N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travels in Malaysia: the first expedition to the jungles of Johor (December 1874-February 1875)

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travels in Malaysia: the first expedition to the jungles of Johor (December 1874-February 1875)

The diplomatic relations between Russia and Malaysia started on April 3, 1967. At the present, our Countries cooperate in trade, economic, cultural, educational and other spheres. However, the connection between Russia and Malaysia began long before the second half of the XX century. In 1874-1875, the outstanding Russian humanist, scientist and traveler N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was conducting research on the Malay Peninsula, the mainland territory of the present Malaysia.

The history of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travels on the territory of today’s Malaysia began in 1874, when the steamship «Namoa», set off with the Russian scientist from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), entered the Harbor of Singapore, a port on a small eponymous island in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, where N.N. Miklouho-Maclay went into the jungles of the Johor Sultanate.

Taking into account the immense natural resources of the Peninsula, especially the huge tin deposits, English merchants used to send petitions from Singapore to London calling for the capture of the Malay Sultanates, a number of which are now part of Malaysia.

Sir Andrew Clarke, appointed as the Governor of the Straits Settlements in September 1873, was ordered to annex them to the British Empire, and not only the southernmost Johor Sultanate (now the same name State of Malaysia), which at that time was under protectorate of the British authorities. Within a year, A. Clarke conquered two large Sultanates in the western part of the Peninsula, Perak and Selangor (now the same name States of Malaysia).

Soon after the arrival of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the English Governor cordially received the Russian traveler, but did not do it without intent. For him, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was not just a famous traveler and humanist scientist, but a person who would go deep into the Peninsula and collect information useful for further expansion of the colony. Later, the Russian scientist understood the main reason of the plans and kept safe the collected information about the Malay population. Interestingly, since the N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s expeditions in many areas of present-day Malaysia, no European reached those places, therefore the Governor and his subordinates had no information about the terrain, rivers, population, relations between local princes and various tribes. At that time, there was another very remarkable figure – Abu Bakar, who spoke excellent English, had been to the Great Britain, and was willing to adopt European technical innovations, but remained adherent some of the customs and religion of his ancestors.

Since N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was disturbed by the noise and bustle at the hotel during his scientific work, he gladly accepted the invitation of Sultan Abu Bakar to move to his Palace in Johor Bahru (now the second most populous city after Kuala Lumpur), the capital of the Johor Sultanate, to continue preparing for a trip to the jungles of Malacca. Before the expedition to the Malay Peninsula, the Sultan provided the Russian scientist with a security certificate written in Malay Arabic script. It prescribed the officials and Chiefs of the villages to help Miklouho-Maclay, who «wants to explore the forests, observe and draw the people who inhabit them.»

Already on December 15, 1874, Miklouho-Maclay set out on his first expedition to the lands of today’s Malaysia, accompanied by assistants from the settlement of Lenga (now mukim of Malaysia in Johor).

At the beginning of his trip to Malacca, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay went down the Muar river on a flat-bottomed boat and visited Kepong village (now a suburb of Kuala Lumpur), where a local Elder wished to accompany the famous traveler to the next Malay village. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay carefully studied the way of life, customs and traditions of the Malays in the villages he visited, but focused on the search and study of orang utans (in Malay, orang –

«person, man», utan –»forest»), which he believed might be related to the natives of New Guinea and generally belong to the «Melanesian race». The «forest people» in the Johor Sultanate mostly belonged to the ancient population of Malacca – the Jakun tribes. At the request of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the Chiefs Malay villages arranged meetings with the «forest people», and later in the forests of Malacca, the researcher sometimes came across their temporary settlements, usually located in a forest clearing or a bank of river. In these cases, he would stop for a day or two and immerse himself in the study of the culture, life, and anthropological type of orang utans.

With an ultimate care, the scientist compiled dictionaries of the main words from the local dialects, noting the similarities and differences from the other Malay equivalents. Moreover, during his stay in Malacca, Miklouho-Maclay learned the Malay language. During the day, the scientist usually made brief notes and sketches of future drawings, and in the evening, under the light of a torch, he made more detailed records in the diary, and made the sketches clearer. Several dozens of these drawings have survived and are of great interest not only for science, but also for art.

Despite the fact that the local climate aggravated the diseases of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the Russian humanist scientist not only did not lose heart, but, taking into account the records in his diaries, at times was in high spirits, as the local conditions reminded him of New Guinea, which had become so close to him.

After visiting the Sembrong river, a tributary of the Endau river (now the same name city is located here), and the Madek river, another tributary of the Sombrong river, the Russian scientist headed South along the Johor river, towards Johor Bahru, where the Sultan’s Palace was located. Miklouho-Maclay quickly went down the river to Kota Tinggi. In the city, the Russian humanist scientist saw a completely different landscape: fruit trees, gardens and plantations covered all around. This area was inhabited by Malays. In Kota Tinggi the Russian traveler was also welcomed by representatives of the Sultan. Then, on a sailing ship sent for him by Abu Bakar, Miklouho-Maclay arrived in Johor Bahru in January-February 1875.

After the first expedition of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay to the jungles of Malacca, where no European has ever stepped into, the local Newspapers published an interview with the Russian scientist about his exciting journey, and the telegraph agencies spread around the world the news of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s return from the jungles of Malacca.

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s attitude to the scientific way of studying the world is perfectly reflected in his diary records: «It is so satisfying to realize that you are moving science when traveling that all the difficulties and inconveniences of the journey seemed like nothing. The only shadow I had in this case was a sense of lack of knowledge”. 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.


The article is based 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””, and on the materials of the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation.