from the First Contact to the New Republic, (2015); the priests were very successful in converting Aleuts and other indigenous Indians, ‘Russian Orthodox’, www.alaskaweb.org
[4] JR Gibson (2), ‘Russian Dependance on the Natives of Alaska’, in SW Haycocks & M Childers Mangusso, An Alaskan Anthology: Interpreting the Past (2011)
[5] ibid.
[6] although a smallpox epidemic in 1836 seriously weakened the Tlingits’ power, ibid; AV Grinev, The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867, (2005)
[7] OW Gerus, ‘The Russian Withdrawal from Alaska: The Decision to Sell’, Revista de Historia de América, Nos 75/76. (Jan-Dec 1973)
[8] the promyshlenniki also coveted the furs of other creatures (the largest quantities of animal skins exported by RAC came from sea otters, beavers, land otters, Polar foxes, fur seals and sables), but it was the sea otters that fetched the highest prices – the otter pelt market was highly prized in Canton, China, JR Gibson (3), ‘Russian America in 1833. The Survey of Kirill Khlebnikov’, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 63(1), Jan 1972
[9] at its peak RAC was transporting one million roubles’ worth of furs back to Russia annually, ibid.
[10] JR Gibson (4), ‘Imperial Russia in Frontier America: The Changing Geography of Supply in Russian America, 1784-1867 (1976); Gibson (3), loc.cit.
[11] Gibson (1), op.cit.
[12] ibid.
[13] Britain countered this threat by forming the Canadian Confederation three months after the Purchase, and admitting British Columbia to it in 1871, RE Neunherz, ‘ “Hemmed In”. Reactions in British Columbia to the Purchase of Russian America’, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 80(3), Jul 1989

Back to the Future: 1946 – a Vintage Year for Presidents

Futurism, National politics, Political History

Donald John Trump, TRUMP – the name most uttered or tweeted about in the world during the last twelve months, was born in 1946. Three of the last four US presidents in fact were born in 1946 … it was a good year for future president procreation!

In chronological order they are Bill Clinton (elected 1992) George W Bush (elected 2000) and Donald Trump (elected 2016)❈. Wedged between these last two septuagenarians is the almost ‘obscenely’ young (by comparison) Barack Obama (born 1961).

In the post-war period the sequence of resident presidents of the White House has gone Truman (born 1880s), Eisenhower (born 1890s), Kennedy (born 1910s), Johnson (born 1900s), Nixon then Ford (1910s again), Carter (1920s), Reagan (1910s again), Bush I (1920s again), Clinton then Bush II (1940s), Obama (1960’s) and back to the 1940s for the present incumbent, “The Donald”.

The 1930s – a decennium devoid of presidential origins
No president has ever been born in the 1930s … barring some extraordinary event (President Trump was an extraordinary event!) it is probably safe to say that there will be no US commander-in-chief born in the 1930s⊛. Putting aside the thorny notion of impeachment for a moment, the next president will be elected in November 2020 … it is highly, highly improbable that America (unlike say India) will unearth from obscurity some 80-plus-year-old (I was going to say ‘politician’ but of course you no longer need to be a politician to become president of the United States, so maybe, media celebrity, ex-B-grade film actor, etc) who gets him or herself elected to the Oval Office.

All this means that the 1930s (together with the equally un-fecund 1810s) are destined to be the only decades in the history of the Republic without a (future) presidential birth. Every decades between the 1730s (when the first two presidents Washington and Adams I were born) and the 1800s witnessed the birth of one or more American presidents. The same goes for the decades from the 1820s to the 1870s inclusive.


❈ Three presidents born in the same year: another presidential oddity is the frequency of left-handers among the recent incumbents – Obama, Clinton, George HW Bush, Reagan … that’s four of the last six prezs having been of a sinistral bent! Yes mollydookers of the world, you too can become president
⊛ Not to overlook that also no president has been born in the 1950s either, thus far … but during the last presidential election season, Trump turned 70, Hillary Rodham Clinton turned 69 and Bernie Sanders 75, so there’s still plenty of time for the 1950’s crop of White House wannabes to elbow their way to the top!

Fountainhead of the Fermented Grape: Wine’s Ancient Origins

Archaeology, Pre-history, Regional History, Social History

Where did the story of wine and wine-making begin? As with many things whose beginnings are shrouded in the mystery of ancient and even pre-historic times, it is very hard to pinpoint a one hundred percent, definitive answer to this question. The evidence for when and where humans might have first cultivated Vitis vinifera va. sylvestris (the wild grape fruit)❈ lies in the realm of archaeology.

Today’s Transcaucasian republics – physical map
The timeline for the first experiments with wine-making, thanks to a wealth of archaeological evidence, puts it in the pre-recorded history stage of humanity, more precisely in the Neolithic Era (in Eurasia this was, very roughly, from 9,000 to 4,000 BCE). The consensus view has traditionally tended to be that the rudiments of viticulture can be located in the area around Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea.

The Fertile Crescent: home of Ur-winemakers
Transcaucasia (the Caucasus), that relatively narrow strip of multi-ethnic lands separating the Black Sea from the Caspian, stretching south to include the northern parts of Turkey and Iran, has perhaps the best claim to the honour. Archaeologists have discovered early signs of wine activity and implements in southern Georgia, north-western Azerbaijan, and northern Armenia, suggesting that “Stone Age people took advantage of a temperate climate and availability of wild fruit species to experiment with cultivating grapes”[1].

Wine expert Caroline Gilby identifies three basic pre-conditions for successful wine-making in the Neolithic era, (i) a stable human population settled in the one place for some time, (ii) invention of pottery/clay vessels for storage✜, and (iii) existence of wild grapevines (plus a self-fertile plant to cross-pollinate with). Transcaucasia fits the bill – plant cultivation for most of the major agricultural crops began in the Middle East region around 10,000 years ago. Within the greater Caucasus, Georgia for which wine is a national obsession has 500 distinct varieties of the vine, whilst Turkey and Armenia have around 600 and 200 respectively[2].

Not to be outdone, Iran itself has a claim worthy of contention for longevity of vine production. In the mid 1990’s evidence of mey (Persian: wine), dating to about 5,400 BCE, was found in excavated jars at the Hajji Firuz Tepe site in the Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran. What was especially significant about this location was that it also contained evidence of the preservation of wine (in the form of a resin from the local terebinth tree)[3].

Armenia: site of oldest known vineyard
In recent years archaeologists discovered and excavated the Areni-1 Cave – the earliest known site of wine production (pre-historic “wine-making on an industrial scale” not hitherto unearthed)[4]. Items found at the vineyard at Vayots Dzor included a wine-press, fermentation vats, jars and cups[5]. The clay receptacles with their wine traces were radiocarbon-dated after being chemical analysed at between 4100 BCE and 4000 BCE. A side-effect of the recent vinaceous archaeological discoveries has been squabbling among the various Transcasusian states as to who were the first wine-makers[6].

Egyptian winery, 2nd millennium BCE
Mediterranean wine culture
Transcaucasian wine production and consumption clearly predates those from the Mediterranean region. Egypt is closest in time to the northern Eurasian area, its oldest traces of wine (yrp or irep), found inside the Tomb of the Scorpion King (Abydos, Upper Egypt), is about 5,000-years-old. Interestingly they were found to be spiked with natural medicines (effectively herbal wine). These medicinal additives were later adopted by Greek and Roman winemakers who followed the Egyptian practice[7]. The ancient Egyptians, who had a preference for red wine, were the first to depict wine and wine-making in their hieroglyphics.

Roman wine jars – great & small
In Grecian Macedonia fragments of crockery and assorted pottery with wine traces have been found dating back to around 4,500 BCE. Evidence of wine cultivation – dating from the mid-3rd century BCE – was also found on the Greek island of Crete. For ancient Romans wine was the drink de jour … initially Roman attempts at the craft of wine-making were derivative of the established Greek (and Etruscan) methods of viticulture but the Romans later drew on the ample supply of indigenous vines in southern Italy to produce their own varieties. With the ever widening reach of Roman imperial expansion – through war, trade and settlements – the Romans spread wine consumption and viticulture to the countries and regions it conquered (especially France, Germany, Spain and Portugal)[8].

Vino in eastern Asia: China’s early wine origins
In the mid 2000s China emerged as a candidate for the world’s earliest consumers of wine. An international team of archaeologists (Chinese, American and German) dug up an early Neolithic village (Jiahu) in Henan Province, unearthing pottery with traces of “wine-like drinks”(sic) (a fermented mixture comprising rice, honey and hawthorn fruit and grape). The beverage has been dated somewhere between the year 7,000 BCE and 5,500-6,000 BCE[9].

Whether China has the bragging rights to being the earliest consumer of wine (and perhaps the first centre of wine production), or Transcaucus does, one point remains clear: the interest and active, on-going work of archaeologists in this field, ensures that ownership of the title has a fluidity to it. Yet more candidates for the world’s earliest pioneers of viticulture are likely to be unearthed in the future.

❈ the European grape-vine common to western Eurasia – between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas
✜ ceramic containers were invented around 20,000 years ago

[1] T de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, (2010). For instance, discoveries in the 1960s of domesticated grape pips in N/W Azerbaijan have been dated at around 6,000 BCE; in Shulaveri, Georgia, University of Pennsylvania academic Patrick McGovern found wine residues in the shards of 8,000-year-old ceramic vessels, A Friedrich, ‘Georgia’s Vintners Thrist for the Past’, The Washington Post, 22-Feb-2004
[2] C Gilby, ‘The Birthplace of Wine?’, Decanter, (Jan. 2012), www.winesofturkey.org. The domesticated form of the grape has hermaphrodite flowers which self-pollinate, KK Hurst, ‘Wine and its Origins – The Archaeology and History of Wine Making’, (About Education), www.archaeology.about.com
[3] ibid.; M Berkowitz, ‘World’s Earliest Wine’, (Newsbriefs) Archaeology Archive, 49(5) Sep/Oct 1996, www.archaeologicalarchive.org/9609/newsbriefs/charlesfort.html
[4] Dig project co-director Boris Gasparyan, cited in Gilroy, op.cit.
[5] ‘History of Wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] Gilroy, loc.cit.
[7] the Scorpion I wine did not emanate from a local production point, but was imported to the Nile from the Levant, B Handwerk, ‘Scorpion King’s Wines — Egypt’s Oldest — Spiked with Meds’, National Geographic News, 13-Apr-2009, www.news.nationalgeographic.com; J Butler & R Heskett,
Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, (2012)
[8] ‘Ancient Rome and wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[9] ‘Chinese People were Drinking Wine 9,000 Years Ago’, (Phys Org) 19-Dec-2004, www.phys.org