NICOLE STEINKE | ABC Radio National
TODAY PAPUA NEW GUINEA LIES off the Australian radar; our closest neighbour, usually forgotten unless tourists are being attacked there or our government is looking for somewhere to process asylum seekers.
But this was not always the case. During the 1870s and 1880s there was a state of excitement over New Guinea in the Australian colonies; it was regarded as the last unknown and the next big thing.
The people of New South Wales and Queensland in particular were eager to lay claim there, hoping to strike it rich with gold, timber and pearl shell. Public meetings with travellers and missionaries recently returned from New Guinea drew crowds in the hundreds.
They lobbied the British government to colonise the island before the Germans, Dutch or Russians could get their hands on it. Nobody was asking the people of New Guinea what they thought.
Into this volatile mix came one of the most enigmatic figures in the South Pacific during the mid to late 19th century—Russian born humanist, naturalist and proto-anthropologist, Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay.
Well-known in scientific circles throughout Europe, Miklouho-Maclay was young, handsome, idealistic and full of disturbing contradictions. He became best known for his fierce support of indigenous peoples, for establishing a world class scientific research station on Sydney Harbour and for having dissected his Polynesian servant, Boy, after he died of disease, because he wanted the brain of a dark skinned person.
Today in Australia, Miklouho-Maclay—like New Guinea—is almost completely forgotten.
He remains a hero in Russia. Leo Tolstoy, with whom he exchanged letters, wrote:
‘You are the first to prove by experiment that man is man everywhere, a sociable being with whom one should communicate with kindness and truth—and not with guns and vodka. You have proved this with a feat of true courage.’
Tolstoy went on to write:
‘For the sake of all that is sacred, describe in the minutest detail and with the strict truthfulness so typical of you, all your man-to-man relations with people there.’
Miklouho-Maclay moved to Sydney in July 1878, after living for three years among people regarded as cannibals and head hunters on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea.
Until his arrival with two servants, the local people had not encountered a European. Those local people became his friends, as well as the subjects of his research. He was determined to protect them from the worst excesses of white colonisation.
Miklouho-Maclay travelled extensively in the South Pacific and South-East Asia between 1871 and 1886 using the Maclay Coast in New Guinea as the base for his fieldwork and Sydney as a second home. By this time most of the South Pacific had either been colonised or had forcibly resisted colonisation. The pressure was on New Guinea from all sides.
In Sydney the enigmatic Russian was initially feted as an exotic, a foreign aristocrat who had lived in wild places and could describe first-hand the imagined land of riches to the north. As was the case whichever country he was in, Miklouho-Maclay arrived penniless and borrowed to finance his research.
One of his greatest supporters, Sir William John Maclay, politician, gentleman-naturalist and a member of the family that established the Macleay Museum which is now part of Sydney University, wrote in March 1879, ‘Baron Maclay has been soliciting subscriptions today for a Zoological Station at Watsons Bay—a very foolish scheme.’
Despite his lack of cash, he acquired the backing of the Linnean Society and the NSW government to establish the world’s second marine biological research station, locating it on the shores of Sydney Harbour. He also married the daughter of John Robertson, the five times Premier of the colony, in the face of her father’s opposition. Robertson threatened to throw him off the Gap.
But none of this distracted Miklouho-Maclay from his passionate struggle for New Guinea's independence—or failing that, a benevolent form of protectorate that would not remove the local people's autonomy. He lobbied in the local papers. This is an excerpt from a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald:
‘During my stay among the natives... I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives... about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.'
He went on:
‘Should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.
‘I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.’
With distrust of this foreigner rising on the streets of Sydney, Miklouho-Maclay approached a number of colonial powers, attempting to broker a deal for the New Guinea people. He failed.
New Guinea was colonised by the Dutch, the Germans and the British and here in the colonies that became Australia, Miklouho-Maclay soon vanished from history.
Meanwhile in Russia, he became a Soviet cultural hero. He died while on a trip there with his wife Margaret and their two children. He was aged just 41 and had not yet written the major book he had planned, based on his researches in New Guinea.
Tolstoy wrote to him before he died:
‘I don’t know what kind of contribution your collections and discoveries have made to the science that you serve, but the experience you have gained in communication with savages, forms a whole epoch in the science that I serve, the science of how people should live with one another. Write your story and you will do mankind a good turn.’
Miklouho-Maclay kept journals throughout all his voyages in the South Pacific but most of the original field journals are missing. On his deathbed he feared that no one would be able to understand his papers as they were written in numerous languages. Most of his papers were destroyed by his wife after his death in St Petersburg in 1888.
Soon after the funeral, Margaret wrote in her diary:
‘All day I have been burning letters and papers till my head is quite bursting... Of one thing I am convinced and it is that no one shall see my darling Husband's diaries or private letters, all that are in Russian I will burn, and all that are in English I will keep’.
Margaret could not read Russian.
In Russia, Miklouho-Maclay's story was later used for propaganda purposes during Stalinist times. He was acclaimed as a man who saw beyond racial difference to the fundamental equality of all people and was used as a symbol of how the Soviet Union dealt with indigenous people in a more humane way than Western powers.
Suitably Stalinist-style revised versions of his New Guinea diaries were published as evidence of this. Words such as ‘primitive’ were replaced with the word ‘indigenous’.
In post-Soviet times his lustre has dimmed with the younger generation, as Soviet icons are toppled. But middle aged Russians still come to Sydney each year searching for traces of Miklouho-Maclay at the Macleay Museum at Sydney University.
The museum’s senior curator, Jude Phelp, said she fears they disappoint these pilgrims. ‘They come expecting something as significant as Miklouho-Maclay’s scientific reputation but he is not the main story of the museum.’
If you go there though, you will see his worn leggings and various other personal artefacts donated by Margaret after she returned to Sydney. She did not succeed in publishing his New Guinea Diaries. They finally appeared in English in 1975, published by a PNG publisher, Kristen Press.
Regarding the north-eastern coast of New Guinea, the place he described as his true home and true people, it was colonised by the Germans and the land taken for plantation crops. The southern half of eastern New Guinea (the Territory of Papua) came under Australian administration in 1902, following annexation by Britain.
In 1920 Australia received a mandate from the League of Nations to rule German New Guinea and in 1945 Papua and New Guinea were combined in an administrative union. Papua New Guinea was ruled by Australia until its independence in 1975. Tens of thousands of Australians worked there over those years. Now it, like Nikolai, is largely forgotten here.