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Kubary, John Stanislaw (1846–1896)

by L. K. Paszkowski

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Stanislaw Kubary (1846-1896), naturalist and ethnographer, was born on 13 November 1846 in Warsaw, son of Stanislaw Kubary (d.1852) and his wife Tekla, née Schur. He was brought up by his stepfather and after high school began to study medicine, but was persecuted by the Russian police for involvement in the Polish revolution in 1863-64 and fled to Germany. In 1868 he was appointed collector for Godeffroy's museum in Hamburg.

In September 1869 Kubary reached Apia, Samoa, and was briefly trained by Dr Graeffe. Attracted to ornithology he discovered an unknown type of gallinule and at least four sub-species of birds. In 1870 he visited various islands and in the Ebon Group collected material on ethnography and zoology and compiled a dictionary of the dialect. After some months at Yap he went in February 1871 to the Palaus where he successfully fought an influenza epidemic, winning the esteem and confidence of the natives; he was told many secrets and admitted to many rites. In 1873 he visited the Marshall and Caroline Groups and in August landed on Ponape, whence he explored ruins on Nanmatal Island and produced a map and description of the ancient 'basalt city'. In August 1874 he left in the Alfred, with a hundred crates of his collections. The ship was wrecked on Jaluit Island and only a few crates were salvaged. After collecting in Jaluit and Samoa he sent twenty-three crates to Hamburg. On 6 February 1875 he arrived in Sydney in the Mikado and successfully sought naturalization.

In May Kubary reached Hamburg. He visited Lvov and in the Second Congress of the Polish Physicians and Naturalists, as one of the Warsaw representatives, lectured on the classification of Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian languages. The Hamburg Geographical Society made him a corresponding member. In August he signed a five-year agreement with Godeffroy, and sailed for the Pacific. At Ponape he started a plantation and built permanent headquarters. In 1877-78 he collected in several islands and stayed at Truk for fourteen months. There he learnt that Godeffroy had released him from their contract, leaving him without a livelihood. He sailed with notable seamanship among the islands in a native canoe and corrected local maps. He then returned to Ponape and worked intensively on his plantation. There he married Anna Yelliott, daughter of an American missionary and his Micronesian wife.

Early in 1882 Kubary's plantation was destroyed by a hurricane. He worked at the Tokyo Museum and collected for the museum at Leiden and the Ethnographical Museum in Berlin, but won no permanent contract. Expert in Oceanic languages, he became interpreter on the German warship Albatros. In October 1885 he landed at Rabaul and took charge of a plantation at Matupit. Early in 1887 he signed an agreement with the Neu Guinea Kompagnie as manager of a trading post at Constantinhafen. He also collected ethnographical material and made a valuable collection of stuffed birds, shells and butterflies. In 1892 he left for Germany with his wife and only daughter, Izabella. Despite a flattering reception and a lecture at Lvov he found no employment and returned to New Guinea, where he stayed till December 1895. He then went to Manila to clarify his rights to the plantation at Ponape. After months in hospital he returned to Ponape and found his plantation devastated in a native uprising. On 9 October 1896 he was found dead on the grave of his only son Bertram.

With little scientific training, Kubary proved his great ability and intelligence, winning the praise of many scholars for his contributions to natural history, ethnography, anthropology, cartography and linguistics as well as the love and veneration of the native people of the Western Pacific. He published at least two dozen scientific monographs, articles and papers in German, Polish and French. His most important work was Ethnographische Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Karolinen Archipels (Leiden, 1889-92). His name is commemorated in ornithology, entomology and conchology and by German geographers in a peak (often misspelt) in the Finisterre Range, New Guinea. A monument subscribed by forty-six German scientists and a few Poles was erected at Ponape.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Paszkowski, ‘John Stanislaw Kubary: Naturalist and Ethnographer of the Pacific Islands’, Australian Zoologist, vol 16, no 2, Sept 1971, pp 43-70.

Citation details

L. K. Paszkowski, 'Kubary, John Stanislaw (1846–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kubary-john-stanislaw-3975/text6277, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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