During the research activity in Oceania, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay visited various parts of Polynesia. In 1871, on his way to New Guinea on the Russian corvette “Vityaz”, Miklouho-Maclay simultaneously conducted research of the island world of Polynesia, and also visited Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Mangareva, Tahiti, etc.
After a rather long stay in the ports of South America (February 20-June 2, 1871), “Vityaz” set course for the northeastern coast of New Guinea, which was later destined to go down in history as the Maclay Coast. The shortest route laid through the Polynesian islands, so Easter Island (Rapa Nui), closest to South America, became the ship’s first stop. Approaching Easter Island, the Russian researcher noted the hilly contour of the island, indicating its volcanic origin. However, even at that time, the population of the island was rapidly declining. The English navigator James Cook (1728-1779) estimated that from 6 to 7 thousand people lived on Easter Island. When N.N.Miklouho-Maclay arrived there, the number of inhabitants did not exceed 500 people. As the Russian scientist noted, the reason for the population’s disappearance was its capture by the Peruvians, and half of the remaining inhabitants were struck by smallpox. The decline in the population was accompanied by the loss of the unique traditions and culture of the indigenous people, who were often taken to other islands and kept in captivity. The situation on Rapa Nui made the most painful impression on the scientist and the officers of “Vityaz”, after which the ship’s captain P.N. Nazimov canceled the planned anchorage and ordered to move on. «About two hours later we took off the drift, seeing only the contour of Rapa Nui, a dozen natives and three sheep breeders <…> I was very sorry and annoyed, being close to the island, not to visit it, not to examine the evidence of earlier life of the islanders which made Rapa Nui the only one Island of its kind among all the Pacific Ocean islands» — N.N. Miklouho-Maclay wrote in his diaries. However, the researcher soon caught up.
Pitcairn Island was the next on the route, a small mountainous island, covered with lush vegetation and inhabited by the descendants of the rebels from HMS “Bounty” (1789). Ill health prevented N.N.Miklouho-Maclay from going ashore, but he carefully wrote down the stories of the “Vityaz”’s officers who visited this tiny island. According to Nikolay Nikolaevich’s notes, the people “were dressed in shirts and pantaloons” and spoke English. In total, there were 9 families on the island, in which the female population exceeded the male. There was a double bed, a bunk bed and a table in the islanders’ houses. Pitcairn island was too small to breed cattle, so there were no cattle.
After a day of drifting at the coast of the Polynesian island, “Vityaz” continued its voyage. On July,8, 1871, the Russian corvette approached the Archipelago of Mangarewa, consisting of four small volcanic islands. Mangarewa residents welcomed the “Vityaz” crew hospitably and brought food, shells and pearls. According to N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s diary notes, he lived in a small house on the coast, conducted anthropological observations and collected valuable information about the idols and the writing system of the islanders. The locals crowded on the veranda of his house every day from morning till night, so N.N. Miklouho-Maclay had an opportunity to communicate with internally displaced persons from Easter Island, who almost did not differ from the local indigenous population in their appearance. On Mangarewa, Mikloukho-Maclay made several portraits of the islanders, purchased a stone axe, a drum and a stand for sacrifices. According to the traveler, the island was ruled by a hereditary king, and the chief military commander was elected annually. Candidates for the post of military commander had to find and get a nest with eggs of a bird that “nested in very inaccessible, rocky places”. It was not easy to get such an egg, so the most agile and strong resident won.
After a four-day stay on Mangarewa, “Vityaz” set off again. The next stop was the world-famous island of Tahiti, where France had established a protectorate back in 1843.
Nikolay Nikolaevich rented a small house in the town of Papeete, the administrative capital of Tahiti, and led an active lifestyle. The first evening after arriving in Tahiti, the scientist attended a reception in honor of the foreign sailors, and on the other days he got acquainted with the life of plantation workers, negotiated with local merchants about the purchase of supplies, paid a visit to Queen Pōmare IV, participated in a celebration organized by her in the village of Papara, etc. Nikolay Nikolaevich used all the opportunities to get to know the culture and life of the population better and to enrich his knowledge about the Tahitians. Portraits of Tahitians made by the scientist and drawings of their huts have been preserved. Moreover, while in Tahiti, the traveler met a catholic bishop Florentien Jossan. Having accidentally learned about the existence of wooden tablets covered with rows of elaborately carved symbols on Easter Island, Jossan acknowledged the enormous cultural significance of these items and ordered the missionaries there to send him as many tablets as they could find. Having discovered that the bishop was interested in Rapa Nui culture, Miklouho-Maclay visited Jossan at his residence. The bishop received the young Russian scientist cordially, showed the guest several tablets which Nikolay Nikolaevich measured and described. Conquered by the enthusiasm of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, his extensive knowledge and desire to unravel the secrets of the Rapa Nui language, Jossan made him a precious gift — he gifted him one of the tablets with inscriptions. Now these tablets are stored in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (the Kunstkamera).
Unlike the previous stops on the islands of Polynesia, “Vityaz” stayed at the island of Tahiti for 11 days. After a few days of sailing, on August 11, 1871, the corvette anchored off the equally famous Samoan Islands, which became one of the last stops on the way to New Guinea. There, Nikolay Nikolaevich purchased the missing equipment and supplies. Moreover, it was in Samoa where N.N. Miklouho-Maclay hired two servants for his New Guinea adventure: a Swedish whaler Ohlsen and a young man from the island of Niue, nicknamed Boy (“boy” in English, a native servant). As he wrote in a letter, sent to his mother from Apia (on the island of Upolu), Miklouho-Maclay, without thinking twice, distributed the duties among the hired servants: “One of them, a Polynesian <…> will be my cook and guide in my excursions into the interior of New Guinea, another one, a Swedish, will look after my house and, since he is a whaler, go with me on a sea hunt for animals”. Among other things, the Russian traveler used his stay in Samoa to master the language, to learn about the culture and life of the indigenous people.
From the Samoan Islands, the corvette “Vityaz” with the traveler on board headed to the mountainous volcanic island of Rotuma, located on the border of Polynesia and Melanesia. The main purpose of the visit was to replenish food supplies, but here again N.N. Miklouho-Maclay set his foot on the coast of the Polynesian island and got acquainted with the life of Rotumans: “The voices of the Rotuma islanders are very sonorous and pleasant; unfortunately, I have only heard the spoiled motifs of Catholic church songs” — N.N. Miklouho-Maclay wrote down in his expedition diary.
On September 20, 1871, the Russian scientist traveler became the first European who set foot on the northeast coast of New Guinea, where he would have lived for a total of 2.5 years (three expeditions 1871-1872, 1876-1877 and 1883). These expeditions brought N.N. Miklouho-Maclay world fame, but his contribution to the ethnography of the island world of Polynesia remains relevant to this day.