Q: Why didn’t Russia have any African colonies?
It did! Let me repeat that, Russia, or rather a group of Russians, once had a colony on the African continent. The best part? It was initially funded by the British. Unknowingly.
Now to the fascinating history.
In the first two months of 1889, a group of one hundred and fifty Cossacks occupied a village in Eastern Africa, in what is now Djibouti (but was at the time known as French Somaliland and later French territory of the Afars and Issas).
Their main aim was to found a Russian colony called “New Moscow”, which would form a launching pad for a pre-existing aim, to build relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Coptic churches. It was also secretly an experiment by the Russian government, at least part of it, to found a colony.
Three decades earlier, several Russian clergymen had proposed a plan to do something like that (the church bit, not the colony) with the land of Prester John. As you can see so far, the Russians were being very European with their colonial ambitions —adventure, religion, then the guns.
In 1885, a man called Nikolay I. Achinov visited Ethiopia. Achinov led the Brotherhood of Free Cossacks around that time, when they had also tried and failed to colonize the Black Sea coast between Novorosiisk and Batum. When he went back home after the Ethiopian visit, he outlined plans for another expedition, this time to North Eastern Africa, and told people that the Sultan had given him land to settle.
The expedition he cobbled together, which included men, women, and children, arrived in the Gulf of Tadjoura on the 6th of January 1889 after a monthslong journey.
Almost immediately, things went wrong.
A group within Achinov’s expedition set on the Danakil and stole a cow and a sheep. Achinov had to pay 60 francs, but the bigger cost was political. The Russian Ambassador in Paris, forced by the French government to explain why his countrymen were causing havoc in French territory, denounced it and distanced the empire from Achinov and his people.
This didn’t kill the expedition immediately though, as the newcomers occupied an abandoned fort in the village of Sagallo and renamed it New Moscow.
The settlement lasted less than a month, as different European powers hounded the Russians to denounce it. The Italians were especially suspicious, as they feared a potential alliance between Russia and Abyssinia, which they had colonial eyes for.
On 5th February, a single cruiser and three gunboats attacked New Moscow, leaving 6 dead (two children and three women, one of whom was pregnant) and 22 injured. Achinov and his people surrendered, the Russians disavowed them, and they were deported back to Odessa. That was the end of the short-lived colony.
The British Funded This, Unknowingly
When the first attempt at colonizing the Black Sea coast failed, Aschinov escaped to Constantinople to avoid being arrested (for misappropriating government funds). There, he heard stories of Egypt and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from British agents and Circassians.
The British agents, eager to use Achinov’s anti-government streak, hired him and his followers to smuggle weapons into Afghanistan.
Achinov though, had another plan. Once he received the advance agreed upon from the British, he snitched on the plan to the Russian Embassy and then boarded a ship to Cairo and then onward to Asmara (now the capital of Eritrea but at the time part of Abyssinia).
To be absolutely clear, although the history above makes it sound as if Achinov was acting on his own accord, he had many supporters in Russia. For example, the wealthiest industrialist in Russia at the time, in 1887 that is, gave him a large consignment of gifts for the Ethiopians. But Achinov promptly tried to sell it and lost the support of the merchant class, who would have been his best bet-second to the government itself-in launching a successful African colony.
Government support was another matter, and Achinov was clearly a genius at playing the different sides against each other. Before he made a second visit to Ethiopia in early 1888, he made sure to ask the Ethiopian emperor for emissaries to a religious festival in Russia.
The emperor, Johannes, did send emissaries but they spent months in Russia before they were invited to meet Tsar Alexander. The political problem was that other European powers, aware of Achinov’s intentions, would not be pleased by such a high-level meeting. The British, I figure, had an even more personal issue with Achinov.
Alexander met the two Ethiopian emissaries in September 1888, months after they had arrived in Russia at Achinov’s invitation. While the tsar’s own advisors had been split about the impact of such a meeting, for Achinov it was a gift. For example, his attempt to sell gifts earlier had ruined his chances with Moscovite’s merchant class, but Alexander’s meeting gave him gravitas among Nizhny Novgorod’s elite.
To win them over, he enlisted the help of the governor, who wrote about it to Alexander III, even suggesting he could go to verify Achinov’s claims, and would be willing to form a Russian African Company.
For Alexander, who considered this proposal seriously, Achinov and his Cossack’s were the perfect cat’s paw. If they failed, Russia could just blame it on them. If it succeeded, then Russia could use it as a launching pad for its own colonial ambitions. And it failed miserably.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.
Last modified: February 18, 2020