Life story of Nikolay Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888 гг.)

Life story of Nikolay Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888 гг.)


In the world and national history N.N. Miklouho-Maclay is an outstanding humanist, scientist, traveler and public figure who always followed the humanistic principles of respect for the culture and traditions of the peoples of the world, and fought for the rights of residents of Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The future world-famous explorer and traveler was born in Yazykovo-Rozhdestvenskoye village of Novgorod Governorate in 1846. As a student, he was looking for himself: he studied in Saint-Petersburg and Germany at various faculties. Subsequently, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay chose the medical faculty at the University of Jena, as the scientist was well aware that his further research would require knowledge in several sciences. The Russian scientist can fairly be called a naturalist or a generalist (a person with a wide array of knowledge on a variety of subjects).

In 1866-1869, Miklouho-Maclay made expeditions to North Africa, mainly to study marine fauna. Already during the trip along the Red Sea сoast, the traits that determined the future life of the Russian scientist were revealed – a penchant for difficult and dangerous adventures, a deep interest in the way of life and culture of the peoples of the world. In 1869 Miklouho-Maclay returned to Saint-Petersburg and a year later the scientist presented to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS) his project of a multi-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean, during which he planned to study its northern part and conduct zoological, anthropological and ethnographic research. IRGS accepted the project and promised to assist.

Already in the process of preparing for the expedition, the scientist’s plans have changed a lot. Scientific literature, conversations and correspondence with leading Russian and world scientists gave N.N. Miklouho-Maclay an idea to start this long-term research in New Guinea — a huge Island in Oceania, still unknown place of the planet for Europeans.

With an extraordinary talent and passion for scientific knowledge N.N. Miklouho-Maclay has been conducting ethnographic and anthropological research in Southeast Asia, as well as in all cultural areas of Oceania (Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia) for more than 15 years. Most of the works of the Russian humanist scientist are devoted to the inhabitants of the northeastern coast of New Guinea (the Maclay Coast), among whom he had lived for two and a half years and visited those places three times (1871-1872, 1876-1877 and 1883). Miklouho-Maclay managed to establish friendly contact and good relations with the residents of the Maclay Coast, as well as to learn some of their languages. With his patience, kindness, responsiveness and courage N.N. Miklouho-Maclay won the trust, love and loyalty of the local residents. In fact, he “opened” New Guineans to the outside world. It was the place where Miklouho-Maclay had lived most of the time spent in New Guinea, and called this coast the Maclay Coast “by right of the first European settled there, who explored the coast and achieved scientific results”.

During his expeditions to Southeast Asia and Oceania, the Russian scientist described in detail the economy, everyday life, material culture, customs and traditions of local residents, paying special attention to their original art. The diary records of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay still remain an unsurpassed source on ethnography of New Guinea, because of the accurate factual information, since the Russian scientist tried to refrain from adding various guesses and hypotheses to his personal observations.

The scientist’s drawings made during the expeditions are also a valuable ethnographic and anthropological source, because they «differ in the accuracy of proportions, details, and clearly reflect both the anthropological type and the human personality». N.N. Miklouho-Maclay made more than 700 drawings.

It was during the time of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay that human races and their features were ardently debated. Many Western scientists have tried to prove that human races are not equal. These theories were later used either by slaveholders or in order to justify colonial expansion. The danger of such ideas was obvious to Miklouho-Maclay. A number of European scientists considered Papuans an intermediate link between apes and humans, and relied on rather absurd arguments about the «tuft-like» growth of hair and the «roughness» of skin of New Guineans. During his expeditions to the northeastern coast of New Guinea, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay found irrefutable evidence that the local people in their physical and mental properties do not differ from Europeans, which showed the inconsistency of racist views. With the example of the Papuans of the North-East of the Island of New Guinea Miklouho-Maclay proved to the whole world that there were no superior or inferior race and all people are equal by nature. Moreover, Nikolay Miklouho-Maclay throughout his life fought for the rights of the peoples of the Pacific Ocean, protecting them from despotism of European slave traders and colonizers.

Almost a century and a half has passed since the first expeditions of Miklouho-Maclay to Southeast Asia, as well as to the distant Island of New Guinea. During this time, the world has undergone huge changes, but the scientific and social feat of the Russian scientist and his rich heritage still serve for the benefit of friendship and cooperation around the world. The material collected by Miklouho-Maclay is still relevant to science and everyday life, and the Russian traveler’s accurate data of the inhabitants of Southeast Asia and Oceania has become the first true evidence of the population of this region. Moreover, the works and humanistic principle of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay give modern people an idea of the need to preserve traditions, as well as respect for the traditions and culture of the peoples of the world, what is the basis of friendship and cooperation all over the world.

Miklouho-Maclay’s works includes numerous scientific papers in ethnology, anthropology, meteorology and oceanology, but he always considered himself a zoologist. Anyway, he was acknowledged by world and Russian science as an ethnographer.

In addition, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay lived in Australia for about seven years, where he received a warm welcome: the traveler quickly became close to Australian scientists and soon became a member of the Linnean Society, the leading scientific organization in Australia. At the same time, Miklouho-Maclay traveled deep into the Australian continent, where he conducted zoological and anthropological research, as well as paleontological excavations. In Australia, Nikolay met his future wife, Margaret Robertson, the daughter of the Premier of New South Wales. Later they had two sons, Alexander and Vladimir (Nils and Allan).

In 1886, after more than 20 years of expeditions to Southeast Asia and Oceania, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay returned to Russia, where he became a living legend, and then brought his wife and sons to Saint-Petersburg. After a long struggle with an illness caused by complications from malaria, dengue fever, and rheumatism, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay died suddenly on April 14, 1888, at the age of 41.

For his contribution to world and national science, as well as humanistic ideas that were long ahead of their time, in 1996, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was acknowledged by UNESCO as a «Global citizen» in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth.


The article is based on the materials of the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation and on the book of an outstanding Russian ethnographer and leader of the Soviet ethnographic expeditions to the northeastern coast of New Guinea in 1971 and 1977, Daniil Tumarkin, “Miklouho-Maclay: dve zhizni “Belogo Papuasa””