N.N. Miklouho-Maclay put himself on record in world and Russian history as an outstanding scientist, traveler, thinker and public figure. During his lifetime, at the end of the 1870s, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay became very popular in Russia and even turned into a living legend both in the motherland and far beyond its borders. There was a good reason that the great Russian writer L.N. Tolstoy was amazed with the activities of the famous traveler and his research on the island of New Guinea.

The phenomenon of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay in the public conscience of Russians, Papua New Guineans and other peoples deserves to be extensively studied.

The mythologization of his image has acquired special features in Papua New Guinea, rooted in the history and culture of local residents. It should be noted that the Ethnographer’s Day is observed on the territory of the former USSR on the birthday of the Russian scientist – on July 17.


About the Melanesians and the Papuan anthropological type


Before talking about the myths from the Maclay Coast, it is worth learning about the Melanesians themselves, in particular about the Papuan anthropological type, whose origin has long remained in the shadows. One of the reasons for this uncertainty is probably the lack of any legends and myths among the Melanesians about their origin, about the migrations of their ancestors, etc.; another possible reason could be that the Melanesians, the inhabitants of islands with such an unusual climate and hardly reachable to Europeans, represented a dangerous and unknown world for researchers and remained almost unknown until the expeditions of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay.

The Papuan anthropological type has inhabited New Guinea since very ancient times, probably tens of thousands of years. Now it amounts to about 10 million people. The Papuan type belongs to the Oceanic branch of the Negro-Australoid, or equatorial, large race (equatorials). They are similar to other representatives of the equatorial race by a dark skin color, curly hair, large wide nose. The term “Papuan” comes from the Malay word “papuwa”, which means “curly”. This is what the Malays call the inhabitants of New Guinea for their thick hair with small curls, forming one entire mass. Anyway, despite external similarities, with the exception of Pygmies, Papuans are characterized by significant genetic diversity.

For tens of thousands of years, the Papuans passed a great historical path in cultural growth. In the second half of the XIX century, when Miklouho-Maclay lived on the northeastern coast of New Guinea (the Maclay Coast), the Papuans were able to cultivate land, build strong wooden buildings, make pottery, and had bows and arrows. The exchange of agricultural, fishing and pottery products was widely spread in the coastal areas. The locals were skilled in wood carving and the manufacture of masks, and for many peoples of the Highlands of New Guinea used body decoration and coloring. Navigation, with a few exceptions, was not developed much.

Nowadays, the main agricultural crops of the Papuans are coconut palm, yams, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugarcane, papaya, corn (papaya and corn were brought by N.N. Miklouho-Maclay). They breed dogs and chickens. Pigs are not bred, because of the threat to the coconut palms and other agricultural crops. The influence of civilization is clearly visible: many people use smartphones, Internet and television. At the same time, Papuan culture remains one of the richest even today. There are more than 860 languages in Papua New Guinea, as well as thousands of myths, legends and stories.


The Maclay Coast myths and legends about the famous Russian


As we know, in 1871, a Russian scientist set his foot on the northeastern coast of New Guinea, in Oceania, where no European had ever set foot before. He spent fifteen months on this coast, which became known as the Maclay Coast, and then visited it twice more (in 1876-1877 and 1883), having stayed there for a total of almost three years. The scientist also visited the southeastern and southwestern coasts of New Guinea. From the very beginning, the residents of the Maclay Coast treated the mysterious alien not as a mere mortal person, but as a kind of supernatural being – a deified ancestor or spirit.

At first the New Guineans thought that N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the first white man in that area, arrived there on the “smoking monster” – the steam corvette “Vityaz”. Moreover, seeing the “smoke” from this “monster”, many residents of the Maclay Coast thought that the end of the world was coming, so a real panic began and many were getting ready to meet the inevitable death, and someone tried to escape and ran into the mountains. Only a day later, when nothing special happened, the end of the world did not come, some New Guineans decided to go and look at the arriving corvette “Vityaz”.

Another argument in favor of Miklouho-Maclay’s “unearthly nature” was the light color of his skin, he was considered an ancestor who returned from the other world (the world of the dead and spirits). In the mythology of many New Guineans, light skin is a distinctive sign of the inhabitants of the other world. According to the notes of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the locals called him kaaram tamo (“a man from the moon”), it explained his power and fantastic abilities.

Later, thanks to his courage, patience, justice and humanity, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, as we know, was able to overcome the wariness of the Papuans, to win their love and trust. Having become close and friendly with the villagers of Bongu, Gorendu and Gumbu, having mastered their language, having established good relations with the inhabitants of several other villages on the Maclay Coast, the Russian scientist was able to widely expand his scientific research. The Papuans stopped avoiding him, began to invite him to their celebrations, but continued to consider the Russian scientist a kind of a demigod.

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay could not help noticing a special attitude of the islanders towards himself. “They came to me, asking me to change the weather or the direction of the wind,” – the scientist wrote after his first stay on the Maclay Coast. The Papuans were strong in their belief that the scientist’s gaze could cure a sick person or harm a healthy one. They believed that he could fly and even, if he wanted, could “set the sea on fire” or “cause and stop earthquakes”.

It should be noted that the scientist did not try to renounce, but rather encouraged their belief in his supernatural origin and unlimited capabilities, since it provided him with certain security and indisputable credibility, and therefore more favorable conditions for his scientific research. For example, when the Papuan Saul asked Miklouho-Maclay if he was mortal, the scientist handed the Papuan a spear with the words: “Let us see if Maclay can die”. Of course, Saul decided not to try, and the scientist was no longer asked such a question.

Considering all this, the following episode is especially interesting: several Papuans (indigenous people) together with Tui, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s first friend in New Guinea, came to the scientist’s hut, and he got an idea of “doing a test of their impressionability”. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay took a saucer from under the cup of tea he was drinking, wiped it dry and called his guests. He then poured some water into it, took a sip and passed it to one of the natives, who confirmed that it was water. The scientist then added several drops of spirit into the saucer and lit it. The natives, amazed, opened their mouths, raised eyebrows and stepped back a couple of steps. He then splashed some burning alcohol out of the saucer where it continued to burn on the stair and on the ground. The natives jumped aside, fearing that the scientist would spill some fire on them and, and cleared off straight away as if they feared to see something still more terrifying. But after 10 minutes they appeared again, this time with a whole crowd. They were inhabitants of the local villages, who learned about the burning water from Tui, and  wanted to see it. Tui begged to show everyone “how the water burns”. When N.N. Miklouho-Maclay fulfilled this request, the effect was indescribable: most of them rushed to run away, asking the Russian scientist “not to set the sea on fire”. Many remained standing, being so amazed and frightened that their feet literally froze in place. When the tension subsided, the New Guineans, after such a show, tirelessly invited N.N. Miklouho-Maclay to their villages.

One way or another, an ethnographer who wants to isolate himself from civilization for a detailed study of the inhabitants of distant and unexplored islands, brings some aspects of civilization with him, but how to use them is another matter. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was not only brave, kind and fair, nor he only healed the sick, but also brought the first steel axes and knives, seeds and seedlings of plants unknown to the locals, and later – a bull and a cow. The Papuans had never seen such animals and therefore decided that the bull was a big pig, but its fangs did not grow out of its mouth, but from its forehead. Miklouho-Maclay started to introduce various agricultural crops and tools to facilitate the life of the inhabitants of the Maclay Coast, so Russian words such as “topor” [axe], “kukuruza” [corn] and “arbuz” [watermelon] appeared in the Papuan languages. In addition, they used to add his name to the local names of some cultivated plants brought by the Russian scientist: djigli Maclay (cucumber), valju Maclay (pumpkin), etc. As a result, the mythological image of Miklouho-Maclay acquired the features characteristic of a cultural hero, who brings new knowledge and skills to people. We see this image of the Russian scientist in the legends from the Maclay Coast.

At the same time, in 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 human races were unequal. Later 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 New Guinea. During the expeditions to the northeastern coast of New Guinea, the Russian scientist collected irrefutable evidence that the locals did not differ from Europeans in their physical and mental properties.

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 an important goal for himself: to collect materials about kidnapping and slavery in Oceania, so that upon his return to Australia he could start a process against slave trade. 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 forced labor system. He also planned to open schools in New Guinea villages, but the colonial powers, who soon divided New Guinea among themselves, considered this unnecessary. For his contribution to world and Russian science, as well as humanistic ideas that were long ahead of their time, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was acknowledged as a “Global citizen” by UNESCO in 1996.

In 1884, the northeastern part of New Guinea, including the Maclay Coast, was annexed by Germany. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was afraid that his knowledge about the peoples of Oceania, about the inhabitants of the Maclay Coast in particular, could be used not for good, but against them, so most of the information became public from the published diaries of the great scientist and traveler, but not during his lifetime. One way or another, colonial officials, missionaries and new landowners tried to take advantage of the good memory that tamo boro rus Maclay left about himself, even posing as his brothers or messengers.

The arrogant and aggressive attitude to New Guineans, and especially the appropriation of lands on the coast, gave rise to estrangement and uprisings against the colonizers. Because of this attitude, New Guineans understood that N.N. Miklouho-Maclay had had nothing in common with those people. Moreover, the Russian scientist was included in traditional myths and as a deified cultural hero turned into one of the local deities. The mythologized image of tamo boro russ also quickly penetrated into the consciousness of people of foothill and mountainous areas of  the Maclay Coast.


Soviet ethnographers and myths about N.N. Miklouho-Maclay


100 years after N.N.Miklouho-Maclay’s first visit to the northeastern coast of New Guinea, Soviet scientists arrived there, and the ethnographic team was led by an outstanding Russian ethnographer D.D. Tumarkin. As the Soviet scientists found out, the Papuans learnt about N.N. Miklouho-Maclay since childhood, because the stories about him were passed from father to son, from generation to generation. Moreover, the elderly Bonguans still considered the Russian scientist a deity at that time. Some young people who studied at school, apparently, no longer deified Miklouho-Maclay, but for them he was a man from the legends – mysterious, powerful and unusually kind. Noteworthy, a representative of the local colonial administration strongly asked the Soviet ethnographers who visited the village of Bongu in 1971 not to go to the cape in groups. A memorial was installed there on the site of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s hut, and it was important not to arrange any solemn ceremonies there. Otherwise, he warned, some Bonguans might start digging there to discover the treasures sent by Maclay.


Modern Russian expeditions and the memory of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay


There was another milestone in the study of Oceania, in particular, New Guinea. In 2017 and 2019, two Russian research expeditions to Papua New Guinea were organized by the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation and led by N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Jr., a descendant and full namesake of the great humanist scientist and traveler. The expedition team included scientists from Moscow and St. Petersburg. During these expeditions, the scientists completely immersed themselves in everyday life of the local residents, most of whom were descendants of those who had seen Miklouho-Maclay 150 years ago. During the scientific research expeditions, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Jr. collected legends and stories about his famous ancestor from the villagers of Bongu, Gumbu and Gorendu. Since the XIX century, these legends and stories have been passed on from generation to generation by the elders of the villages. And these memories about the outstanding researcher correspond strikingly accurately to his diary notes, and some facts confirm that Miklouho-Maclay was almost a deity for the locals, and left a mark forever in their hearts and legends. Of course, the name of the Russian humanist scientist and traveler has forever left in the history of Russia, Papua New Guinea and the whole world.