Nikolai Miklouho Maclay

Who was Nikolai Miklouho Maclay?

Nikolai Miklouho Maclay was born Nikolai Miklouho in Novgorod in 1846. It is popularly believed that his Scottish ancestors migrated to Russia some time before the eighteenth century. He added ‘Maclay’ to his surname in 1868. Maclay first set out for New Guinea as an independent scientific traveller in 1870 at the age of 24.

The man and his times

Maclay was not a wealthy man and was forced to rely on his mother, a widow with a large family, for financial support. In his choice of New Guinea as the primary area for his anthropological studies, Maclay was searching for nothing less than the ‘probable cradle of the human race’.

From New Guinea, it was suggested, humanity had spread eastward across a now submerged land bridge to the East Indies and Fiji, moving northwards to the Philippines and southwards to Tasmania. While he did not subscribe to the theory of the ‘noble savage’, Maclay longed to discover, somewhere in the steamy jungles of this racially unique island, the innocence and purity of an earlier society. It is this youthful, impetuous, and ambitious Maclay I have chosen to write about. I have imagined his hopes, his dreams, his triumphs and his failures.

Re-imagining his story

Maclay was a man of great courage and it is the recognition of this quality that has inspired much of the writing about his life and work. He was also a man of great personal charm and integrity, succeeding as well with Papuan warriors as he did with people of the highest rank in government and empire. I have imagined his inner conflicts as he tried to rise above the mounting difficulties he faced in New Guinea and the challenges of the delicate relationships forced upon him in more sophisticated circles.

About the novel
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