Context: Got ourselves some Action Packers in preparation for leaving PNG and carting our life back to the UK while I was reading this.
I’m nothing short of astounded by the quality of non-fiction that Papua New Guinea, my home for the last two years, has provided the world. It almost seems that you can’t go wrong picking up a narrative from this part of the world. Pretty much every book I’ve read about exploration and life here has been a page-turner. The Mikloucho-Maclay diaries lived up to my expectations, particularly because I lived for five weeks in a village just a few miles from where he first settled in the late 19th century. He even details a visit to ‘my’ village!
So, there’s this Russian guy who’s keen on anthropology and he ends up being dropped on what is now the Madang coast on the north of mainland PNG. It’s 1871 and pretty much none of the local inhabitants have ever seen a white man. The opening pages of his diary are absolutely fascinating. Maclay’s initial residence lasts well over a year and he ends up learning enough of the local language to get around. He’s fascinated by the local culture and does all he can to understand it.
There are a couple of things that make this account fairly unique. Firstly, it’s clear from the start that Maclay truly has no other agenda than understanding how these people live. He’s not out to convert them, he’s not out to industrialise them. His writing shows his very apparent respect and love for the people. The only influence that he admits to exerting is in order to prevent all out war between two villages over what he considers to be two coincidental deaths in one family. I think even in our ‘enlightened’ day and age, we see the humanity in such an intervention. Secondly, he’s not just interested in humans. He’s regularly documenting flora and fauna too so the account is a very holistic one of the entire coastal environment.
I was particularly struck though by the incredible similarities between his interactions and those I experienced living on this coast in 2010. There’s one account where he tells how jaded he’s becoming at people constantly asking him where he’s going and where’s he come from when he’s out and about. Yep! In particular, the two pages where he visits the village we actually lived in, he tells how the villagers only interact with him to basically ask him to compensate them for items they say Russians sailors stole from them. He has no way of verifying if these stories are true and ends up paying them in kind anyway. Sounds really familiar!
As well as the diaries though, the icing on the cake of this book is the way the translator has finished off with a detailed account of the remaining years of Maclay’s life after New Guinea and what became of the coast he so carefully detailed. It’s tragic. I knew, of course, that the Germans colonised this coast soon after he left. What I didn’t know was how insidiously they went about it. Maclay did not live to see what the people he loved suffered under the hands of these colonists. In this respect, his relatively early death was a blessing. But the world lost one of its earliest and most pioneering anthropologists at his passing and it was a privilege to read his insights 150 years later.
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