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The First Ukrainian in Australia

18. December 2012 by Lorena 0 Comments

Some people believe that there was at least one Ukrainian passenger on the 1790 transport from England, meaning that there were Ukrainians in Australia all the way back to the beginning. However, the first confirmed Ukrainian to come to live in Australia was naturalist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay. Miklouho-Maclay traveled from St. Petersburg to Australia in 1878. He made Sydney his home, and his family became influential in the area. All three of his grandsons contributed to public life in Australia.


Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay was born in a temporary work camp in Russia’s Novgorod Oblast to Ukrainian parents. Because Ukraine was under Russian rule at the time of his birth, Miklouho-Maclay is often mistakenly referred to as Russian. His father was a civil engineer who was working on the construction of the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway. After construction was finished, the family went to live north of Kiev. Miklouho-Maclay’s school records won him a role as an assistant on a scientific voyage to the Canary Islands in 1866. While there, Miklouho-Maclay discovered a new species of sponge. 


In 1878, he traveled to Australia. He was anxious to study Australia's unique flora and fauna. On his arrivals, he offered to organize a zoological center there. His offer was accepted, and the center, called the Marine Biological Station, was built in 1881. It was the first marine biological research center in Australia. Miklouho-Maclay went on to marry Margaret-Emma Robertson, who was the daughter of New South Wales’s premier. He and his family settled in Sydney.


Many anthropologists of that era believed that people of different races were members of different species. That belief was used to justify slavery and colonialism. Miklouho-Maclay was one of the first scientists to diverge from that belief. He had spent time living with the peoples of New Guinea, and his research in comparative anatomy revealed that all humans, regardless of skin color, were of the same species.


Miklouho-Maclay was intensely interested in protecting the rights of Australia’s indigenous people from colonial expansion. He also wrote to Australian papers against the evils of slavery. The Dutch government contacted him to tell him that his research helped shape their policy in ending the slave trade. Leo Tolstoy wrote this letter to him in 1886:


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 guns and spirits. I do not know what contribution your collections and discoveries will make to the science for which you serve, but your experience of contacting the primitive peoples will make an epoch in the science for which I serve i. e. the science which teaches how human beings should live with one another.


In 1887, Miklouho-Maclay traveled to St Petersburg to present his scientific findings. He would not return from this trip. In April of 1888, he died of an undiagnosed brain tumor. His family returned to Australia without him, and lived there the rest of their lives. 

Photos: WikiMedia