N.N. Miklouho-Maclay made it into world and Russian history as an outstanding scientist, traveler, thinker and public figure. As the Russian scientist wrote: “The only purpose of my life is the benefit and success of science for the good of mankind”.
In the time of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the second half of the XIX century, heated debates broke out around the research of the characteristics of human races. Many Western scientists tried to prove that races were unequal. Subsequently, these theories were used either by slave owners or to justify colonial expansion. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was aware of the danger of these ideas, so he decided to show to the whole world what the dark-skinned race really was using the example of the inhabitants of the island of New Guinea.
In those days, most foreign scientists made descriptions of the native population either remotely from the ship or by using missionaries’ notes, which clearly provoked inaccuracies. Nikolay Nikolaevich, on the other hand, chose one of the most challenging and unique ways of conducting the research. He was the first to settle with the people of New Guinea, whom he studied, lived their way of life, even became a part of their community.
During the expeditions to the northeastern coast of New Guinea (1871-1872, 1876-1877 and 1883), the Russian scientist gradually collected irrefutable evidence that the locals did not differ from Europeans in their physical and mental properties.
It was N.N. Miklouho-Maclay who “discovered” the indigenous people (Papuans) of the Maclay Coast (the northeastern part of New Guinea) to the outside world, having conducted a thorough study of their anthropological type, material culture, household and social life. The Russian scientist showed the inconsistency of the racist views about the “tuft-like” hair and the “roughness” of the Papuan skin. In his works, he makes clear conclusions on this subject: “The hair on the head of a Papuan grows exactly the same as that of a European and in general, as on a human body… Like on the head, the hair on the body of Papuans does not grow in groups or tufts, as some observers claim”. “I can not agree with the authors who attribute some particularly rough skin to the Papuans. Not only the children’s and women’s, but also men’s skin is smooth and does not differ in this respect from the skin of Europeans. The fact that many of them here suffer from psoriasis and consequently the skin becomes scaling does not yet represent a racial peculiarity; it is also clear that if many others are dealing with a special sort of clay for many years, it is not surprising that their skin becomes somewhat rougher. Finally, it is also clear that the skin of people who constantly walk naked and expose themselves to the sun and all the changes of the weather, can not be as soft as the skin of people who cover themselves with clothes. In short, no special roughness of the skin can be considered as one of the features that distinguish Papuans from other people”.
For all his life, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay fought hard for the rights of the inhabitants of Oceania: he addressed statesmen, scientists, gave lectures, etc. In 1879, he set himself an important goal: to collect materials about kidnapping and slavery in Oceania, so that upon his return to Australia he could start a process “against the human meat trade and barbaric violence“.
N.N. Miklouho-Maclay set sail on the American merchant ship “Sadie F. Caller”, because the ship’s crew “participated in this trade, constantly having on board a large number of islanders“. Already in New Caledonia the Russian scientist personally encountered the horrors of slave trade. The Russian scientist left the American ship as early as January 1880 on the Louisiade Archipelago, because the scientist regularly had to watch disgusting scenes and stood up for the mercilessly exploited islanders on the American ship.
After disembarking from the American ship, the Russian scientist soon expected the arrival of the missionary steamer “Ellengovan”, on which he made a trip along the southern coast of New Guinea. After visiting several islands in the Torres Strait, the scientist completed his voyage in the Australian city of Brisbane in May 1880.
In 1881, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s letter “Kidnapping and Slavery in the South Sea Islands” was published in a newspaper. He showed the true essence of the slave trade based on his own observations and specific facts,. The scientist advocated for the adoption of urgent measures to eliminate or at least mitigate the most inhumane manifestations of the system of forced labor. Moreover, reflecting on the contents of the note, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay asked the famous Swiss lawyer J.K. Bluntschli for advice on how to achieve an international agreement to respect the rights of the peoples of Oceania, including the prohibition of “kidnapping by deception or force”.
In 1885, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay wrote a letter to the Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in response to Germany’s annexation of the northeast coast of New Guinea in 1884. Based on the facts, the Russian scientist wrote: “I have repeatedly, during my travels in the Pacific, witnessed the most shameless exploitation and robbery of islanders by German traders, whose course of action has so far not only never been constrained by the German Government by any statute or law (concerning kidnapping, the sale of firearms and alcohol), but the German Government itself has more than once appointed these same traders or men interested in Pacific commerce as German Consuls, and, in consequence of their testimony and statements concerning misunderstandings between natives and Europeans, the commanders of the German military ships, misled by the official position of the complainants, caused grave and irreparable injustices under the guise of deserved reprisals and often even killed natives and burnt down their villages. […] In case of the lack of confidence that such a biased policy on the islands annexed by Germany will be stopped, and that the Germans should treat the natives more justly and humanely, it is desirable, in my opinion, that the Maclay Coast should be granted an international protectorate, but that at the same time the native administration should be maintained”. According to Miklouho-Maclay’s idea, the international protectorate should be based on an international agreement between the powers interested “in the fate of the Pacific Islands“. Moreover, the traveler noted that states, in building their relations with the New Guineans, should observe the following principles:
1) The strictest respect for all the rights of the natives as human beings, as actual members of the human race;
2) Countermeasure and prohibition of kidnapping and slavery in all forms and types;
3) Equal rights and equal assistance to missionaries (as teachers and educators of natives) of all nations and all religions;
4) Equality of all traders, without distinction of nationality.
A copy of an excerpt of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s ‘open letter’ to the commodore of the Australian naval squadron, published in 1881 in the Melbourne newspaper ‘Argus’, is stored in the archives of the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation: “The constant recurrence in the daily papers of paragraphs relative to the murders and massacres in the South Sea Islands, and the review of my own experience of several years of life spent amongst the aboriginals of different islands in the Pacific, impel me to express my opinion on this matter […] That the exportation of slaves (for it is only right to give the transaction its proper name) to New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, Queensland and other countries by kidnapping and carrying away the natives under cover of false statements and lying promises, still goes on to a very large extent, I am prepared to aver and support by facts […] The conduct of many whites towards the Aboriginals of the South Sea Islands is in no way justifiable […]”.
On 24 November 1881, the traveler completed his “Project for the Development of the Maclay Coast”. The Russian scientist’s plans included opening schools in New Guinean villages, construction of wharves, roads and bridges, and developing the local economy in every possible way. However, the colonial powers, which soon divided New Guinea among themselves, saw the development of the territories for the benefit of the indigenous population as superfluous.
After the contact with the unique world of the northeastern coast of New Guinea, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay set a goal to help the islanders “to achieve, on the basis of the already existing local customs, a higher and more universal level of purely native self-government” and unite the isolated villages of the Maclay Coast in a single union. However, the world-famous traveler’s dreams were not destined to come true until 1975, when Papua New Guinea became an independent state.
In 1996, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth, Miklouho-Maclay was acknowledged as a “Global Citizen” by UNESCO for his contribution to world and Russian science and his humanistic ideas, which were long ahead of his time.
N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, by his personal example and for many generations to come, proved that we should respect the values, cultures and customs of the peoples of the world. Moreover, our differences make the world more unique and diverse, because they enclose people’s unique features, which we should learn and not classify each other by various characteristics. No wonder, one of the life rules of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay says: “Your rights end where the rights of another begin”.