Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay in Torres Strait

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay in Torres Strait

Article excerpt


The researcher is constantly in search of contemporary source documents that may have been overlooked. My current research interest is nineteenth century Torres Strait and I was keen to read the journals of the Russian natural scientist and ethnographer, Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay (henceforth Maclay), who visited the islands of the strait in April 1880.(1) Unfortunately, only a few pages of fieldnotes from that visit have survived. Dr DD Tumarkin, principal researcher at the Miklouho-Maclay Institute of Ethnology, Russian Academy of Sciences, and editor of the new edition of Maclay's collected works, facilitated my access to the originals, which I photocopied in the library of the Russian Geographical Society in St Petersburg in December 1993 (see Figures 3-7). I translated them in 1996 but found that, despite my hopes, disappointingly little new information was forthcoming. This paper organises and comments on the information found in Maclay's fieldnotes and his scientific and other writings about Torres Strait and attempts to assess their significance as a source for contemporary historical and ethnographic scholarship. Where possible, I have used and acknowledged the English translations by Sentinella (1975) and Tumarkin (Miklouho-Maclay 1982); otherwise, the translations are my own.


Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay

Maclay's stature as `scholar, explorer and public figure' (Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1973) and his involvement in significant issues of Australian and New Guinea history have conferred on him a status which transcends the fear and loathing characteristic of much of nineteenth century Australian-Russian relations (see, for example, Lack 1965-66). Like Alfred Cort Haddon, the leader of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, his early biological and geographical research interests grew to encompass the anthropological and ethnological.(2) One of the earliest followers of Darwin, Maclay is probably best remembered today as a humanist scholar who, on the basis of comparative anatomical research, was the first in Russian anthropology to refute the prevailing view that the different `races' of mankind belonged to different species.

On 25 October 1996, a bust of Maclay was unveiled on Science Road in the University of Sydney. The unveiling marked the end of a year of events celebrating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, which were covered by the national, local and ethnic press. A Russian delegation, led by the Minister of Culture and including Dr Tumarkin, visited Sydney for the unveiling, which was also attended by the Russian consul, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, members of various Russian, Ukrainian and Australian scientific communities and Miklouho-Maclay's Australian descendants.

Now largely forgotten here, Maclay was nonetheless a prominent figure of nineteenth century Australian science (see Paton 1996; Webster 1984). He contributed almost 30 papers to the Linnaean Society of NSW, designed and founded the first marine biology station in the southern hemisphere at Watsons Bay in 1881, and was instrumental in establishing the Australasian Biological Association in June of that year. The Miklouho-Maclay Society of Australia existed from 1979 to 1988 and a Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay Centenary Fellowship was endowed in 1988. Known in Australia as Nicholas Maclay, he made his home here from 1878 to 1882 and again from 1883 to 1886. His links with Australia were also familial: his marriage on 27 February 1884 to Margaret Emma--widowed daughter of Sir John Robertson, former premier of New South Wales--who returned to Australia with their two children after her husband's death in St Petersburg on 14 April 1888, established enduring personal connections. His three grandchildren have all contributed to the public life of this country.

Maclay's travel diaries were first published (in Russian) in 1923 and his collected works, Sobranie sochinenii, in the early 1950s. …

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