Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay

Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay

Nicholai Nicholaievich Mikluho-Maklai (generally referred to in Australia as Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay), explorer, anthropologist, marine biologist and humanitarian, was one of Watsons Bay’s most remarkable residents. Although he died in 1888, his imprint on the community of Watsons Bay is still strongly evident. He has been recognised internationally by UNESCO, with his birthdate of 5 July 1846, commemorated, along with those of other Russian luminaries such as Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov and Sergei Eisenstein. His expeditions, especially in New Guinea, are as well known to Russian school children as are the exploits of Matthew Flinders and Burke and Wills to young Australians.

Mikluho-Maclay was born in Russia in 1846, the son of a civil engineer, employed at the time on the construction of the St Petersburg-Moscow Railway. His father was a Ukrainian Cossack. His great grandfather, Stepan Makukha, had been ennobled by Catherine the Great for valour in the Russo-Turkish War of the late 18th Century. The family retained their hereditary title, and young Nicholas was steeped in the history and traditions of the old Russian Empire. He traced his lineage directly to Okhrim Makukha, Stepan’s great-grandfather, upon whose exploits Nikolai Gogol based his epic novel “Taras Bulba.”

Mikluho-Maclay was educated in St Petersburg, as well as Heidelberg, Leipzig and Jena in Germany, studying law and philosophy, medicine, palaeontology, zoology and comparative anatomy. On vacations he was drawn to the Canary Islands and the Red Sea, where he studied sponges and sharks’ brains and developed an abiding interest in marine biology that led him eventually to Australia – and to Watsons Bay.

In October 1870 he sailed for New Guinea and established a research facility just south of Madang. The region was largely untouched by outside influence and Mikluho-Maclay was often the first European that local tribal communities encountered. From New Guinea, Miklouho-Maclay ranged widely throughout the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia to the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore and Micronesia, endeavouring to trace and categorise the ethnological characteristics of the peoples of the region.

Mikluho-Maclay wrote and presented a series of papers that have helped to embed the basic tenets of anthropology: that human beings share a common ancestry; different races are not separate species; no race is superior to another, and that all are part of the same family of mankind. Mikluho-Maclay had a deep aversion to slavery and did much to champion its eradication across the Western Pacific.

“You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being with whom communication can and should be established through kindness and truth, not gun and spirits.”

Leo Tolstoy to Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay, September 1886

In July 1878, Mikluho-Maclay arrived in Sydney and was immediately convinced of the need for a marine research station in the harbour city. He wrote at the time:

“The most suitable region for the establishment of zoological stations is Australia, with a fauna so interesting, so important and so very far from sufficiently known.”

Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay, 1878.

He undertook extensive research, especially with sharks in Sydney Harbour, and resumed his ethnological studies in New Guinea. He also undertook considerable work with local Aboriginal communities, especially in Queensland, and engaged in studying the dingo.

In 1881 with government support and public subscriptions, Mikluho-Maclay realised his ambition and established the Marine Biological Station at Watsons Bay:

“The position of the station at Watsons Bay … with large fresh-water swamps and lagoons … a combination of opportunities for study such as can hardly be met with elsewhere.”

Nicholas Mikluho-Maclay, Sydney Mail, 1881

For five years the station served as the centrepiece of Mikluho-Maclay’s work. He ingeniously built skylights into the structure (the positioning of which can still be seen) to assist his research. In February 1884,Mikluho-Maclay married Margaret Clark, the widowed daughter of Sir John Robertson, five times Premier of NSW, who lived in the neighbouring villa “Clovelly” in what is today Robertson Park, close to where Dunbar House stands.

In 1886 Mikluho-Maclay travelled to Russia for three months, returning to Sydney for just eight days to collect his wife Margaret and their two sons, Alexander and Vladimir. Although he intended to return ultimately to Sydney, he became progressively ill with an undiagnosed brain tumour, and died in 1888 at the age of only 41. The family returned to Sydney and Margaret lived until 1936, survived by their sons.

Mikluho-Maclay’s work and legacy was greatly valued by the Russian state. In acknowledgement of his services, a state pension was provided to the family, first under Tsar Alexander III and then Tsar Nicholas II until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Among the remaining legacy to Mikluho-Maclay there is:

  • the Watsons Bay Marine Biological Station and the Marine Biological Park
  • the Macleay Miklouho-Maclay Fellowship, awarded annually by the University of Sydney for work within the Macleay Museum, principally in the fields of anthropology and zoology
  • the NSW Miklouho-Maclay Prize for Excellence in Chemistry
  • a bust of Miklouho-Maclay at Sydney University near the Macleay Museum
  • in Papua New Guinea, the term Maclay Coast, which Miklouho-Maclay defined, is still used to denote 240 kms of the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. A street in Madang is also named after him.
  • in Russia, the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography in Moscow was named after Miklouho-Maclay, as is a street in Moscow, and a museum in the province of Novgorod, where he was born.

The Marine Biological Station on the southern point of Camp Cove at Watsons Bay has been renovated and is leased as a private residence. Tours of the cottage are held on a regular basis. Details are available on the Sydney Harbour Trust website (see links section).

Courtesy of Sydney Harbour Trust