Lauded by Tolstoy and idolised by the Soviet Union, Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay campaigned for the suppression of slavery and challenged deceitful Europeans
Born in Rozhdestvenskoye, Russia, on 17 July 184, and cursed with a name that’s confusing even for Russophiles, Miklouho-Maclay may be the greatest and most likable 19th-century explorer you’ve never heard of.
Claim to fame
His adventures straddled the globe from the Canary Islands and North Africa to Patagonia, Easter Island, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines and New Guinea. His main interest was ethnography: seeking out uncontacted tribes to see what he might learn from them. Given the era’s mood of white supremacy bolstered by dubious racial science, Miklouho-Maclay’s open-minded engagement with the subject is amazing. He believed he and the tribespeople shared a common humanity, and was further convinced by his investigations of the brains of executed Australian criminals. His conclusion – that all races possessed identical intellectual potential – led him to campaign against slavery and for the rights of indigenous people.
Miklouho-Maclay didn’t live long enough to complete a magnum opus, and his Australian wife, Margaret, destroyed some of his Russian journals.However, surviving diaries detail his encounters with several tribes, his attempts to record native languages and his despair about the influence of his fellow Europeans, noting: “The Europeans exploit the natives, and by their example they develop habits of lying and deceit.”