An outstanding Russian scientist-humanist and traveler N.N. Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) met a lot of outstanding people from the world of science, politics and culture, but his relationship with the imperial family is one of the most interesting pages in the biography of Nikolay Nikolaevich.
In 1869, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay returned to St. Petersburg after studying in Germany. Thanks to his thirst for knowledge, as well as the expeditions to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, he was able to earn credibility in scientific circles as a student. Upon arrival to Russia, the young explorer made a good impression on eminent members of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS), including P.P. Semyonov (later Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky). All this helped N.N. Miklouho-Maclay to present his project of a long-term expedition to the Pacific, which was highly appreciated by the IRGS.
Before sailing on the Russian corvette “Vityaz”, the young scientist wasted no time and worked on an article about the sponges of the Red Sea in a small apartment on Vasilievsky Island in St. Petersburg. Nikolay Nikolaevich spent his whole days at the microscope, studying and describing the marine fauna of the Red Sea, but in the Autumn of 1870, he received a note from P.P. Semyonov. It said that in Oranienbaum at the court of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna they were very interested in the future and past travels of Miklouho-Maclay, as well as in the personality of the young scientist. Semyonov invited the explorer to the Palace in Oranienbaum, and the latter, of course, did not fail to take advantage of this invitation.
According to the recollections of contemporaries, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (widow of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia, brother of Nicholas I) was well educated and intelligent. She was engaged in charity and willingly acted as a patron of arts and sciences. Her salon at the Mikhailovsky Palace was attended by prominent scientists, writers, artists and musicians, who moved to Oranienbaum for summer. For many years, until her departure to Dorpat, academician Karl Maksímovich Ber [Karl Ernst von Baer], the author of the book “Über Papuas und Alfuren” [About Papuans and Alfurs], was a regular guest at her salon. According to Michael, Nikolay Nikolaevich’s younger brother, it was K.E. von Baer who recommended Miklouho-Maclay to Elena Pavlovna.
The warm reception of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay in Oranienbaum, led to the fact that instead of one day he spent there several weeks. While staying in the palace, he continued his scientific research, relaxed in the beautiful park and at the same time got acquainted with the mores of high society. “I have comfortable accommodations in the main building of the palace. There is my microscope, my Red Sea sponges and books in the workroom, so I can continue my work. Walks to the sea and to the park, and music in the evenings (at times beautiful: Anton Rubinstein was invited here for a few days) fill the day superbly and create a very pleasant and original contrast to my life next year with the Papuans. <…> I am generally satisfied with my stay here, especially since the court etiquette here is by no means strict, and besides, as a future Papuan, I enjoy more freedom with regard to all these little things than those who will remain Europeans. But there is a shady side: numerous conversations (in which I have to be the narrator) about Papuans and New Guinea, and daily staying awake until 1 or 2 am are not to my liking” – Nikolay Nikolaevich reported in letters to his friend Indologist Otto von Böhtlingk.
While staying in Oranienbaum, Miklouho-Maclay not only had a good rest and work, but also made useful acquaintances in high society – he managed to resolve an important issue – the necessary change in the route of “Vityaz”. The fact is that Miklouho-Maclay was aware that he was to sail to the North-East of New Guinea on the corvette “Vityaz”, but it was originally planned that the ship would not approach the coast of the island, but would leave the scientist in Indonesia, from where he would have to travel to New Guinea on his own. However, it was the influence of the Grand Duchess that helped the young scientist sail straight to New Guinea on “Vityaz”.
On October 29, 1870, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich of Russia arrived in Kronstadt, wishing to inspect the ships, including the corvette “Vityaz”, which was to sail to the Pacific. During their conversation the traveler handed the Grand Duke a letter from Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, in which she asked that the officers of the corvette “Vityaz” assist him in his scientific research. According to Nazimov, Konstantin Nikolaevich passed this note to the captain of “Vityaz”, P.N. Nazimov, saying: “I am convinced that you will do everything for him, and therefore I instruct you to fulfill Her Highness’s request”. At the same time, Nikolay Nikolaevich had time to voice another extremely important wish to the Grand Duke: “As I cannot tell in advance how long I shall have to stay in New Guinea, as it will depend on the local fever and the temper of the natives, I have taken the precaution of procuring several copper cylinders for manuscripts of various kinds (diaries, notes, etc.), which may remain buried in the ground for several years. I would therefore be very grateful if it could be arranged that a Russian military ship could call in a year or more into the place on the coast of New Guinea where I am to stay; so that, if I will not be alive, my manuscripts in the cylinders might be dug up and sent to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society”. The Grand Duke listened to the traveler carefully and, shaking his hand goodbye, promised not to forget him or his manuscript in New Guinea.
Miklouho-Maclay’s further association with the Imperial family refers to his travels in Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania, as well as to the scientist’s humanistic intentions to protect the indigenous population of northeast New Guinea.
Nikolay Nikolaevich first appealed to Emperor Alexander II through P.P. Semyonov in 1878: “The news of England’s intention to occupy New Guinea and with it, probably, the Maclay Coast, does not allow me to remain a calm spectator of this annexation. <…> Due to the insistent request of the people of the Coast I promised them to return when they were in trouble; now, knowing that this time has come and that they are in great danger (since I am convinced that the England’s colonization will end with the extermination of the Papuans), I want and must keep my word. <…> Not as a Russian, but as Tamo boro boro (supreme Chief) of the Papuans of the Maclay Coast I want to appeal to His Imperial Majesty for the protection of my country and my people, and to support my protest against England. <…> Being inexperienced in all these matters, i.e. official matters, I venture to appeal to Your Excellency, and I hope I will not be refused”. The researcher was not thinking about the Russian colonization of the Maclay Coast, but only about a “protectorate” with international obligations. His goal was salvation from colonizers, not oppression of the Papuans. In relation to Nikolay Nikolaevich’s request, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire prepared a Memorandum to the Tsar. Miklouho-Maclay’s personality and activities were praised in it, but Alexander II decided to abandon the plan for a protectorate over New Guinea.
The enthronement of the new Russian Emperor Alexander III in 1881 coincided with the long-expected return of the traveler to Russia in 1882. The Russian public was looking forward to the arrival of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay. His lectures in the IRGS Hall were extremely popular, and thousands of people hurried to listen to the world-famous traveler.
Thanks to the enthusiastic welcome in the homeland, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was granted an audience with the Emperor on 6 October 1882, at noon in Gatchina. It turned out that Alexander III first met the young traveler in the spring of 1871, when he visited Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna in Oranienbaum, and was fascinated by his plan to go to distant and unknown New Guinea, and subsequently kept being informed on his wanderings. The Emperor graciously received N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, and he, in turn, reported on his expeditions, not hiding the financial debts accumulated over a decade of expeditions. The Tsar listened attentively to the traveler but Maria Fyodorovna, his wife, was especially interested in what she heard. Five days later, at the Empress’s request, Nikolay Nikolaevich came again to Gatchina to tell the Imperial family and courtiers the most entertaining episodes of his wanderings.
Probably, already at that time the Tsar decided to settle Miklouho-Maclay’s financial problems. Already on 29 October 1882, IRGS sent a detailed letter to the Minister of Finance, emphasizing the great importance and necessity of financing Miklouho-Maclay’s research. Subsequently, the Tsar personally undertook all the expenses for N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travels and, most importantly, for the publication of his writings. In the letter to the Minister of Finance, P.P. Semyonov thanked him for assistance and expressed the belief that the highest patronage of Maclay would contribute to new achievements of the national science, and would serve “for the benefit and glory of Russia”.
The Tsar’s disposition allowed Miklouho-Maclay not only to continue his research activities, which he considered the meaning of his life, but also to promote the issue of protectorate over the North-East of New Guinea in the high society. After talking with the traveler, the Tsar was keen on the idea of raising the Russian flag on one of the islands in the South Seas, so he instructed the Chief of the Navy and Maritime Department, Admiral-General Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich and the Minister of the Russian Navy, Admiral I.A. Shestakov to work on this issue. However, due to the remoteness of New Guinea from Russia, the possibility of collision with the interests of other European powers, as well as the need to strengthen the Russian borders in the Pacific, plans for a protectorate over the Maclay Coast had to be postponed.
In 1886, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay returned to Russia again after expeditions to Australia and Oceania. One of the stops on his way to St. Petersburg was Odessa. Alexander III at the time was in the Crimea, not far from Yalta, in his Livadiya estate. On April 23-24, the traveler was received by the Tsar. Alexander III asked hiь about his plans and was interested in when the promised summary works would be ready for print. Miklouho-Maclay met informally with Empress Maria Fyodorovna, who handed him some of her photos. One of them depicts her in a traditional Russian costume, with a kokoshnik on her head, the other – with her children, including the heir to the throne – the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II (Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov).
The scientist also visited the settlement of Oreanda, near Livadiya. The estate of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich was located there. The Grand Duke friendly received the traveler, whom he helped to join the expedition on “Vityaz” in 1871. In the Summer and Autumn of 1887 Miklouho-Maclay would repeatedly meet the retired Admiral-General and his son, an officer and talented poet Konstantin Konstantinovich. The traveler hoped that these Grand Dukes would support his colonization projects, but they could not help him despite all their desire, as they had no influence at the court.
However, the return of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay to Russia in 1886-1888 was the last for the scientist. The author of about 160 scientific works and 700 drawings, who managed to prepare for publication only the first volume of his diaries about New Guinea, died on 14 April 1888. In St. Petersburg the traveler left behind a young wife, Margaret Robertson from Australia, and sons Alexander and Vladimir (Nils and Allen). On April 30, Margaret arrived in Gatchina at the invitation of the Empress. Contrary to court etiquette, Maria Fyodorovna received her in the inner chambers and had a long private conversation with her. On her own behalf and on behalf of Alexander III, she first expressed her deep condolences to Margaret, asked about her sons and the living conditions in St. Petersburg, and then asked what she was going to do in the future. The guest replied that she would like to return to her parents in Sydney, but that she had no money for that. According to her diary notes, the Empress said approximately the following: “Do not worry, we will pay for your trip to Australia and will not leave the widow and children of the Russian traveler to their fate”. Moreover, Alexander III ordered a lifetime pension of 5,000 rubles (350 pounds) a year to be paid to the wife and children of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay by the Russian Consul in Sydney. Margaret regularly received this pension until 1917, when Australia refused to recognize the young Soviet republic and the Russian Consul left Sydney.