Elton's book takes a slow boat from China

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

It sure is exciting to be in the book business. Recently my son, Allan, and I got an e-mail message that our shipment of books - 2,100 copies of the book we wrote on Alexander Baranov - had been loaded at Singapore on the Punjab Senator with a scheduled departure of July 31 and arrival in Seattle on Sept. 9.

Punjab Senator has a ring to it. There is an aura of mystery and grandeur. In my imagination I suppose it might be part of the fleet owned by Daddy Warbucks. He started business in 1924.

He was the guardian of a young orphan named Little Annie. Her bodyguard was a powerful man called Punjab and her dog was Sandy. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, young boys and girls avidly read the comic strips. It was a "printed and picture age" before the arrival of TV.

Among the heroes of that time were Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant and of course Little Orphan Annie.

Punjab Senator sounds more impressive to me than Juneau Senator or Alaska Senator. Of course, Alaska Senator would probably be built with a $300 million or $400 million appropriation from the U.S. Treasury.

It is interesting to note that it takes almost 40 days to cross the Pacific Ocean. I guess that is what is meant by a slow boat from China.


Alexander Baranov, who lived in Alaska from 1790 to 1818, was a marvelous letter writer. He wrote in a succinct, down-to-earth style.

Here is an excerpt from a letter written to V.N. Berkh, who later became a famous historian. The date of the letter was April 15, 1814, and it was written at Sitka and sent to Okhotsk.

"Up to this time I am still alive, but I am becoming decrepit from old age. I was in Kodiak when you departed, having left Sitka in the fall of 1806 (on the Boston ship Eclipse) with skipper Joseph O'Cain and returned in August 1808 on the Neva with Capt. Hagemeister.

"Kuskov who was in California in 1808 and 1809 has left again for the third time in February 1812 and is establishing a new settlement on the shores of California north of Port Bodega, near the Spanish fort of San Francisco. He left from here on a schooner, locally built, which I named the Chirikov.

"I learned that he, with all the people who are settling there, live well, have a lot of cattle and garden vegetables, and are building the new settlement successfully. They are living peacefully with the other inhabitants and the Spaniards.

"In Kodiak, where you also lived before, everything is well. Banner, like me, is getting old. Despite this, the priests persuaded him to marry a young woman who already has two children.

"My son, Antipatr, whom you know is already 17 years old, knows English quite well and occasionally goes to sea with the foreigners. My daughter, Irina, who is 10 years old is being taught reading and writing."

The mother of Antipatr and Irina was an Alaskan Native.

This letter was discovered by Allan and I after we completed the book about Baranov, so for us this is a first-time printing.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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