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Nicholai Nicholaievich Mikluho-Maklai (1846–1888)

by R. W. de M. Maclay

This article was published:

Nicholai Nicholaievich Mikluho-Maklai (1846-1888), scientist and explorer usually known as Nicholas Maclay, was born on 17 July 1846 at Rozhdestvenskoye, Russia, second son of Nicholai Hijtch Mikluho-Maklai, hereditary nobleman, and his wife Ekaterina Semenovna, née Bekker. Educated in St Petersburg at a secondary school, he briefly studied law and philosophy at the university and in 1864 moved to Heidelberg. He studied medicine at Leipzig in 1866 and palaeontology, zoology and comparative anatomy at Jena. On vacation travels he became a competent linguist, and in the Canary Islands examined sponges and shark brains, on which he published important papers. Marine biology drew him to the Red Sea and after a bout of malaria to the Volga. His attention was drawn to New Guinea as a promising field for anthropological and ethnological studies. Aided by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society he visited European museums and met leading scientists. In October 1870 he sailed in the Russian corvette Vitiaz and by way of South America and the Pacific Islands reached Astrolabe Bay in September 1871.

From his hut at Garagassi Point, Maclay visited many villages, collected specimens, drew faces and scenery and named mountain peaks. With patience, courage and medical skill he won the confidence and co-operation of the inhabitants. He found them far from long-headed as earlier reported and studied their languages and characteristics. His necessities were running out when the corvette Isumrud arrived in December 1872. He named the Maclay Coast from Isumrud to Vitiaz Straits and in the corvette went to the Halmaheras and Philippines where he found primitive tribes similar to those he had seen in New Guinea. In 1873 at Batavia he published his anthropological observations, sent specimens and comments to his European teachers and recuperated for six months at Buitenzorg in the mountains. He then visited the Celebes and Moluccas, and at Papua-Koviai in west New Guinea found ethnological traits similar to those on the Philippines and Maclay Coast. After local exploration he returned to Papua-Koviai and found that raiders had smashed his hut, stolen his equipment and killed some local supporters. With skill he captured the chief offender and brought him to justice, but the experience contrasted so strongly with the goodwill of the more isolated natives of the Maclay Coast that he determined to preserve their cultures.

In April 1874 Maclay went to Amboina, where in June he was found seriously ill by Captain John Moresby who had been sent to look for him. By July Maclay was at Buitenzorg resting and preparing publications. In November he went to Singapore and for 176 days travelled in Malaya where he found more primitive tribes whose ethnological characteristics were akin to those in the Philippines and New Guinea. In December he returned to Buitenzorg and published four papers suggesting a relation between the natives of the regions he had investigated.

In January 1876 Maclay sailed to the Halmaheras and Carolines, and on the Admiralty Islands established that the natives' enlarged teeth were not a racial trait but resulted from chewing betel nut with lime. He returned to Astrolabe Bay in June and with material from Singapore built a new home at Bugarlom near Bougu village. Renewed friendships and greater facility with dialects enabled him to visit many villages in the mountains and on the coast and islands. He prevented violence which threatened to erupt from superstition and warned his native friends against slave traders. He also made drawings and collections of local animals but confined his diaries to anthropological matters. In November 1877 he sailed north among the islands and reached Singapore in January 1878. He went to Hong Kong in June and in July arrived at Sydney with large collections.

On 26 August Maclay addressed the local Linnean Society on the need for a laboratory of marine studies on Sydney Harbour. The lecture was one of his thirty-four research papers and notes published by the society; he was made an honorary member in 1879. He also became closely associated with W. J. Macleay, sharing common interests particularly in the study of sharks. In November 1878 the Dutch government informed him that on his recommendations it was checking the slave traffic at Ternate and Tidore. In January 1879 he wrote to Sir Arthur Gordon, high commissioner for the Western Pacific, on protecting the land rights of his friends on the Maclay Coast, and ending the traffic in arms and intoxicants in the South Pacific. In March, after continuing his campaign for the laboratory, Maclay sailed in the Sadie F. Caller for the islands north-east of Queensland. He expected the ship to return to Sydney with his collections but half of them were lost when she went elsewhere. With James Chalmers he visited villages on the south coast of New Guinea but found no evidence to upset his conviction that the people were of common origin. In April 1880 he went to Somerset, Queensland, and thence to Brisbane, where he resumed his studies on the comparative anatomy of the brains of Aboriginal, Malayan, Chinese and Polynesian origin. He inspected Aboriginals on the Darling Downs and palaeontological excavations of extinct mammals at Stanthorpe and Glen Innes. Meanwhile he continued to send notes and specimens to his former teacher, Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902).

Maclay returned to Sydney in January 1881. With help from the government and scientific societies in Sydney and Melbourne his ambition for a marine laboratory was at last realized. While it was being built at Watsons Bay he worked in Sydney museums and collected evidence for his campaign against the exploitation of natives. In August he went to New Guinea in hope of providing guidance at the trial of the murderers of native missionaries and their families at Kalo. He returned in October and found the laboratory almost complete. When the Russian Pacific fleet visited Melbourne in February 1882 Maclay joined the Vestnik and arrived at Kronshtadt, Russia, in September.

Maclay lectured to the Russian Geographical Society and each morning explained his collections and drawings to enthusiastic visitors. He was awarded a gold medal by the society and a certificate of honour by the Czar but failed to raise funds. He visited Virchow in Berlin, Turgenev in Paris and T. H. Huxley in London. In 1883 he joined the Chyebassa at Port Said. His luggage went to Sydney while he sailed to Batavia. A Russian corvette took him to Astrolabe Bay in March, where the natives reported unfavourably on European visitors, and thence to Hong Kong. In April he sailed for Sydney and was joined at Thursday Island by Chalmers. Together they sought recognition from the Colonial Office of the land rights of natives in eastern New Guinea, their freedom from forced labour and protection from intoxicants. In London Moresby supported their petition but action was too slow to prevent the German annexation of north-east New Guinea on 16 November 1884. Meanwhile Maclay had reached Sydney on 11 June 1883 to find many of his records and collections had been destroyed nine months earlier in the Exhibition Building fire. In August he worked at the marine laboratory and prepared papers for publication. On 27 February 1884 he married Margaret Emma Clark, widowed daughter of Sir John Robertson at her father's home, Clovelly, Watsons Bay.

Maclay wrote to Bismarck in October seeking protection of Pacific islanders from white exploitation and later protested against the German annexation. Early in 1886 he returned to Russia with his family and twenty-two boxes of specimens. He arranged some publications, lectured in St Petersburg and on his travels visited the family estates and scientists. At Vienna he and his wife were married by rites of the Russian Orthodox Church. He intended to return to Sydney but his health deteriorated and he died on 2 April 1888 in his wife's arms. Her income from his estate ended in 1917 and she died in Sydney on 1 January 1936 survived by their two sons.

A portrait by Corsuchin is among his records at the Library of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • E. S. Thomassen, A Biographical Sketch of Nicholas de Miklouho Maclay, the Explorer (Brisb, 1882)
  • F. S. Greenop, Who Travels Alone (Syd, 1944)
  • S. Markov, Nikolai Miklukho-Maclay (Moscow, 1946)
  • N. N. Miklukho-Maklai. Sobranie Sochinenii, vols 1-5 (Moscow, Akademii nauk SSSR, 1950-54)
  • D. Fischer, Unter Südsee-Insulanern (Leipzig, 1955)
  • Na Bregu Maklaya (Moscow, Akademii nauk SSSR, 1961)
  • N. A. Butinov, N. N. Miklukho-Maklai-velikii Ruskii Uchenyi-Gumanist (Leningrad, 1971)
  • Miklouho-Maclay papers and M. de Miklouho-Maclay diary, 1888 (University of Sydney diary)
  • relics (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. W. de M. Maclay, 'Mikluho-Maklai, Nicholai Nicholaievich (1846–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Maclay, Nicholas

17 July, 1846
Rozhdestvenskoye, Russia


2 April, 1888 (aged 41)
St Petersburg, Russia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.