The visit of the Russian sloop Neva to Sydney in 1807: 200 years of Russian–Australian contacts

by Aleksandr Massov

2007 marks the bicentenary of the first contact between Russia and Australia. The beginning of relations between the two countries can be dated to June 1807, when the Russian Navy sloop Neva put into Sydney harbour. The vessel was under charter to the Russian-American Company and was bound for the Russian possessions in Alaska with Company cargo. Russian colonization of North America had begun at the end of the eighteenth century and was to continue until the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. The territory was administered by the private Russian-American Company, whose affairs, however, were effectively under direct government control. The main obstacle to the colonization of Alaska was the problem of maintaining stable lines of supply and of protecting Russian interests in the New World. The overland route from European Russia across Siberia was at that time extremely unreliable, so that the sea lanes remained the only means of supplying Russian America and the provisioning and security of the territories were carried out by the Imperial Navy. For this reason, Russian naval vessels regularly made the voyage from European Russia to Novo-Arkhangelsk, the centre of the Russia’s American possessions, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. For much of that time, Sydney, and latterly Hobart, were among the few ports of call for Russian sailors as they followed their course from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific; here the crews could enjoy shore leave, repairs could be carried out, and fresh supplies of water and provisions taken on. Between 1807 and 1835, fifteen different Russian vessels put in at Australian ports on seventeen separate occasions. It is therefore hardly surprising that the first Russians Australians came into contact with were seafarers, or that visits by participants in successive Russian naval expeditions constitute an entire phase in the development of Russian–Australian relations.

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