Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay. July 5 (17), 1846 – April 2 (14), 1888. Russian ethnographer, anthropologist, biologist and traveler who studied the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, including the Papuans of the northeastern coast of New Guinea.


Life and Work:

1. “You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being.” These lines were addressed by Leo Tolstoy to Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, a Russian ethnographer, anthropologist and traveler.


2. Nikolai Nikolaevich was born on July 17, 1846 (New Style) in the Novgorod Governorate, where at that time his father Nikolai Ilyich Miklukha, a railway engineer, was building the Saint Petersburg–Moscow railway. His family would later joke that Miklouho-Maclay's passion for travel was predestined: after all, he was born on the road.


3. The father of the future traveler bore the surname of Miklukha and came from the Zaporozhian Cossacks. The family legend said that a Miklukha family member named Gritsko fought in the host of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and once captured a Scot who served in the Polish army at the Battle of Zhovti Vody. Michael Maclay took root in the family and became his captor’s relative by marrying his sister. Nicholas liked that legend so much that when he reached adulthood, he obtained documents that reflected his full family name: Miklouho-Maclay.


4. However, the origin of the Maclay addition to the family name Miklukha remains a matter of heated debates. There are several more versions, but the truth has not been found so far.


5. His father died when the future scientist was 11 years old. The financial situation of the family became difficult, but Nicholas was given a good education nonetheless. His mother managed to get herself and her children included in the genealogy book of Petersburg Governorate nobility, and Nicholas was accepted into the state gymnasium. His illness and proactive attitude prevented him from finishing the gymnasium.


6. Anthropology and ethnography could have lost a prominent scientist. Nicholas, who was then still going by Miklukha, wanted to apply to the Academy of Arts. But his mother dissuaded him, and he was admitted to the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University as an unattached student.


7. Nicholas Miklukha was banned from attending the University for his participation in a gathering. After that, he left for Germany where he studied in Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Jena.


8. It was from Germany that Miklouho-Maclay embarked on his first expeditions: to the Canary Islands, to Morocco, to the Red Sea coast. Then he returned to Russia. But not for long.


9. On October 31, 1870 (New Style), Miklouho-Maclay spoke at the general meeting of the Russian Geographical Society and announced that he was planning an expedition to New Guinea that would last 7 or 8 years. He did not find support, but the charter of the RGS did not require an approval to be given.


10. The energetic scientist not only obtained a foreign passport and a letter of recommendation for all Russian consuls in the ports and on the islands of the Pacific, he also succeeded in altering the route of the Vityaz corvette that was circumnavigating the globe.


11. The foreign passport he obtained for the New Guinea expedition was the first document that recorded the hyphenated surname of Miklouho-Maclay.


12. Shortly before its departure, the Vityaz was visited by Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich. He had a long conversation with Miklouho-Maclay. It was decided that a year after berthing, a Russian warship would visit New Guinea; if the scientist was no longer alive, it would collect his research materials, which the scientist would pack in watertight cylinders.


13. “It is henceforth my goal to think and try to understand my surroundings. The sea with its coral reefs on one side, the forest with its tropical vegetation on the other, both full of life and diversity. I was happy to reach my goal.” On October 2 (New Style), Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay stepped from the Vityaz corvette to the shore of the Astrolabe Bay and found himself in the Stone Age.


14. The remote islands knew nothing of iron, let alone firearms. Miklouho-Maclay arrived to the faraway land without arms and with the benevolent goal of studying and enlightening. But first, he had to establish contact and demonstrate good intentions. A difficult task without knowing the language, but the scientist didn't lose heart: he got to the village, found a mat and lay down for a nap, killing two birds with one stone – resting and dispelling any fears of the Papuans.


15. Word after word, action after action, this strange man came to be accepted by the Papuans. They called him “Kaaramtamo,” meaning “a man from the moon.” The moon, in this case, represented to the natives the inconceivably faraway land from which the traveler had come, and the white, or moon-like color of his skin. For his custom of wearing clothes, Miklouho-Maclay was called “garetamo,” which can be loosely translated as “the man in a case.”


16. In December 1872, the steam clipper Emerald entered the Astrolabe Bay. By this time, Miklouho-Maclay was already considered dead, with a note published in the Sankt-Peterburgsikye Vedomosti newspaper on July 18 (New Style). Miklouho-Maclay was indeed very ill, and had to leave New Guinea.


17. Miklouho-Maclay returned to New Guinea twice, studying the life and customs of the Papuans, proving that they are the same kind of people as we are, only living closer to the South, and leaving behind a number of Russian words that entered their vocabulary, e.g., the word “toporr” to denote any metal axe. He even recorded their speech on a phonograph.


18. In between his travels to New Guinea, Miklouho-Maclay visited Australia several times where he met his future wife, the young widow Margaret Robertson-Clark. Overcoming the resistance of the bride's relatives and obtaining a permission to marry a Protestant woman, Baron Maclay, as the scientist was known in Australia, wed his beloved in 1884. The couple had two sons, Alexander and Vladimir.


19. At the age of forty, the scientist moved his family to Saint Petersburg but he didn't live even a year in Russia's Northern capital, dying of a serious illness. In the same 1888, his widow and children returned to Australia. Margaret outlived her husband by almost half a century.


20. None of the travel notes by Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay was published during his lifetime. The first volume of his travel notes was published only in 1923, and the complete works of Miklouho-Maclay were published in 1990-99. In the West, the Russian scientist was “discovered” in the middle of the past century.


21. Today, it's not rare to meet a local named Maclay on the Maclay Coast. The image of Miklouho-Maclay became part of the local mythology.


22. The author of 160 scientific works has earned respect around the world: UNESCO's Citizen of the World, he made such a valuable contribution to ethnography that his birthday has become a professional holiday for ethnographers. Even if yet unofficial.