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A Cossack among the Papuans — a story of Mykola Myklukho-Maklay


Mykola Myklukho-Maklay (July 5/17 1846 — April 2/14 1888) was a nineteenth-century Ukrainian anthropologist, ethnographer, biologist, geographer, writer, painter and philosopher, all rolled into one. He spent many years of his mature life travelling to various parts of the globe. Particularly valuable were his contributions to anthropology and ethnography. No matter where he was, he never lost touch with Ukraine — he loved his native land and was proud to be a Ukrainian.


"If one feels oneself a son of all the humanity, it does not mean one has forgotten one's native land."

Mykola Myklukho-Maklay


Myklukho-Maklay’s lineage

It has not been reliably established where Mykola Myklukho-Maklay was born. According to some sources, he was born into a Ukrainian family in the village of Rozhdestvenskoye, Novgorodska Guberniya (Province), Russia. Other sources claim he was born in the town of Malyn, in the Land of Zhytomyrshchyna.

But the actual place of birth does not matter that much if the family provide an ethnically-oriented background, and Myklukha’s family was thoroughly Ukrainian. Mykola’s father, also Mykola, worked as an engineer at the construction of a St Petersburg railroad station but work in Russia did not diminish in any way his fascination with Ukrainian culture, in general, and his admiration for Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet, in particular. He avidly read Shevchenko’s poems and petitioned the authorities to have him recalled from exile. His petitioning and providing Shevchenko with money landed Mykluko-Maklay Sr in trouble — the “impertinent Maloros (Russian word used somewhat disparagingly for Ukrainians) was fired from work and would probably face criminal charges if not for his tuberculosis.

The lineage of Myklukho-Maklay Sr was traced back to the Ukrainian Cossacks from Zaporizhzhya. One of his ancestors, Okhrim Makukha, was a Cossack otaman or military commander. Okhrim’s sons — Omelko, Nazar and Khoma, were Cossacks who fought in a Cossack army against the Poles in the Ukrainian war of independence in the seventeenth century. Nazar fell in love with a Polish noble woman and defected to the Poles. When his two brothers who were greatly incensed by Nazar’s treason, learnt that Nazar was hiding in a fortress that the Cossack army was holding under siege, they worked out a plan how to penetrate into the fortress, find their traitorous brother, capture him and smuggle him out of the fortress. The plan worked but Khoma was killed in a skirmish when the brothers with their captive were already fleeing from the fortress. Otaman Okhrim executed his own son turned traitor, by his own hand.

This story was related by Myklukho-Maklay’s paternal uncle to Mykola Hohol who used it for his novel Taras Bulba (Mykola Hohol who is better known in the English-speaking countries as Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian by birth, became one of the greatest writers of Russian literature).

Another of Myklukho-Maklay’s ancestors was Stepan Makhlay, a Cossack who for his great feats of bravery during a Russo-Turkish war was awarded an order and created a noble. He was invited to come to St Petersburg and it was Empress Catherine II herself who put the order of St Volodymyr on his chest and handed him the credentials of a noble. He accepted both the order and nobility though it was Catherine who deprived the Cossacks of the last vestiges of their freedom.

The newly created noble must have decided that Makhlay was not a proper name for him any longer and to make it look more dignified he invented a new last name for himself — Myklukho-Maklay. The double name in itself was suggestive of noble origins, and Maklay which sounded foreign (one of his Myklukho-Maklay’s descendants who lived in Scotland, must have had no problems with becoming McLay, a native Scot) was a fancy addition to the name.

Mykola learnt of his father’s Cossack ancestry when he was still a little boy and later Gogol’s Taras Bulba became the book he reread many times. His father kept the imaginary portrait of Taras Bulba on his desk. In a letter to his brother Serhiy, Mykola wrote that after their father’s death he had discovered among their father’s papers a document which confirmed the bestowal of a title upon their ancestor. Mykola even discovered their family’s coat of arms — the figure of a Cossack holding a sabre in his raised hand with a fortress gate depicted in the background.

The maiden name of Kateryna, Mykola’s mother, was Bekker. Her father, Samen Bekker, a physician of German extraction who had come to Russia in 1812 as Friedrich von Becker, was married to a Polish woman of noble birth, Lidia Szatkovska.

Among the Szatkovsky’s ancestors was Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), one of the most prominent Polish poets, and Goethe was a relative of the Beckers. Mykola Myklukho-Maklay must have known that two great poets were among his distant relatives and he always had volumes of Mickiewicz’s and Goethe’s poetry with him in all of his travels.

Mykola Myklukho-Maklay Sr died at the age of forty from tuberculosis when his eldest son “Serhiy was thirteen, Mykola was eleven, I was nine and a half, Volodya was eight and the youngest Mykhaylyk was only eighteen months… Though young, we knew what we wanted to do in our future life. Serhiy had an ambition to be a judge; Mykola dreamed of becoming a naturalist; I had resolved to be a painter, and Volodya wanted to serve in the navy. Shortly before he died, our father talked about our ambitions and encouraged us to go ahead and achieve what we had planned for ourselves,” wrote Mykola’s sister Olga.

Serhiy did become a judge and was known as a person of high integrity and unshakable moral values. He was appreciated and respected as a judge who upheld the law and always did his best to defend justice. Mykola did become a naturalist of high humanistic principles. Olga did not have time to establish herself as an artist because she died young from tuberculosis (Mykola considered her to be his best friend and her death was a loss which he mourned until his own death). Volodymyr did become a navy officer who was promoted to captain 1st rank. He died in the Battle of Tsushima in the Tsushima Strait, where the ships of the Japanese Admiral Togo destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904– 05. The dreadnought Ushakov, on which Volodymyr Myklukho-Maklay served, put up a heroic fight before she was badly damaged by the overwhelming fire superiority of the Japanese warships. Captain Volodymyr Myklukho-Maklay did whatever could be done to save as many lives as possible as the warship began to sink, but he himself died.

Mykhailo, the youngest of Myklukho-Maklay brothers became a mining engineer who lived in the town of Malyn and worked in the vicinity at the ore mines. Mykola Myklukho-Maklay visited his brother in between his voyages.


Young prodigy

Probably not too many people among those whom we traditionally call “great” were handsome and healthy — their appearance and their intellect and skills in most cases did not match — Julius Caesar was an epileptic; Byron was lame; Napoleon was of short stature — this list is a long one indeed. Neither did many of the future geniuses show much of an aptitude for and diligence in science or art in their young years.

Mykola Myklukho-Maklay was a sickly child — jaundice, tonsillitis, chronic pneumonia, bronchitis, rheumatism, and other diseases plagued him in childhood and early adolescence. A partial paralysis of the vocal chords made him stutter and left him with a guttural voice for life.

Mykola learnt to read and write at the age of four and was an avid reader. Before he was ten, he had learnt Latin, French and German; he played the piano well and his drawings showed quite a mature hand. But he was not accepted at a regular school because he was found “to be too sick and underdeveloped.” His parents were advised to give the boy to a specialized school for handicapped children. The private tutors who were hired mistreated the boy and even thrashed him. The boy was warned, under the threat of even more severe punishment, not to tell his parents about it but when they did find out they fired the tutors. After his father’s death, a private German school agreed to enrol Mykola as a student.

Mykola was a lonely child, growing up without company of his age peers. The only person in whom he could confide was his sister Olga. The desire to be alone from time to time and retire to the privacy of his thoughts lived with him all his life, and in his later years he became resigned to it.

Mykola began writing diaries at an early age and some of the entries are amazing in their maturity. A couple of entries written down when he was only ten may well illustrate this:

“The one who thinks that by badly mistreating someone else he achieves triumph of his strength is badly in the wrong. Triumph is a holiday, an occasion for rejoicing. And what kind of holiday wickedness and malice can inspire? If one is malicious and cruel, it indicates that one is bereft of a soul that can feel empathy with the pain of others…”

“Cruelty and violence must not be left unpunished — if they go unpunished, it would be tantamount to their being tolerated and even encouraged.” It was written by a ten-year old boy!

In his third year of studies at the German Lutheran school when he was eleven years old, Mykola submitted his translations from Latin, French and German — a two-hundred page translation from Cicero; a translation of Voltaire’s novel Candide and a translation of excerpts from Hegel’s works.

The boy read Pliny, Caesar, Petrarch, Schiller and other classics of Roman and west European literature; he knew Goethe’s Faust and Shevchenko’s Haydamaky by heart. His teachers would have been surprised even more if they had read his tract on Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65), in which he enters into a polemic with this Roman Stoic philosopher, writer, and tutor of Nero, the Roman emperor. “No great achievements of the mind are possible without great trials of the soul,” wrote an eleven-year old boy.

Mykola’s intellectual development was far ahead of his physical development and people in whom such an imbalance is observed often suffer from psychological crises, and they may grow despondent and lose interest in life. But if later they overcome such a psychological state, they become great achievers.


Further studies and first travels

Mykola Myklukho-Maklay continued his studies at one of the gimnaziya (secondary school of advanced studies) of St Petersburg from 1859 to 1863, and without formally finishing his secondary education, he entered the Department of Physics and Mathematics of St Petersburg University. “At the same time, I attended classes at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery,” he wrote in his diary.

In 1864, Mykola took part in students’ disturbances and “I was expelled from the Gimnaziya and a little later I was banned from attending classes as a non-credit student at St Petersburg University. I had been enrolled at the university without a general education certificate as an auditor. After the expulsion I was also denied the right to study at any other higher educational establishment of the Russian Empire because I was put under police surveillance. In order to continue my education, I had to go abroad and I studied in Germany,” wrote Myklukho-Maklay in his memoirs much later.

The political situation in Russia at that time, particularly with such a minister of domestic affairs as Valuyev, was far from being liberal. Valuyev, incidentally, was an archenemy of anything Ukrainian and it was thanks to his efforts that the Ukrainian language was banned from public use in Ukraine.

In Germany, Myklukho-Maklay studied at the Department of Philosophy, Heidelberg University and attended medical classes at Jena and Leipzig Universities from 1864 to 1866.

His ambition to travel to and even live in tropical countries must have taken its final shape during his studies in Germany because it was in 1866 that he set out on his travels.

It is reasonable to ask by whom Myklukho-Maklay’s studies and travels were financed. His mother had an estate in Malyn that brought modest revenues, a substantial part of which was used to subsidize her son, even though it meant that the rest of the family had to subsist on very little. Myklukho-Maklay had influential friends to whom he turned for financial help. One of such friends was prince Aleksey Tolstoy. Some organizations, like geographical and natural science societies also made their contributions, but Myklukho-Maklay’s letters reveal that he was always short of money.

The first on his long list of places to visit were the Canary Islands. From there he travelled to the Red Sea, than to Morocco, France and Spain. In 1868, he had a book about his travels published in Jena. The book was enhanced with his drawings of the places he had visited.

It is not improbable to surmise that in addition to purely scientific interests and general curiosity, he could have had lofty ideals of “freedom and liberation of all the oppressed and enslaved people” on his mind when he began his travels. “Everybody strives for freedom. But to what extent this freedom is possible or whether it would be useful for the majority are the important questions to answer. If everyone is free to do whatever one pleases, then it is not freedom but the worst kind of a herd out of control,” wrote the young Mykola Myklukho-Maklay in his diary.

Anyway, soon after his return to Russia, he began to plan new travels and Prince Konstantin, head of the Geographical Society and Navy Minister, helped him with getting a place at the corvette Vityaz that was to sail to some of the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

The corvette left Krondstadt, the naval port in the vicinity of St Petersburg, in November 1870 and brought Myklukho-Maklay to New Guinea, an island in the southwest Pacific Ocean in early September 1872. The sailors of the corvette helped him build a small house on a spit of land and then the ship set sail again, leaving Myklukho-Maklay and two of his servants to their own devices. One of the servants was a native of Polynesia named Boy and the other one was a Swedish sailor, Ulson.

Myklukho-Maklay’s idea was not just to survive in a virtually unknown land — he wanted to study life and traditions of the natives. At that time little was known either of the inhabitants of the island or of its geography. Myklukho-Maklay was among the first geographers and ethnographers who conducted a systematic research in New Guinea. Since then, linguists have catalogued more than 700 distinct languages in Papua New Guinea. The country’s rugged terrain accounts for much of the diversity — for centuries, most groups lived in isolation from one another. Further studies revealed that what little is known about the early history of Papua New Guinea suggests that the island has been inhabited by people for at least 50,000 years. Several waves of migration to Papua New Guinea from Asia and through neighbouring islands have taken place through the centuries. Some scholars believe that Highlanders (people living in the central mountainous region of Papua New Guinea) were among the world’s first farmers, settling there thousands of years ago. The early Papua New Guineans worked and hunted with wood, stone, or bone tools and weapons. Almost all of the population is Melanesian.

Myklukho-Maklay was a pioneer of Papuan studies and the first thing he had to do was to learn how to communicate with the locals. Given the diversity of the local languages, it was an extremely difficult thing to do. Within a span of six months he learnt the language of the tribe that lived in the area but it took more than just linguistic skills. He had to show the islanders that he meant no harm and he had to learn how to do it with no previous experience in such matters. Gradually, original hostility gave way to more friendly attitudes, and the Papuans even began bringing him food.

Myklukho-Maklay was fascinated with everything he saw — tropical sun; torrential rains; exotic animals and strange creatures of the sea; painted faces of the natives; feathers in their heads worn as decoration; huts of the natives or their nests in the trees; shells of molluscs and skulls of ancestors and of slain enemies kept in the natives’ homes.

Not once he had to resort to various tricks to establish himself as a supernatural creature — it prevented possible attacks on him by the natives. Once, for example, he lit a plateful of spirit pretending it was water and the sight of burning “water” made an indelible impression upon the natives.

Myklukho-Maklay and his two servants were even regarded as immortal and when his servant Boy died of malaria, he had to hide his passing from the natives and dispose of the body at night by loading it with stones and lowering it from the rowing boat into the sea some distance away from the shore. Incidentally, malaria was probably the most serious disease that Myklukho-Maklay had to deal with now and again during his travels and stays in tropical climates.


Findings and projects

Myklukho-Maklay’s travels took him to the Philippines, Indonesia, islands of Melanesia and Micronesia, Malaysia and Australia where he lived from 1878 to 1882 and then later from 1884 till 1886. He even set up a biological station not far from Sydney. In Ukraine, he studied the sea life near Odesa and along the Crimean coast.

During his Australian period, Myklukho-Maklay fell in love with and married Margaret Robertson, the beautiful daughter of the Australian prime minister. They had two sons, Volodymyr and Oleksandr. After her husband’s death in St Petersburg in 1888, she moved to Ukraine to join Myklukho-Maklay’s mother Kateryna and lived for some time in the town of Malyn. She said that Kateryna’s eyes reminded her of her husband. Later, the widow returned to Australia where several descendants of Myklukho-Maklay are still living.

Myklukho-Maklay had the results of his research published in about 160 scientific works which dealt mostly with the anthropological and ethnographical observations conducted among the Papuans and peoples of Oceania and South-East Asia. These works also included scientific papers on comparative anatomy, meteorology, geography and zoology.

Probably, the most important of his findings were directed against racist theories which claimed that such peoples as Papuans were inferior to the whites or even that they were subhuman. His anthropological findings proved beyond doubt that all the human races belonged to the same species, Homo Sapiens, and that the different rates of development of peoples in different continents were caused by a number of social and geographical factors rather than by the inherent lack of abilities.

Being a naturalist did not prevent Myklukho-Maklay from being an idealist. He worked out a project of establishing an independent state in Papua New Guinea which at that time could not be realized. He wanted to establish “a free colony” of emigrants from the Russian Empire in New Guinea and even wrote to the tsar describing the possible advantages of such a colony and the beauty of the place. But it came to naught too.

His articles published in the Russian press about his travels and findings were often vilified — a subject of the Russian Empire extolling the virtues and humanity of “primitive peoples” could hardly avoid being attacked by conservatives.

Myklukho-Maklay’s diaries, Among the Savages of New Guinea, were published long after his death, in the early nineteen twenties. In more recent times, Oleksandr Ivanchenko, the Ukrainian writer researched Myklukho-Maklay’s life and published a book about him, Dorohamy Maklaya (Maklay’s Travels), in which the author claims that there are over 70 place names in Papua New Guinea which were introduced by Myklukho-Maklay and which are still in use today (Myklukho-Maklay, for example, named one of the rivers Gogol).

It would be wrong to assume that Myklukho-Maklay devoted himself entirely to science — in his life there were also friends, earthly delights and love. One of his best friends, Prince Alexander Meshchersky said of him, “Among the people with whom I have been in close and friendly relations for many years there is only one person who knew, not in words but in practice, the true worth of time, and who knew how to prevent hours, his own and of others, from being wasted; he never offered any compromises and he never put his own feelings or feelings of his friends above business. This person is Maklay.”

Among Myklukho-Maklay’s friends were the famous painter Illya Repin and the historian Dmytro Yavornitsky who specialized in the history of Ukrainian Cossacks. When Repin was working on his large painting Zaporizhzhya Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan, he asked Yavornitsky to sit for him for the image of one of the Cossacks. It was in the artist’s studio that Myklukho-Maklay met Yavornitsky and they talked about Cossacks and their history for many hours.

Myklukho-Maklay’s widow passed on to Dmytro Yavornytsky a number of things from Myklukho-Maklay’s collections — shields made from the tortoise shell, crocodile ski, and elephant ear, arts and spears, arrows, quivers and bows sheathed in skin; later, these collector’s items found their way to the Historical Museum in the city of Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine.

Russians called Mykola Myklukho-Maklay a “Russian” naturalist; the British found Anglo-Saxon or Scottish roots in him; Indonesians claim that among his ancestors there must have been people who came from Indonesia. He himself had other things to say about his origin and national preferences. When he was in Australia, people he dealt with were somewhat confused by Myklukho-Maklay — he was a subject of the Russian Empire who was fluent in several languages, including those of the natives; his name could suggest different ethnic backgrounds. One of the local papers, Sydney Morning Gerald, interviewed him. When asked to say a few words about his origin, he said, “My person is a living example of three hostile forces coexisting peacefully together. In my blood, you find the fiery blood of the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks, the blood of their implacable foes — haughty Poles and the blood of the reserved Germans, all mixed up. It would be imprudent to try to determine which of these ingredients in my blood predominates — or rather it would be impossible to do so. I love the native land of my father, Ukraine, very much, but this love does not diminish in any way my love for the two other countries of my ancestry — Poland and Germany.”

Probably, it would be best to call him The Moon Man, the way the Papuans called him.



The village of Malyn is now a town located in the Land of Zhytomyrshchyna, about a hundred kilometres from Kyiv. The house where the Myklukho-Maklays once lived has survived wars and revolutions though it has gone through considerable reconstructions. It is not a museum and the present-day owner of the house found the three coins that had once been put into the foundation of the house by the Myklukho-Maklays “for good luck.” The three pine trees which once stood in front of the house and which are mentioned in Myklukho-Maklay’s letters and memoirs are gone. But the memory of the Myklukho-Maklays lives on.


Based on an essay by Mariya VLAD

Photos by Oleksiy ONISHCHUK



On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


On the Road. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. 1998.


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