- A large, sturgeon-shaped island north of Hokkaidō in the Pacific. Despite the island’s exploration and mapping by Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch explorers centuries earlier, by the mid-nineteenth century its population, with the exception of a few Japanese seasonal fisherman, still consisted of Ainu, Giliak, and Orok natives. In the 1850s, the Russian Empire, seeing in Sakhalin a fortress to protect the mouth of the Amur River and having discovered its coal deposits, sought to dominate it. Although Japan declared sovereignty over the island as early as 1845, in 1855 it signed the Treaty of Shimoda, giving its northern half to Russian and its southern half to Japan. By 1859, both private and state mines were operating on the island. A foreign concern named Oliphant & Company briefly operated several mines, but it was soon excluded by a regulation forbidding such foreign ownership.Russia formally annexed Sakhalin in the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg, when Japan ceded its half to Russia in exchange for the Kuril Islands to the east of Sakhalin. That same year I. N. Butkovskii, a tsarist state councilor, obtained a highly favorable mining lease that permitted him the use of convict laborers. This, combined with the collapse of the penal labor system ( katorga ) on the mainland and limitations on free migration, led to Sakhalin’s transformation into a penal colony - tsarist Russia’s version of New Caledonia. Convicts and their families were shipped halfway around the world from Odessa and, by 1905, accounted for the bulk of the island’s population of 40,000.Dreams of an autarkic colony failed to materialize, however, as turning convicts into farmers generally proved impossible. Sakhalin became instead a drain on the treasury and an indictment of tsarism. Conditions were dreadful in the prisons but even worse in the countryside, where a Hobbesian netherworld developed to witness parents marketing their young daughters as prostitutes. Conditions somewhat improved before the Japanese invaded in early July 1905 - the only invasion of Russian territory during the Russo-Japanese War. But as if to pass final judgment on the penal colony, inmates razed its main prison. The Treaty of Portsmouth changed possession of Sakhalin again, this time awarding to Japan all territory south of 50° north latitude.See also <
>.FURTHER READING:Chekhov, Anton. The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin. Translated by Luba and Michael Terpak. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1967;Stephan, John J. Sakhalin: A History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.ANDREW A. GENTES
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.