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29 August 2019

Papuan paradise for Miklouho-Maclay

Between man and ape

Why would young, talented European scientist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, who had a background in zoology and medicine, go to Papua New Guinea? The answer was exclusively for humanitarian aims: to show that Papuans are not a developmental intermediary between man and ape. At the time, this theory was promoted by European colonizers who were actively involved in the slave trade.



Having overcome the complex journey which lasted ten months, Miklouho-Maclay with his two assistants — a Swedish man named Wilson and a Polynesian boy called Boi — stepped onto unfamiliar territory. His appearance was a real bombshell: having never seen a white man, the Papuans ran away in fear, mistaking him for an evil spirit. He managed to persuade just one of them to stay, a local inhabitant called Tui. He would become a friend and trusted partner of the Man from the Moon, acting as his guide to the primitive world. Miklouho-Maclay avoided the fate of Cook a number of times. It is thought that his exceptional strength of character, courage, kindness, and respect for the Papuan traditions, along with his unwillingness to meddle in their lives, helped him to survive. Since then, the tale has been passed from person to person about how when Maclay found himself surrounded by hundreds of fierce Papuans, he simply lay under a palm tree and fell asleep! Later, he would write in his journal that it could have ended terribly, but if they were going to kill him, what difference did it make if he was standing up, sitting down or asleep? The Papuans did not understand why Maclay was not scared and decided that he must be immortal.



Over time, the much-feared savages and ‘cannibals’ became his good friends. He spent a total of 30 months in their company. He studied people, animals, customs, languages — and, as he wrote in his journal, he sincerely began to love these trusting and good-natured people.

Miklouho-Maclay was an excellent drawer. His legacy to the descendants is around 700 drawings which he did in Papua New Guinea. The drawings provide a detailed account of his life in that wonderful country. In particular, he was keen on tattooing and scarification. He mastered this unusual art to such an extent that he asked the local woman to give him a tattoo on his left forearm when he was on the South-East of the island.

In subsequent trips to the island, the traveller brought the natives some useful things — an axe, for example. Thus, the first meeting of the Stone Age and the Iron Age took place in the North-East of New Guinea.

In his studies, Miklouho-Maclay proved the theory that Papuans were an intermediary species between apes and humans completely wrong. He went to great lengths to protect New Guinea from colonizers: he wrote to Alexander III, requesting that the island inhabitants be given the protection of the Russian Empire; discussed the possibility of England and Russia recognizing the independence of Maclay Coast; and suggested setting up a Russian settlement in New Guinea. Alas, his ideas were not destined to come true: racked by various illnesses, he died at the age of 42 in St. Petersburg.

Great-great-grandnephew, namesake and follower

«I was born on 20 September, the same day my great-great-granduncle set foot on the shore of an island in the gulf of Astrolabia,» says descendant and namesake of the famous explorer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay. «Of course, these signs of fate are not a coincidence. I had an in-built personal connection to this far oceanic state. But it just so happened that my journey to Papua New Guinea, which seemed to be preordained since I was born, was constantly postponed. Now I understand why: I needed to mature before I could go. Quite simply, it was never going to be an easy trip. The unique mission that my predecessor made, his role in the history of the Papuan tribes, linking generations, cultures and historic eras — all of that put huge responsibility on my shoulders. Finally, I stopped asking myself questions like «why not?» and «when?». I just did it.



The first expedition to Papua New Guinea in modern history took place in 2017. In September, of course. Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay Junior’s associates were Igor Chininov, a research fellow at the N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Centre for Asian and Pacific Studies at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Arina Lebedeva, a researcher at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) in St. Petersburg. The small group began their journey in Moscow on 10 September. St. Petersburg, Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Brisbane — having crossed half the globe, they arrived at Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea on 15 September. They then headed for Madang, the region where Miklouho-Maclay had conducted his research. The final destination was the place where the 25-year old Miklouho-Maclay had completed his ninemonth voyage on the corvette called Vityaz (Knight). Previously, this beach was named after Maclay by the first European to step foot there but was later renamed Rai Coast. Travelers got there on the Kalibobo yacht.



«We were surprised by how respectfully they greeted us, and I saw the Russian flag fluttering in the distance,» said Nikolai Nikolayevich. «On the shore, about three thousand people from the villages of Bongu, Gumbu and Gorendu had gathered in their most celebratory attire. They sang and danced, expressing their joy. «Tamo boro rus!» («Big Russian man!») «Malcay returned and brought the rain!» they exclaimed. Essentially, all the local inhabitants were descendants of the people who had spoken directly with my ancestor. They remember him with much fondness, passing on legends from generation to generation, which originated at the time that the great Russian explorer arrived there. In local villages, there are boys’ names such as Nikolai and Maclay. During our visit, people came up to us countless times, pointing and exclaiming with delight «Nikolai, Nikolai!»



Since the time of Maclay Senior, Papua New Guinea has barely changed. Granted, its residents do not still think that white people are apparitions. But in most areas, there is practically no electricity and there are no fridges or televisions. People do not have passports or other types of identity documents. There is not much money around.



On that note, it is worth mentioning that tourists often complain about local residents asking for money, when actually, that is not the case at all. You simply need to abide by the local traditions, one of which is that you should give a gift. But they won’t remain indebted to you. If you gift a pig, you can receive a whole hut as well as a local girl as a wife. As happened with one of the members of Miklouho-Maclay’s expedition, they wanted him to marry a Papuan girl as a sign of gratitude. A swift exit allowed him to refuse the generous gift without too many problems.


«Upon leaving Papua New Guinea, I knew that I would definitely return,» recalls Nikolai Nikolayevich. And he did. In May 2019, I went there again with a big group. And it was not without its surprises: we visited a village called Miklouho-Maclay! It was named in 2017 after our first expedition. The village elder is 77-year-old Asel Tui, who is a fifth-generation descendant of Tui, the first local inhabitant that Miklouho-Maclay met in the nineteenth century. It was really moving.



Nikolai Nikolayevich is sure of one thing: as was the case for his predecessor, his first two expeditions to Papua New Guinea are only the beginning of a great journey.


The Tamo Boro Rus, or «great man of Russia», has returned and made it rain


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