The Ship

The first Russian voyages of exploration to Alaska departed from the eastern coast of Siberia. Geographically, this was the shortest distance between north-eastern frontiers of the Russian Empire and the North American continent. Logistically, this part of the country lacked infrastructure and resources necessary for organizing such voyages and supplying newly founded colonies. In response to the need for stronger connections between European Russia and Alaska, the management of the newly founded Russian-American Company proposed to outfit an Alaskan expedition from the country’s European capital of St. Petersburg. The expedition had a double purpose: along with delivering necessary supplies to the Company’s outposts in Alaska, it was to become Russia’s first round-the world voyage of exploration. The ambitious plan to promote Russia as a major maritime power was supported and partially sponsored by the Russian Crown. There was, however, one problem: Russia’s shipyards lacked ships suitable for such an undertaking. To solve this issue, the Russian-American Company sent a young Russian officer Yuri Lisiansky to look for the appropriate vessels in Europe. The search took Lisianski to London, where in February of 1803 he purchased two ships: the 372 ton frigate Thames and the 430 ton Leander. Once in Russia, the Thames, originally named after the main river in London, was renamed Neva, in honor of St. Petersburg’s major waterway, while the Leander became Nadezhda (Hope).

The Thames/Neva was originally constructed in 1800 at the King and Queen Docks in Rotherhithe, London. The builder was Peter Everitt Mestaer, a wealthy and prominent shipbuilder of Dutch descent who produced a number of well-known vessels for the East India Company. The London Register of shipping, preserved at the British National Archives, and the Lloyds Register describes it as ship-rigged square-sterned frigate or sloop-of-war with a single or 1.5 deck. The vessel was initially unsheathed, with three masts and a 16 foot draft when fully loaded. She had an “extreme length” of 110.5 feet and an “extreme breadth” of 28 feet, with a height between decks of 5 feet, 8 inches. The ship’s last British owner Robert Taylor was, among other things, involved in the London slave trade of the late 18th century. In preparation for her round-the-world voyage, the ship was sheathed in copper to repel wood-boring marine organisms. The Neva carried 14 cannons and a crew of 50 professional sailors. The arrival of ships to St. Petersburg was reported in local newspapers, and the Emperor Alexander I himself inspected the Neva and Nadezhda prior to their departure to Alaska.

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