The Russian diplomatic representatives in London and the acquisition process of navigational instruments for Russian navigators at the beginning of the 19th century, by Feliks Gornischeff, Research Fellow, Estonian Maritime Museum


Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin, portrait by Orest Kiprensky (c.1816) (copyright: Public Domain).

The Russian Empire started intensive exploration at the beginning of the 19th century when Adam Johann von Krusenstern, a Russian naval officer from Estonia influenced heavily by the British navigation and exploration, carried out the first Russian circumnavigation. Many Russian naval figures had gained training with the British and had learned about the principles of British navigation and maritime trade. Therefore, it was logical for the Russian explorations at the beginning of the 19th century to acquire most of their navigational instruments in England. Krusenstern’s first Russian circumnavigation in 1803–06 set an example of the use of British instruments. Other Russian voyages, such as Vasily Golovnin’s in 1807–09 and 1817–19 (see adjacent painting), Otto von Kotzebue’s in 1815–18 and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen’s in 1819–21 used British instruments on board the ships.

My ongoing research examines the role of Russian diplomatic representatives in Britain in the process of acquiring navigational instruments for Russian expeditions in the first half of the 19th century. Even though it is known roughly which instruments Russian voyages carried, it is still unclear who and how exactly ordered the instruments from well-known makers such as Troughton, Dollond, Arnold, Barraud, or Massey, although it is known that Russian diplomatic representatives played a role in assisting the explorers. British historian Rip Bulkeley has looked into the aspects of acquiring navigational instruments in the case of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, but some details remain unclear [1]. Also, Simon Werrett [2] has analysed common aspects of Russian and British navigators, and mentions British instruments as preferred by the Russians, but leaves the question posed here unanswered.

Russian exploration and diplomatic representatives

The Guildhall Library (photograph by the author).

The starting point for this research were the accounts of the Russian expeditions where British instrument makers and instruments were mentioned on several occasions. Also, the diplomatic representatives were mentioned in these accounts which gave me the indication that the diplomatic corps was involved in the acquisition process. The Russian Embassy in London were to become an important link between explorers and instrument makers. They usually had information in advance regarding what to organize in London, but the leaders of the expeditions subsequently stopped over in England themselves to complete the purchases. This allows us to argue that without the Russian diplomatic representatives in England, the preparation of the expeditions would have been much more complicated. But it is vital to add the layer of archival sources to this research.

During the period of my interest, there were two full time Russian ambassadors in London, Semyon Vorontsov (period in London 1785–1806) and Christoph Heinrich von Lieven (London 1812–34). There were other personnel as well, for example councillor Paul von Nicolay who served in London 1804–08. Regarding the supplies, important role here was played by the network of Russian consuls in Britain. We know that general consuls Samuel Greig, Andrey Dubachevsky and George Benkhausen were involved, but also consul John Hawker in Plymouth. Of course, it is necessary to map the whole Russian diplomatic personnel in Britain to get a clear overview of the main actors.

Research plan and sources

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (photograph by the author).

Thanks to the SIS Grant I visited several archives in London to find out what connections the Russian diplomatic representatives had with the British navigational instrument makers. I focused on the personal archive of Russian ambassador Christoph Heinrich von Lieven which is located in the British Library. It was interesting to see these materials to find out if there were any communication between them. Also, I wanted to map Adam Johann von Krusenstern’s connections with London’s navigational instrument makers when he visited London in 1814–15 to purchase inventory for Otto von Kotzebue’s Rurik expedition that took place from 1815–18. Besides the British Library, I visited the Guildhall Library and the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) where, according to the catalogues some papers of Arnold and Dollond were supposed to be held. Although I managed to find an account book of John Roger Arnold at the LMA (I had information that it is at the Guildhall, but it was transferred some 10 years ago), this was dated to 1796, 1800–02 and 1824–30, which meant there was no information regarding the expeditions of Krusenstern, Golovnin, Kotzebue and Bellingshausen. The archive of the Dollond family is also held at the LMA, but it did not consist of any correspondence or financial records. Therefore, it was necessary to continue looking for Arnold’s and Dollond’s archival sources. I also consulted the collections of Troughton (held at the Borthwick Institute in York) and Massey (formerly at the University of Keele, now at the V&A Wedgwood Archives) but they either did not have material from the early 19th century or anything regarding the sales of instruments to the Russians. However, the unsuccessful visit of the archives opened new aspects of my research. Regarding chronometers, I searched the catalogue of the Royal Museums Greenwich and contacted the staff regarding the entries in the International Chronometer Ledgers. The next step is to search the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives at the University of Cambridge and the archive of the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford which contains further material regarding the Dollond family.


[1] R. Bulkeley, ‘Bellingshausen in Britain: Supplying the Russian Antarctic expedition, 1819’, in: The Mariner’s Mirror, 107:1, pp. 40–53, here p. 43.

[2] S. Werrett, ‘‘Perfectly Correct’: Russian Navigators and the Royal Navy’, in: R. Dunn, R. Higgitt (edit.), Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, 1730–1850 (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), pp. 111–133.

This research was funded by a SIS Grant.

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