A Russian scientist, indigenous people and the Australian connection

Russian scientist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay opposed racist and imperialist ideas in Australia.

Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian anthropologist, biologist and explorer who lived and worked in Sydney for nine years and established himself as a respected member of the New South Wales scientific community.

He created the first biological research station in the southern hemisphere and made important contributions to the Linnean Society, at the time the main scientific and natural history institute in the self-governing British colony of NSW.

This should have solidified Miklouho-Maclay's position in the Sydney scientific community and earned him a place in history. Yet, he is largely forgotten.

His story however, was revived through the efforts of researchers and historians who compiled a documentary about him for ABC Radio National called “Remembering Nikolai”.

There is a reason he has been ignored — Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked among the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for three years and championed the rights of the indigenous nations to resist colonisation.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the British colonies of Queensland and NSW were eyeing the natural resources of Papua and New Guinea. The colonies, while not politically organised into a federation, were expanding on a capitalist basis. The Pacific islands of Polynesia and Melanesia were viewed as unexplored and untamed frontiers. NSW and Queensland lobbied the British government to colonise Papua and New Guinea.

European colonisation of indigenous people and territories was in full swing in the late nineteenth century. The English, Germans, Dutch and French were already grabbing portions of the South Pacific and Asia — Melanesia was in their sights. Germany had set up a colony in the northern half of New Guinea, and the Queensland government strongly urged the British to get a foothold in the southern half of Papua.

The ruling landed gentry of Queensland, and to a certain extent NSW, engaged in blackbirding. This involved the forcible recruitment — through kidnapping and trickery — of Melanesian workers into a scheme of indentured labour.

The indigenous people of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua were forced into a system of slavery, working in the sugar cane plantations and landed estates of Queensland and NSW.

What has all this got to do with Miklouho-Maclay?

Nineteenth century European anthropology was the heyday of pseudo-scientific racism — the belief that different human races represented different species and could be organised hierarchically into an evolutionarily-upward structure, with the lower races, such as the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia, at the lower end of the spectrum, and the white race — the colonisers — at the top.

Anthropology was used in the service of this colonising project, with pseudo-scientific devices such as phrenology and craniometry providing a veneer of respectability to the new imperial endeavour of systematic racism.

Miklouho-Maclay worked tirelessly to refute this pseudo-scientific nonsense.

Early in his career, he travelled to the Canary Islands as an assistant to the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The latter espoused the pseudo-scientific racist views prevalent at the time, and Miklouho-Maclay was determined to disprove these supremacist theories.

Europeans certainly did believe in liberty, equality and fraternity — as long as you were white.

Miklouho-Maclay was the first white man to settle and work among the indigenous Papuans. He moved there in 1871 and worked for three years among people considered “cannibals” and “flesh-eating savages.”

He formed close bonds with the people there, noting their complex societal structures and learned one of their many languages. He continued his ethnographic studies and provided ample refutation of the predominant racism of his time.

He wrote: “There is no 'superior' race. All races are equal because all people on Earth are the same biologically. Nations merely stand upon different steps of historical development. And the duty of each civilized nation is to help the people of a weaker nation in their quest for freedom and self-determination.”

While making Sydney his second home, Miklouho-Maclay spoke out against the rising tide of colonisation, and criticised the push by his adoptive home to make Papua New Guinea an economic colony.

Distrust of the newcomer turned into outright hostility, as Miklouho-Maclay maintained his opposition to the new imperialism, driven by economic interests in the emergent colonies of NSW and Queensland.

On the issue of the annexation of Papua, he said: “During my stay among the natives … I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives … about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.

“Should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.

“I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.”

Sadly, the tide of colonisation was too strong, and the British did eventually carve out a portion of New Guinea, taking possession without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. At the end of World War I, Papua New Guinea was handed over to Australia as a colonial possession.

With the injustice of this act, the resultant implacable hatred that Miklouho-Maclay warned against was realised, and so began a prolonged struggle for independence and self-determination in Papua New Guinea.

Miklouho-Maclay is largely forgotten in Australia, because his life and work reminds us of an ugly chapter in the foundational history of the Australian capitalist state.

With the unfolding discoveries about our genetic makeup facilitated by the human genome project, science is providing irrefutable evidence that there is no scientific validity for racism.

However, we must confront the racism that exists in our own society, a racism that is damaging and ruining people's lives every day.

[A longer version of this article first appeared on Antipodean Atheist https://rupensavoulian.wordpress.com]

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