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Review: The diaries of Mikloucho-Maclay

Nikolai Nikolaevich Mikloucho-Maclay

| Academia Nomad | Edited

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare’s death on 26 February created renewed interest in a neglected subject – the history of Papua New Guinea. Many people called for this to be taught at all levels of education.

To advance this idea, Academia Nomad invited readers to submit reviews of books about PNG in nominated categories. This review by Bradley Gewa was submitted in the category ‘Racism and Colonialism’ – KJ

Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries, 1871-1883

MADANG - Perhaps it is little known nowadays but in the 19th century, scientists in the Western world believed Papuans were the lowest form of human species.

This idea of racial hierarchy in humans was passionately propelled into the mainstream by a prominent German scientist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).

Basing his ideas on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Haeckel proposed there to be 12 living human species categorised into 36 races, and these species were at different stages of evolutionary progress.

Haeckel’s criteria included hair structure, skull shape and the distance of the big toe from the others.

Papuans, who Haeckel described as “bushy-haired” and with underdeveloped intellects, closely resembled the ape-like common ancestor of all humans, and thus were the most primitive human species.

Haeckel’s views, now considered racist and unscientific, even at the time had a fundamental flaw: they lacked supporting empirical evidence.

It was a student of Haeckel who in 1871 voyaged to New Guinea, at a time when the vast island was mostly alien to outside contact and influence.

Spanning three years in three separate visits, Nikolai Nikolaevich Mikloucho-Maclay (1846-1888), a young Russian zoologist, anthropologist and ethnographer, became the first European to live with and study the people of Astrolabe Bay on the south coast of Madang Province.

Maclay’s personal diaries, translated from Russian by CL Sentinella and including biographical and historical notes, were published in English in 1975.

From the very start, Maclay employed a policy of respect, friendship, honesty and trust-building in dealings with the people he encountered.

He was thus able to gradually immerse himself into and almost become part of the people he studied, giving him a rare insight into a people who were poorly understood and regarded as “savages” in the Western world.

Maclay, perhaps through the noble nature of his interactions, witnessed a people who were self-sufficient, ingenious, imaginative and moral. This was far from the widely-held views promoted by his mentor and former teacher Ernst Haeckel.

Mikluho-Maclay among some of the people he met
An illustration of Mikloucho-Maclay among some of the people he met in the Astrolabe Bay area

Ultimately, his research findings would scientifically disprove many of Haeckel’s racial theories, making Maclay one of the first scientific anti-racists and an eminent authority on New Guinea and its people.

As a consequence, Maclay and Haeckel’s personal and professional ties deteriorated.

With the rise of blackbirding, colonisation and exploitation in the Pacific, Maclay relentlessly pleaded for the rights and protection of native people. But for a long time this position would all go unheeded by the colonial powers.

Plagued by debilitating illness, and with many of his works unpublished, Maclay died in his homeland, aged only 42.

CL Sentinella, in the Diaries’ prologue, describes Maclay as “an objective scientific observer with an innate respect for the natives as human beings, and with no desire to exploit them in any way or to impose his ideas upon them.”

While intriguing in themselves, Maclay’s diaries also serve as important historical documentation of the early contact of the people of New Guinea with outsiders.

They share a personal insight into an extraordinary man who deserves greater appreciation among modern Papua New Guineans.

Further study

Sentinella, C. L. (1975). Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries, 1871-1883. Kristen Pres, Madang. Download a free copy here

The life of Nikolai Nikolaevich Mikloucho-Maclay was made into a film, The Man from the Moon, unfortunately only available in the Russian language, and there are two other relevant documentaries, The Legacy of Mikloucho-Maclay and Citizen of the World. Each of these documentaries can also be accessed at this website.

Bradley Gewa is a research technician with the New Guinea Binatang Research based in Madang. Read more here


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Philip Fitzpatrick

There's a very good novel based on Maclay's diaries by K H Rennie, 'Maclay: A Novel', published by Indra Press in 2001 (ISBN: 0958580588).

Nikolai Mikloucho Maclay was born Nikolai Mikloucho in Novgorod in 1846. It is believed his Scottish ancestors migrated to Russia some time before the eighteenth century. He added 'Maclay' to his surname in 1868.

Bradley Gewa

Mikloucho Maclay was a great man indeed. In my review I had planned to mention his time in Australia as well as how he was betrayed by the imperial German government, who used his published notes and fond relations with the Madang locals to help them establish the New Guinea Company and subsequently annex northern New Guinea for Germany.

A highly intriguing book that is must-read for those interested in PNG's early modern history.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Maclay spent a lot of time in Australia actually arguing against the traditional style of colonisation.

Fascinating man way ahead of his time.

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