How the Cossacks colonized Africa. New Moscow in Somalia

He was an adventurer and self-proclaimed ataman, but the Russian press called him "the new Columbus". Was Nikolai Ashinov's Abyssinian adventure intended to annex a country of "black Christians" to the "domain of the white tsar"?

When we talk about the colonial conquests of the Russian Empire, what usually comes to mind is the Cossack Yermak and the conquest of Siberia or the generals' expeditions to the steppes of Central Asia. Someone will also cite Russian settlements in California or Alaska. Only a few people know about the idea of establishing a Russian colony in what is now... Papua New Guinea.

The so-called "Dark Continent" is almost never mentioned. Yet at the end of the 19th century, the subjects of Tsar Alexander III appeared in the Horn of Africa to establish "New Moscow" -- the first Russian colony on the continent.

We will build houses, a church and a monastery

This story is as colorful as its main character. It would be fair to say that the "New Moscow" venture and the attempt to form an alliance with Abyssinia originated as the adventurous brainchild of Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov, a man whose colorful life was full of secrets and contradictions. Even the times and places of his birth and death are uncertain. Most likely, he was born in Tsaritsyn or Penza in 1856 or 1857, and died in 1902, either in his hometown or at the estate of his wife, a wealthy Ukrainian landowner from somewhere near Chernihiv.

He was certainly not born a Cossack. According to one version, he came from a middle-class family from Tsaritsyn. Yet another, suggests he came from serfs in the Penza Governorate. It is certain that he did not even finish high school and that he left home at the age of 17. He ended up in the Caucasus, where he joined the Cossacks. He took part in military and trade campaigns in Turkey and Persia. In 1883, he presented a plan to create a network of Cossack stations in the Sukhumi region on the Black Sea. The project found support in influential Slavophile circles, but ultimately ended in failure.

After the defeat in the Caucasus, Ashinov again went to Turkey. It was there, in Constantinople, that Circassians returning from Egypt told him about a country of "black Christians" far to the south -- Abyssinia. This was just what his adventurous nature needed! Immediately, he set sail for Egypt, from where, four months later in 1885, he proceeded to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea (in what is now Eritrea). He traveled under the auspices of several Russian trade organizations and with the support of General Count Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatiev, Russia's former ambassador to Constantinople.

In Massawa, Nikolai Ashinov supposedly met with Osman Digna, the Mahdi's best known military commander during the Mahdist War in Sudan. Did he act as an intermediary in an attempt to establish relations between the Mahdi and the Tsar? Considering the achievements of the self-proclaimed ataman, it is possible, especially given that he returned to Russia bearing gifts from the leader of the Sudanese rebellion.

But during his trip to Africa, his contacts in Abyssinia and with the then negus ("king" in the Ethiopian Semitic languages) Yohannes IV (1871-1889), showed how concerned the latter was about British and Italian plans for his country. In this regard, unfortunately, we must rely on speculations and fragmentary reports in the Russian press, as well as later published accounts of Ashinov's and his comrades' -- questionable -- version of events. From Massawa, Ashinov moved inland, through Asmara, Axum and Adua, to the court of the negus. Apparently, despite never having been designated with such title or powers, Ashimov presented himself as a representative of Tsar Alexander III. The talks were to concern the political and religious rapprochement of the two countries. Nikolai Ashinov, on behalf of the Russian government, promised comprehensive support and assistance. Yohannes IV was to insist on the supply of large quantities of weapons from Russia as well as the help of Russian officers in modernizing the Abyssinian army. In return, Ashinov asked for the opportunity to establish a port, which would be an important stop-off point for shipping navigating from the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, to the Pacific. (Well over a hundred years later, Russia was to conclude a similar agreement with Sudan).

In 1886, Ashinov returned to Russia and, using his connections with the influential publisher and journalist Mikhail Katkov, began to bombard state institutions with his plans to establish a Russian trading post on the African coast of the Red Sea. Considered one of the founders of modern Russian nationalism, Katkov was the publisher of the very popular newspaper "Moskovskie Vedomosti" and enjoyed great favor at the court of the conservative Alexander III. The journalist added an ideological veneer to Ashinov's vision -- Russia, the Third Rome, had a historic mission: to spread the light of goodness and truth throughout the world. A case in point was Africa, where European colonizers were trying to take over the last independent state, Orthodox Abyssinia.

Ashinov's plan found favor among Slavophiles and extreme conservatives. His supporters included the governor of Nizhny Novgorod Nikolai Baranov, Minister of Internal Affairs Dmitry Tolstoy, Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Minister of the Navy Ivan Shestakov and many other dignitaries. The concept of shifting the focus from the Balkans to Africa appealed to many Slavophiles who were becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of Russian expansion south toward the Bosphorus. Moscow was also concerned about British control of the Suez Canal (hence the lobbying for the 1888 Suez Canal Convention).

Accompanied by a contingent of Cossacks and his wife Sophia (an "intelligent, energetic, educated and extremely kind woman" according to contemporary accounts, she came from the well known Ukrainian Khanenko family), Ashinov set off from Constantinople in February 1888 aboard the ship "Kostroma". The objective, no longer Massawa, lay several hundred kilometers further south, in the Gulf of Tadjoura, an arm of the Gulf of Aden. Now modern Djibouti, it was then called French Somalia (by 1862, France had occupied the port of Obock in the Gulf of Tadjoura, and was set on expanding its influence among the Somali tribes).

On disembarking at the small settlement of Tadjoura, the ataman gave a short speech: "Here, on this deserted shore, the city of New Moscow will be built. In time, we will build here houses, a church, a monastery." However, a mere two weeks later, Ashinov was setting off back to his homeland. Negus Yohannes IV had sent two clergy to Tadjoura, requesting that Ashinov take them to Russia to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Russian Christianity and to assist them in an appeal to the tsar for help for Abyssinia. Leaving six Cossacks in a temporary camp in the Gulf of Tadjoura, Nikolai Ashinov acceded to the emperor's wish since it fitted in with his own hopes to gain more support in Russia for his own project, which was to return to Africa with a larger number of colonists.

Expedition under the sign of the cross

The guests from Abyssinia, with Ashinov escorting them, were received by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the administrator of the Russian Orthodox Church. An influential advisor to Alexander III, Pobedonostsev wrote to the tsar, noting that Abyssinia "had long been part of Eastern Christianity" and "had sympathy for Russia", and suggesting that the ruler should personally meet Ashinov and the Ethiopians. His letter to Alexander also contained the shrewd observation: "As for Ashinov, he is of course an adventurer, but under the present circumstances the only Russian person who has penetrated into Abyssinia. It would be worth at least seriously questioning him to hear, in his own words, about the venture he has already initiated on the shores of the Red Sea. Everything indicates that it may be of great importance to us. In such endeavors, the most convenient tools are thugs like Ashinov."
An article from the French daily "Le Progrès Illustré" about Ashinov's expedition. Photo: Wikimedia
Alexander III granted an audience to Ashinov. Around the same time, the Tsar received a project that drew him even further into his plans. The proposal came from the governor-general of Nizhny Novgorod and an enthusiastic supporter of the adventurer. Nikolai Baranov called on the tsar to support the creation of the Russian-African Company, following the example of the colonial ventures of other European powers.

Ashinov presented a number of arguments in favor of Russian involvement in the Horn of Africa. First, a Russian presence on the Suez route would pose a threat to Britain. Second, the advantageous position at the mouth of the Red Sea could be used as a bargaining point to promote Russian interests in the Bosphorus. Finally, the Russian port in the Gulf of Tadjoura would provide a starting point from which contacts with Christian Abyssinia could be developed. Russia could strengthen it and rely on this country to oppose the British.

     However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opposed the African "adventure". The head of imperial diplomacy, Nikolai de Giers (son-in-law of the influential politician Alexander Gorchakov) and his men were concerned that the European powers might react unfavorably to Ashinov's plans. So the Chief Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, Pobedonostsev, figured out how to minimize the risk. Ashinov's expedition was given a religious dimension. Metropolitan Isidore blessed the project and ordered that a priest be designated who would officially lead the mission.

The choice fell on Father Paissi. The clergyman, who came from the Orenburg Cossacks, had taken part in military campaigns in Central Asia in the years 1840-62, and had then spent many years in a monastery on Mount Athos. Apparently, he was familiar with oriental languages. The official goal of the expedition was to reach Abyssinia and strengthen religious relations with Ethiopian Christians.

Despite the warnings of Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Alexander III, clearly fascinated by the prospects of initiating expansion in Africa, was more inclined to the heed the position of the "hawks" in trade and church circles. After defeat in the Crimean War, the government of the Russian Empire increasingly promoted its interests in the Middle East. The government began to use Slavophile organizations such as the Slavic Society and the Palestinian Society for purely political purposes. Religion increasingly served as a cover for the Russian state's foreign policy maneuvers. 

For his part, Alexander III, albeit unofficially, made it clear that there should be financial backing to help organize Ashinov's expedition to Africa. The emperor did not want to spoil relations with Italy and France, which claimed the territories of modern Eritrea and Djibouti. The Palestinian Society, led by the Tsar's Slavophile brother, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, raised funds that enabled Ashinov to set out for Africa again.

However, it was evident from the onset that the aim was about strategic, not religious, interests. The Naval Archives preserved an order to the commander of the gunboat "Manchurian" from November 11, 1888, directing him to carefully examine the Gulf of Tadjoura and report to the Ministry of the Russian Navy whether "it is a reliable shelter for ships and to what extent it is inaccessible to the enemy." Matters became complicated when Admiral Shestakov died ten days later and Admiral Vasily Chikhachov became the new Minister of the Navy. He rescinded his predecessor's promise to Ashinov that the gunboat "Manchurian" would escort the expedition to Africa. Faced with this, Ashinov had to go to Odessa in October to charter a vessel that would transport the expedition.

The steamer "Kornilov" sailed to Alexandria on December 10, 1888. How many brave men sailed with Ashinov? The information is contradictory. Most often, the given number is 150, although the number 175 also appears. In the notes of one of the expedition participants we read that it included a religious mission of 40 people, as well as a military unit of 150 people. In addition to the so-called free Cossacks on board, there were residents of Odessa, several Ossetians, several Terek Cossacks, three St. Petersburgers and two Kharkovians.

Who were they? A dozen or so intellectuals, as well as a carpenter, a builder, a blacksmith, a locksmith, a gardener and former soldiers with their wives and children. The volunteers were divided into six units commanded by former military personnel. In Alexandria, they switched from the "Kornilov" to the Russian ship "Lazarev". In Port Said, Ashinov chartered the Austrian "Amphitrite", and this was the vessel that delivered the expedition to its destination. On January 6, 1889, they entered the Gulf of Tadjoura.

Get that bastard out of there…

The expedition met with the Cossacks whom Ashinov had left behind during his previous visit. They also met with the Abyssinian clergy who had been awaiting the arrival of the colonists. According to the official version of events, the travelers from Russia then planned to go to Abyssinia. The formal ruler of these lands was Sultan Mohammed Sabeh, with whom Ashinov had established friendly relations during his previous visit. The Russians concluded an agreement with Sabeh and with Mohammed Leita, the chief of the local Afar tribe, that allowed them to occupy the abandoned former Turkish-Egyptian fort of Sagallo, some 40 km south-west of Tadjoura.

On January 14, 1889, the Russians took over the fort and raised the Russian flag above it. Ashinov announced the establishment of a settlement called "New Moscow", and the lands lying 100 versts (one verst equaled 1,066 m) along the sea and 50 versts inland were declared Russian. The colonists began to establish gardens and orchards (planting seedlings and seeds brought from their homeland) and they built houses. Soon a merchant ship was to arrive from Russia with supplies of food, weapons and iron.

However, the Slavophiles supporting Ashinov showed disastrous ignorance about the functioning of European colonialism, thinking that the occupation of land in Africa by a group of Cossacks would not arouse the suspicion of other powers. Both Great Britain and Italy were openly hostile to Nikolai Ashinov's plans from the beginning. Their diplomatic representatives in Saint Petersburg repeatedly made efforts to prevent the proposed expedition, which had been widely reported in the press for a long time. The idea of arms supplies to Abyssinia seemed equally disturbing.

But it was not London and Rome that were the real threat to "New Moscow". It seemed that as long as Ashinov was willing to recognize French sovereignty in the region, its authorities were willing to leave him alone and allow him to continue. However, when Ashinov suggested to French officials that he only considered local warlord Mohammed Leita as a partner, it aroused suspicions. Especially since it became clear that the religious nature of the expedition was a cover. The French officer who arrived in Sagallo demanded that the Russians leave the fort as quickly as possible. Ashinov refused. Since France was in good relations with Russia, the local representatives of Paris did not dare to take immediate action to expel the uninvited representatives of a friendly power.

At first, Alexander III, seemed unconcerned that Ashinov might provoke the French. However, soon he was receiving news about the self-proclaimed ataman's inappropriate behavior. These were coming from his ambassador in Paris as well as from naval officers. After a series of French protests, the Tsar made a decision: "It is absolutely necessary to remove this bastard Ashinov from there as quickly as possible... He only embarrasses us and we will be ashamed of his activities."

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The Tsar instructed the chargé d'affaires in Paris to inform the French Foreign Minister that the Russian government was "absolutely not privy to Ashinov's adventure", declaring it had been "carried out on his own responsibility and at his own risk". He claimed he was "totally unaware" of the agreement Ashinov supposedly signed with the local authorities regarding Sagallo, and that if the settlement became a French protectorate, Ashinov would have to obey the laws existing there. Agreeing with de Giers' point of view, Alexander III decided a Russian warship should be sent to the Gulf of Tadjoura to arrest the adventurer.

Initially, Paris planned to deal with "New Moscow" itself, and appropriate orders were given to Admiral Orly's squadron in the Red Sea. They were canceled when it was learned that the Russians had decided to solve the problem themselves. But it was too late, the French squadron had already sailed from the port of Obock.

On Sunday, February 5, after mass in the makeshift church of St. Nicholas, the inhabitants of "New Moscow" noticed a cruiser and three gunboats in the waters opposite Sagallo. Ashinov received a letter from a messenger with an ultimatum: the Cossacks were to lay down their weapons and hand them over within an hour. Rumor has it that the ataman, who did not know French well, thought that the French wanted to go ashore to officially greet the new owners of the fort. So he sent back a messenger with greetings and an invitation to Admiral Orly, assuming no harm from a power friendly to Russia.

Instead of a friendly meeting, the artillery bombardment of Sagallo began at three in the afternoon. Several people died, including four children and two women who were crushed by the rubble. Six men were injured. French shells destroyed the gardens. The settlers fled the shore in panic. About seventy people remained in the fortress, including Ashinov himself, his wife and father Paissi. A shirt was raised over Sagallo as a white flag. Five minutes later, the French stopped firing.

Ashinov's men were taken to Obock, where there was a French trading post, two Catholic monasteries, three shops, several cafes and over a hundred French residents. Father Paissi, when asked why the Russians were on the Somali coast, replied that they were only waiting for a caravan that was to move to Abyssinia, and Ashinov was not thinking about occupying this territory at all.

The newcomers from Russia were imprisoned. In response to their protests, they were bluntly told: "Your government has allowed us to treat you like pirates." They were then loaded onto a ship and sent to Suez, where the Russian ships "Chikhachev" and "Zabiyaka" picked them up in March 1889. Ashinov was still treated as a prisoner.

From hero to zero

On reaching Sevastopol, its commandant confiscated all the expedition's documents, and Count Dmitry Tolstoy, the Minister of Internal Affairs, was ordered by the Tsar to prepare a report. Everyone tried to distance themselves from the "adventurist" Ashinov and the "illiterate monk" Paissi. Newspapers began to publish reports about the criminal past of the "adventurer", who a few months earlier had been compared to Yermak and Columbus, and whose ship, if contemporary reports are to be believed, when leaving for Africa a year earlier was saying goodbye to an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000 on the Odessa waterfront.

The Russian government portrayed Ashinov as almost a rebel and, above all, an inept adventurer. Tsar Alexander authorized the government to publish an official statement recognizing French sovereignty over Sagallo and confirming the opinion that the French had acted legally in forcing Ashinov to obey the laws of the place.

Foreign Minister de Giers accused him of allegedly wanting to foment a quarrel between France and Russia. He demanded that Ashinov be exiled to Siberia for five years. His companions were to be exiled for three years. At this juncture, the influence and money of the ataman's wife helped. Sophia Ivanovna interceded for her husband in St. Petersburg and eventually Siberia was replaced by exile to Balashov in the Saratov Oblast. By October 1889, Ashinov had received a pardon and he was allowed to go to his wife's estate. In April 1890, police supervision was removed. Apparently, Alexander III himself later received  Ashimov in Gatchina [site of the Great Gatchina Palace, one of the main residences of the Russian Imperial Family]. It was there that the ataman presented the tsar with two mysterious manuscripts from Ethiopia.

All this would confirm that Ashinov did not act in Africa on his own, but fulfilled the mission entrusted to him. Only when the venture failed did Petersburg hastily distance itself from its envoy. What happened to Ashinov later? Apparently he appeared in Paris and from there moved to London, sending letters to the Tsar in which he presented new ideas for the colonization of African lands. Legend has it that Alexander III scribbled two words on one of these letters: "notes of a madman." Either way, little is known about Ashinov's further fate. The date of his death (1902) is not certain. Even more so, the place where he died. According to one version, it was in his hometown, according to another, in his wife's estate in what is now Ukraine.

Today, one can only guess what the successful completion of Ashinov's mission and the establishment of a Russian colony in Africa might have led to. If St. Petersburg had showed more interest, perseverance and resistance to pressure from Paris, the French, who needed an alliance with Russia to serve as a counterweight to Germany, could have agreed to allocate several hundred, perhaps even thousands, of square kilometers of the then virtually uninhabited territories in French Somalia to Russian colonists.

– Grzegorz Kuczyński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Fort "Nowa Moskva" in Sagallo. Photo: Wikimedia/ Getty Images/ CC BY-SA 4.0
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