My Journey With Maclay

K.H. Rennie

Author K.H. Rennie

I first came across a brief reference to Maclay while studying a unit of anthropology. I found his story intriguing and the more I looked into it the more interesting it became.

Who was Maclay?

He was born Nikolai Miklouho, but it’s generally believed he had scots somewhere in his ancestry. He adopted the name Maclay in 1868.

He was a Russian scientist, a marine biologist, who decided to go to New Guinea alone and study life forms, everything from shark’s brains to human genetics. He was a young man at the time – only 26. I was impressed by the immense amount of courage he showed in going to an unexplored region which was really the final frontier at that time.

huli wigman

Huli wigman from the southern highlands

There had been visitors to New Guinea before Maclay but not many had survived to talk about their experiences. His first visit to New Guinea lasted about thirteen months, but it was action packed. He had to stay one step ahead of the locals to convince them not to kill him. He suffered from Malaria, poor diet, the effects of isolation, but he took it all in his stride and came away enriched by the country and it’s people.

I’ve tried to look at Maclay from a very personal perspective, tried to see what motivated him, and how his destiny was ultimately shaped by his need to face certain challenges, and how this need affected the lives of those around him.

He did have an off-sider, a Swede called Olsen, who was not quite so successful at adapting to the conditions. Nevertheless I felt for Olsen, he tried hard, but the odds were against him. I’ve used Olsen as a narrator in one part of the book because I couldn’t help but warm to him as the novel progressed.

What did he achieve?

As a result of his early visits to New Guinea he was later able to convince many people of the evils of colonization  — and he was also prepared to promote what he considered to be a workable alternative – a Russian protectorate – it never happened but his suggestions were taken seriously and he stirred up quite a debate at the time.

Unfortunately he suffered the same fate as many other explorers or scientists of the time, while he was away for many years doing field work others were making names for themselves at home and establishing their reputations.  In his own field he was left behind.

Mistaken for a god

It wasn’t unusual for men in similar situations to be mistaken for gods. They looked very different and they arrived with more advanced technology, guns, fire lighters, steel axes and so on.  Maclay pretty quickly understood that as a god he was more useful to the villagers alive than dead.

I’ve interpreted his story as a journey of the spirit. I saw him moving from darkness to light, from the ice of a Russian winter to the fire of a New Guinea summer.

This early period I’ve chosen to write about I think was the most interesting. It was where he formed the humanist philosophy he later became famous for. He’s not too well known in Australia but in Russia he has the stature of a TE Lawrence.

The historical perspective

As a writer I prefer the historical perspective. The past is whole, the present is incomplete. But whether we are interested in history or not, we really cannot escape from it. We are, these days, constantly exposed to it – through the newspaper, television, the Internet and so on. We are constantly reminded that the past reaches into the present in very complex ways.

I think this is why history has recently become quite popular with the reading public. A few years ago this  wasn’t the case. I remember a rather stuffy discussion at the Melbourne writers’ festival that was considering whether or not historical fiction ought to be allowed. I think the general consensus was ‘no’.

Fact and fiction

Combining real and imaginary human beings is a way of accessing historical material on a different level.  When we read a novel, we make a brief journey into other lives; we learn what we share as human beings, and it reinforces the fact that despite our differences we are all of the same species and we have many things in common.

The present

Recently the marine biological research station he set up at Watson’s Bay was handed over to the people of New South Wales. It had been used by the Department of Defence since Maclay’s time. It will eventually be opened to the public.

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