Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay

Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay was a Ukrainian scientist born near Novgorod in 1846, a civil engineer’s son of Russian, German and Scottish ancestry. At seventeen he entered St Petersburg University to study physics and mathematics, but was expelled for his political activities and barred from entering any university in Russia. Following studies at Heidelberg, Leipzig and Jena, he emerged with a mastery of knowledge in an expanse of fields from medicine and comparative anatomy to palaeontology, law, philosophy and zoology. Maclay was one of the first scientists to embrace Darwin’s theories and he wrote a paper in which he proposed a modification to it. His studies in marine biology took him to the Canary Islands and the Red Sea and in 1868, he and his friend Anton Dohrn, a prominent German scholar and fellow Darwinist, moved to Messina in Italy, where they lived together and conceived the model for research stations that was to become standard throughout the world.

Miklouho-Maclay and Dohrn had the idea of setting up permanent scientific research stations to which scientists from anywhere in the world could visit at any time to do research. Their concept first took hold in Naples where Dohrn set up a Stazione Zoologica in 1873, patroned by Darwin himself, and Miklouho-Maclay put it to work in the first biological field research station in the southern hemisphere at Watsons Bay on Sydney Harbour in 1878. Within a few years some of the world’s first permanent research stations were established in Britain and the United States and the concept became the standard model for field research.

In 1870, in the interest of ethnographic and anthropological studies, Maclay sailed through South America and the Pacific Islands to New Guinea. In 1871, he made first contact with the peoples of the coast of New Guinea in what is now called the Maclay Coast.

For seven years he lived among the people of New Guinea at a place called “Astrolabe Bay”. He made careful study of the people there that allowed him to debunk misconceptions from previous studies and his observations and studies of the anatomy of people throughout southern Asia and the South Pacific allowed him to note sufficient similarities for him to postulate that the peoples of Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Phillippines were all of the same origin.

In 1878, he set out from Hong Kong to Sydney to make Australia his base and immediately upon setting foot on Australian shores he addressed the Linnean Society, proposing that a permanent biological field station be established in Sydney. Within a few months, funded by the NSW government and funds raised by himself, the southern hemisphere’s first marine biological station was founded at Watsons Bay on Sydney Harbour. He and William John Macleay, the President of the Linnean Society, formed a strong partnership and Macleay invited him to live in his large residence at Elizabeth Bay House.   

…A friend and correspondent of “Darwin’s bulldog”, T. H. Huxley, Miklouho-Maclay became well-known for his scientific work, including on the animal fossils of Australia. When he married ex New South Wales Premier, Sir John Robertson’s, daughter, Margaret Emma Clark, he was adopted as a native of the colony. 

                             Baron N. de Miklouho-Maclay

THE name of this distinguished Russian savant has of late years become as familiar to Australians as it was previously to the Scientific Associations of Europe, with which he had been connected for a lengthened period. With the exception of the missionaries now residing at Port Moresby, he is the only white man who has made any lengthened stay in New Guinea, and the only one who is conversant with that portion of the island known as the Maclay coast. From there he has extended his exploratory trip to nearly all the adjacent islands, studying the habits of the people, collecting and preserving specimens of the flora and fauna indigenous to Polynesia, and from time to time publishing the result of his investigations. To the “labour trade” he has been a strenuous opponent, as he conceived it to be little better than slave traffic, and his communications to the home government have been productive of great benefit to the South Sea Islanders. It was at his suggestion, and partly at his expense, that the Royal Society of New South Wales established the existing Biological station at Watson’s Bay, where he has been an earnest worker in the cause of scientific research. As Baron Maclay recently married the daughter of our veteran statesman, Sir John Robertson, we may now class him as an Australian colonist.  – Illustrated Sydney News, Saturday 15 March, 1884

Miklouho-Maclay was fiercely opposed to the labour trade in the South Pacific and defended the people of New Guinea and the Pacific Islands from exploitation by colonialists and sailors.

At this time the practice of “blackbirding” was prevalent in the Pacific Islands. Come to be called “Kanakas”, islanders were kidnapped to work the sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji, the guano deposits in Peru and for the pearling industry in Broome. 

Some of the Kanaka labourers were willing workers and boarded “recruiting” ships of their own free will, but others fell prey to the notorious “blackbirders” that skulked around the islands of the south seas hunting for labour.

Although strictly against the law, press gangs of burly “recruiting officers” descended on unwitting islanders who, after being plied into drunkenness or lured under false pretences, woke up on board a ship bound for the cane fields of Queensland. Although technically they were paid a less than basic wage under a three-year contract that also allowed for food and clothing, it was slavery in all but name, the name being “indentured labour”. Conditions on board the blackbirding ships and in the fields were appalling and many Kanakas died on the journey or working the fields.   

Blackbirding continued from the 1860s until 1901, by which time it had become immensely unpopular, partly for humanitarian reasons, but also because the local workforce protested that it took their jobs.

Miklouho-Maclay was opposed to the trade from the outset, but for reasons of principle, not economics, and his studies in ethnology and anthropology were substantial. He was one of the first to propose that the races of humans were not different species and he wrote a paper refuting the genetic superiority of races, earning him the praise of Leo Tolstoy, who wrote to him in September 1886  –

You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being with whom communication can and should be established through kindness and truth, not guns and spirits. I do not know what contribution your collections and discoveries will make to the science for which you serve, but your experience of contacting the primitive peoples will make an epoch in the science for which I serve i.e. the science which teaches how human beings should live with one another.