A Noble Cause: The Life and Work of Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888)

Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay

Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian explorer, naturalist and ethnographer, whose exploits made him something of a legend during his lifetime.

In 1871 he settled on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea) where no white person had been before. While his primary objective in going to New Guinea was to make a comparative study of the racial types of the Pacific region, he is known more for his efforts in defending the rights of indigenous people to their land against the spread of colonialism than he is for his ethnographic work.

In 1878, he visited Australia for the first time. In Sydney he met William John Macleay with whom he wrote three scientific papers. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a Zoological Field Station at Watson’s Bay in 1881.

During his time in the Australian colonies, Miklouho-Maclay met and later married Margaret Emma Clark, the daughter of Sir John Robertson, a former premier of the colony. Margaret, remembering her husband’s association with William John Macleay, donated some of Miklouho-Maclay’s scientific collections to the Macleay Museum following her husband’s death in 1888. The rest of his collection is housed at the Miklouho-Maclay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow, Russia.

This display commemorates the 150th anniversary of Miklouho-Maclay’s birth.

Miklouho-Maclay in Australia

Miklouho-Maclay visited Australia for the first time in 1878. While he was keen to study the Australian fauna and to pursue his comparative anatomical investigations and anthropological studies, ill health had provided the real impetus for his visit. Seven years in the tropics had been detrimental to his health and doctors had advised him to live in a cooler climate.

In Sydney Miklouho-Maclay met William John Macleay, who was a founding member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, the colony’s foremost natural history society. Macleay invited him to stay at Elizabeth Bay House, which housed the Macleay family zoological collection. This arrangement allowed him to "live comfortably and without cares only a few steps from the museum in which I was to work". With considerable debts in Batavia (about 6,000 silver roubles), it also helped temporarily to improve his dire financial circumstances.

Miklouho-Maclay is remembered most in Australia for being instrumental in establishing Australia’s first biological field station at Watson’s Bay in 1881. He first proposed the idea three years earlier at a meeting of the Linnean Society of NSW. Modelled on a station established in Naples in 1875 by the naturalist Anton Dohrn, the laboratory’s purpose was to assist naturalists in the study of Australia’s fauna and flora. It also provided the solitary work environment Miklouho-Maclay always preferred.

"The White Papuan": Miklouho-Maclay in New Guinea

In 1871, Miklouho-Maclay settled on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea in an area where the inhabitants had no prior contact with white people.

From the start, Miklouho-Maclay’s relationship with the people from Astrolabe Bay was ambiguous. His detached manner and apparent fearlessness, as well as his trade goods, shotgun, and medicines, appeared to set him above them. His actions, such as the burning of alcohol, led them to believe that he possessed supernatural powers and was immortal, something he never denied. He was perceived as a demi-god.

Miklouho-Maclay spent more than 3 years living and travelling in New Guinea pursuing his ethnographic studies. His work focused mainly on recording the physical characteristics of people and their material culture and paid little attention to social relationships and religious matters. By his own account he preferred to "be a mere spectator or observer and not an active participant in whatever is going on".

Cooking Pot

Cooking Pot
Bili Bil Island, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea
Collected by Miklouho-Maclay 1877? or c.1872

Donated by Margaret Miklouho-Maclay, 1889

Paradise Lost

Although Miklouho-Maclay continued his scientific studies in New Guinea and Australia, the last ten years of his life was mainly devoted to defending the rights of indigenous peoples.

Miklouho-Maclay became more and more concerned with protecting the people of Astrolabe Bay from the impending threat of British and European colonial expansion. In 1879 he wrote the first of several letters to the British and Russian governments demanding recognition of the rights of the Astrolabe Bay people to their land. He explained that "each piece of ground, each useful tree of the forest, the fish in each stream, etc., etc., has a proprietor".

Under his "Maclay Coast Scheme" of 1881, Miklouho-Maclay proposed the formation of a "native Great Council" and the establishment of plantations that the local inhabitants would work, with "reasonable remuneration". His position within this paternalistic scheme was to be as adviser and foreign representative. His plans never came to fruition.

In 1884 the German anthropologist Otto Finsch, posing as Miklouho-Maclay’s friend, settled at Astrolabe Bay and claimed the area for Germany. By the end of 1884 the eastern half of New Guinea had been divided between Germany and Britain.