The Russian scientist, indigenous people and the Australian connection

Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian anthropologist, biologist and explorer who lived and worked in Sydney, NSW for a total of nine years, established himself as a respected member of the NSW scientific community. He created the first biological research station in the Southern Hemisphere, and made important contributions to the Linnean Society, the main scientific and natural history institute in the self-governing British colony of NSW at the time. He married the daughter of the five-times Premier of NSW, John Robertson. That should have solidified Miklouho-Maclay’s position in the Sydney scientific community and earned him a place in our history. However, he is largely forgotten, and his story has been revived through the efforts of researchers and historians, who compiled a fascinating documentary about him for the ABC in 2013 called ‘Remembering Nikolai’.

There is a large reason why he has been ignored – Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked among the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for three years, and championed the rights of the native nations to resist colonisation. Why is that important?

In the 1870s and 1880s, both the British colonies of Queensland and NSW were eyeing the natural resources of Papua and New Guinea for themselves. The Australian colonies, while not politically organised into a federation, were expanding on a capitalist basis. The Pacific islands, Polynesia and Melanesia were viewed as unexplored and untamed frontiers. NSW and Queensland lobbied the British government to colonise Papua and New Guinea. European colonisation of indigenous people and territory was in full swing in the late nineteenth century. The English, Germans, Dutch and French were already grabbing portions of the South Pacific and Asia – Melanesia was in their sights. Germany had set up a colony in the northern half of New Guinea, and the Queensland government strongly urged the British to get their foothold in the southern half of Papua.

Queensland’s ruling landed gentry, and to a certain extent, NSW – engaged in the practice of blackbirding. This involved the forcible recruitment, through kidnapping and trickery, of Melanesian workers into a scheme of indentured labour. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua – the indigenous people of these nations were forced into a system of slavery, working in the sugar cane plantations and landed estates in Queensland and NSW. The full story of blackbirding is still being literally uncovered until today. As Jeff Sparrow explains in his article for The Guardian:

Between 1863 and 1904, 62,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia, landing in Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Innisfail and Cairns. The majority of the indentured labourers came from today’s Vanuatu, with a substantial proportion from the Solomons, as well as smaller islands. Some came voluntarily (even accepting multiple trips). Others did not – and varying degrees of deception and outright coercion were used by blackbirders to persuade them.

By the 1890s, the so-called “Kanakas” were providing 85% of the workforce for the sugar industry.

What has all this got to do with Miklouho-Maclay?

Nineteenth century European anthropology was the hey-day of pseudo-scientific racism; the belief that different human races represented different species, and could be organised hierarchically into an evolutionarily-upward structure, with the lower races – such as the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia – at the lower end of the spectrum, and the white race, the colonisers at the top. Anthropology was used in the service of this colonising project, with pseudo-scientific devices such as phrenology and craniometry provided a veneer of respectability to a new imperial endeavour of systematic racism. Into this environment, Miklouho-Maclay worked tirelessly to refute this pseudo-scientific nonsense.

In a powerful article for Russia Beyond the Headlines, Miklouho-Maclay’s unending efforts in defending the colonised people are discussed at length. Early in his career, he travelled to the Canary Islands as an assistant to the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The latter espoused the pseudo-scientific racist views prevalent at the time, and Miklouho-Maclay was determined to disprove these supremacist theories. Europeans certainly did believe in liberty, equality and fraternity – as long as you were white.

Miklouho-Maclay was the first white man to settle and work among the indigenous Papuans – he moved there in 1871 and worked for three years among people deemed cannibals and flesh-eating savages. He formed close bonds with the people there, noting their complex societal structures and learned one of their many languages. He continued his ethnographic studies, and provided ample refutation of the predominant racism of his time. He wrote the following, quoted in the Russia Beyond the Headlines article above that:

“There is no ‘superior’ race,” Miklouho-Maclay wrote after finishing his research in Papua New Guinea. “All races are equal because all people on Earth are the same biologically. Nations merely stand upon different steps of historical development. And the duty of each civilized nation is to help the people of a weaker nation in their quest for freedom and self-determination.”

While making Sydney his second home, Miklouho-Maclay spoke out against the rising tide of colonisation, and criticised the push by his adoptive home to make Papua New Guinea an economic colony. Distrust of the newcomer turned into outright hostility, as he maintained his opposition to the new imperialism, driven by economic interests in the emergent colonies of NSW and Queensland. His campaign to defend the targets of creeping colonisation was examined in a biographical program on him for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). That program quoted his words on the issue of Papuan annexation. Miklouho-Maclay spoke of his time living in Papua New Guinea:

During my stay among the natives… I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives… about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.’

He went on, ‘should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.’

‘I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.’

Sadly, the tide of colonisation was too strong, and the British did eventually carve out a portion of New Guinea, taking possession without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. At the end of World War One, Papua New Guinea was handed over to Australia as a colonial possession. With the injustice of this act, the resultant implacable hatred that Miklouho-Maclay warned against was realised. That lead to a prolonged struggle for independence and self-determination in Papua New Guinea.

Ignored by the rising federative colonialism of Australia, Miklouho-Maclay was feted as a hero in his native Russia, and in the subsequent Soviet Union. His fight for racial equality was upheld by the Soviet authorities as a worthy example of a fighting intellectual-scientist. He was acclaimed by the Communist authorities as a man who saw beyond racial differences, and advocated the fundamental equality of human beings. Was this a case of the Soviet authorities exploiting his story for political purposes? In a way, yes. However, his life and work were celebrated during Tsarist Russian times, and his contemporaries, such as the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also sang his praises.

Tolstoy was moved to write about Miklouho-Maclay that, “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”. Given the serious nature of racism in Russia today, perhaps the current authorities would do well to remember that not so long ago, the Soviets did actually elevate anti-racist scientists such as Miklouho-Maclay into a cultural hero because of his humanist and anti-colonial stand. His life exemplified cross-cultural and multi-racial solidarity.

Miklouho-Maclay is largely forgotten in Australia, because his life and work reminds us of an ugly chapter in the foundational history of the Australian capitalist state. With the unfolding discoveries about our genetic makeup facilitated by the human genome project, science is providing irrefutable evidence that there is no scientific validity for racism. However, we must confront the racism that exists in our own society, a racism that is damaging and ruining people’s lives everyday.

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Australians should be interested in Antarctica

The title above comes from an engaging article published in The Conversation online magazine earlier in July 2016. Entitled ‘Why Australians should care about the South Pole’, the essay is a summary of a book on that subject by Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane from the University of Tasmania. The article, written by Leane, provides a succinct overview of her findings in answering the question above. A number of countries make claims on Antarctic territory, each with its own history of scientific and exploratory involvement in that continent. The Arctic and the North Pole have long been the targets of interest and competition by the various imperialist states, until today. However, let us not dismiss the importance of Antarctica.

Let us not miscontrue anything here; Australians are already interested in Antarctica, with increasing and disturbing news of the adverse impact of global warming on the icy continent: the East Antarctic glaciers are melting rates more rapid than the initial expectations of scientists; the eastern Totten glacier being the main cause of concern. A team of scientists returned from an expedition to East Antarctica in 2015 and reported that warmer ocean waters were causing the Totten glacier to melt from below.

This news is on top of the already worrying trend that in West Antarctica, the ice sheet there is losing twice as much ice now as compared to the last survey, and its collapse is a critical possibility. The West Antarctic ice sheet is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of humanity, and its melting has been observed and cataloged by climate scientists for half a century.

The specific, measured adverse consequences of global warming are one big reason to be interested in the icy continent. But these concerns are part of the wider campaign around human-induced global warming. There are many other reasons, specific to Antarctica, that make that continent an endlessly fascinating and rewarding experience in its own right. The scientific value of continued exploration and discovery in Antarctica make that icy region one of the most interesting places on Earth.

Whenever I raise the subject of Antarctica and the South Pole, my fellow Australians usually respond with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension borne out of a sense that interest in Antarctica is a general waste of time and energy. My first instinct is to respond with the enthusiastic contempt exemplified by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, brandishing a weapon of some description, loudly daring my interlocutor to repeat their inane question of ‘why Antarctica?’ on pain of physical obliteration.

This method, while personally satisfying, is not the preferred technique of esteemed writers and creators of cultural capital. So, placing our initial response on the back-burner, it is with great pleasure that I can highly recommend The Conversation as a source of information regarding the scientific and political importance of the Antarctic.

Australia has had a long and deep involvement in the continent. While the popular image of the Antarctic is one of icy remoteness, isolation, ferocious weather and tragic exploration events, this is only one side of the story. As Professor Leane writes in her article:

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which declared the continent a place of peace and science and put national claims on hold, seemed to leave behind the imperial ambitions that produced the “race to the pole” in the early 20th century. And while Antarctica’s potential mineral resources are an ongoing source of concern, the South Pole, sitting atop almost 3km of ice, is not an obvious place to drill.

Now occupied by a large scientific research station, where (among other activities) astronomers use giant telescopes to study cosmological events, the South Pole is often assumed to be a politically neutral place, immune to the clamour going on in the north.

So it is not just the fact of ecological change that makes Antarctica important. The Antarctic Treaty was intended to place inter-imperial rivalry on hold, avoiding the unnecessary competitive outburst over that land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provided a framework for international scientific cooperation, and this has produced results: scientific and cultural ties between Australia and China have been evolving positively since 1984, the year the Chinese government began its first scientific expedition to Antarctica. China now has four Antarctic bases, and in 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart and signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia for the purpose of expanding cooperation in the Antarctic region and Southern Ocean.

However, not all is smooth sailing – various countries, including Australia, have made territorial claims over portions of Antarctic territory. The competing wedge-shaped territorial assertions by the rival countries have resulted in making Antarctic territory resemble portions of a meringue pie, as Professor Leane stated. All of the claimants mapped out territory that all meet at the South Pole. The latter is not the geographic centre of the continent, however, it is the southernmost point of the Earth.

Interestingly, at latitude 90-degrees South, it is easier to travel to than the North Pole; the latter is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the South Pole sits on stable solid land. The United States established a scientific station, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Sitting in the middle of the rival territorial claims, the US does not currently make any claims in Antarctica, but is positioned to do so in the future, should that decision arise.

There are only a few frontiers left on the Earth that can truly be said to remain unexplored. Vast sections of Antarctica fit this definition. However, it is not just the icy land mass of the continent that is open to exploration; the enormous land underneath the ice sheets is a large area of terra incognita. That is the description of the territory that lies underneath the Antarctic icy mass provided by an article published in The Conversation called ‘What lies beneath Antarctica’s ice? Lakes, life and the grandest of canyons.’

The authors go on to explain that deep beneath the solid ice-mass, lies a complex and as yet unmapped system of subglacial lakes, rivers and canyons. There are currently 400 known lakes in this subglacial environment, and more are being identified:

Under such a large volume of ice, how is it possible for water to exist at all without freezing? The answer is pressure: when a large weight of ice is pushed onto water, it can stay liquid at temperatures well below the normal freezing point. What’s more, the large body of ice actually insulates the bed and protects it from the very cold air temperatures above.

The liquid water is created by heat from the Earth’s interior and from the friction generated as ice flows over the bedrock, which can melt the underside of the ice sheet. It is this water that flows into the subglacial lake basins and eventually into the ocean.

The largest of these known subglacial lakes is Lake Vostok, covering an area of 12 500 square kilometres, located underneath Russia’s Vostok science station in the Southern Pole of Cold, part of the East Antarctic ice sheet. In these climatically harsh environments, microbial life has been found.

In Lake Whillans, located in West Antarctica, a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms was discovered in 2013 by an American research team drilling through the overlying glacier to extract water samples from the lake. These microbes have never before seen the sun. So how do they survive? The microbes rely on the minerals from the sediments and bedrock, with the constant pressure of the glacier above grinding the rock into powder, thus making minerals available for microorganisms without the need for photosynthesis. As the authors Dow, Graham and Cook explain in their article:

Such life thrives in this harsh environment without sunlight for photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes depend on the oxidation of methane and ammonia, derived from sediments that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This momentous discovery of life in such a harsh and unforgiving environment may provide scientists with critical information on the development of marine life cycles.

Antarctica is not the exclusive preserve of one country or international power. It is the common heritage of humanity. As such, international scientific and political cooperation is not only desirable but necessary to study that land, preserve its ecosystem, and avoid the climatic catastrophe that awaits us should Antarctica continue its current disastrous course towards sustained melting and collapse due to global warming. The future of Antarctica should be of top priority not just for all Australians, but for the international community.

Israel, Uganda, and Netanyahu’s Entebbe visit

In early July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a multination tour of East African countries, starting with Uganda. He made a significant stopover in Entebbe, Uganda. Why? This was the 40th anniversary of the Israeli commando raid, a military action that  was aimed at rescuing Israeli hostages kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The latter found sanctuary at the time in Uganda, then under the rule of General Idi Amin. Israeli forces stormed the Entebbe airport, and during this action three hostages, all the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli commando were killed.

The Entebbe raid, as that military operation has become known, was praised by PM Netanyahu as a significant action against terrorism. Visiting the site of Entebbe in July this year, Netanyahu gave an emotionally-charged speech – which is understandable, given that his brother was one of the commandos who died during the military operation. But he also recycled a number of propagandistic myths and distortions that are possible only by taking a pair of scissors and excising huge portions of recent history from the picture.

Tuck magazine published an article that covered Netanyahu’s visit, an article that sadly uncritically reproduces the Netanyahu version of history. Let us have a look at the claims made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and how those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. He stated that this raid was a great victory against terrorism, and that the international community needs to cooperate to defeat this particular evil in the world. Netanyahu also stated that Israel intends to increase its economic, political and military relations with sub-Saharan and East African countries. He boasted that he was the first Israeli Prime Minister in over twenty years to make an official state visit to Africa. The purpose of this contribution is not to sound peevish or annoyed, or to make any personal attacks. The purpose is to examine those relevant portions of history that Netanyahu deliberately excluded from his speech in Uganda.

There is no doubt that General Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda was a military dictatorship, where opponents of the regime were tortured and eliminated. There is no question that Amin became, in his own erratic and schizophrenic way, a supporter of the Palestinian cause and made repugnant, repulsive anti-Semitic statements praising Hitler, revealing himself to be a very troubled, hateful person. He was most definitely the head of a monstrous regime. But what is missing from Netanyahu’s truncated picture is that during Idi Amin’s rise to power, he had two powerful patrons and supporters – Britain and Israel. He was a monster created, aided and abetted by influential backers – patrons that he eventually turned against.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine published in June 2016, author Helen Epstein relates that:

One issue that probably won’t be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit is why the hijackers chose Entebbe. The short answer is that Idi Amin, Uganda’s erratic dictator at the time, was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a professed enemy of Israel. But there is a longer answer: Israel itself helped install Amin in power, creating a monster who turned on his former patrons.

Israel had had a special relationship with Uganda since the latter’s independence from Great Britain, in 1962. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, sought strategic partnerships with states on the edge the Arab world, including Uganda, Kenya, Iran, and Turkey, to counter the hostile nations on Israel’s own borders. As part of what became known as the Peripheral Doctrine, Israel trained and equipped Uganda’s military and carried out construction, agriculture, and other development projects.

Israeli technicians were helping to construct, among other things, the Entebbe airport, so its blueprints and structure were well known to the relevant Israeli authorities.

Amin was a British-trained soldier, having risen through the ranks of the British-commanded King’s African Rifles, a multi-battalion unit raised from Britain’s East African colonies. This unit, loyal to British King and Country, was deployed in various actions in defence of the Empire, namely fighting the Kenyan Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. Amin saw action in that war, and proved himself a capable leader. The British were well aware of the type of man they were promoting, and in the early 1960s, when Uganda gained independence, it was Amin among other officers who were promoted to the very top of the fledgling Ugandan military hierarchy.

Israel was a keen supporter of Ugandan independence, and established a burgeoning relationship with the new country. Armaments and money flowed into Uganda, and Amin himself was fully supportive of this relationship. The civilian authorities in Uganda at the time, while professing Pan-Africanist sentiments, found themselves heavily dependent on the Ugandan army. Amin established close relations with Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, Israel’s military attache in Uganda. While the civilian Presidents tried to maintain their autonomy from the military, Amin and other army officers were secretly plotting to seize power for themselves. Bar-Lev had advised Amin to form a particular unit, trained by Israel, to protect Amin himself. It was this unit that provided the backbone for the 1971 coup d’etat that brought Amin to power. It is no exaggeration to state that while Amin hungered for power himself, it was his Israeli enablers that made such a seizure of power a practical reality.

Amin, having become chief of staff of the Ugandan army in the 1960s, was viewed as a great asset by the British and Israeli authorities. Amin ran a sideline operation in his position; he supplied armaments and training for rebel groups operating in the South Sudan, a predominantly African region ruled by the Arabic-speaking regime in Khartoum. Israeli-made weapons found their way into the hands of South Sudanese rebel forces via Uganda, and the Arab-majority Sudanese army was bogged down in a grueling conflict with secessionist rebels. In fact, until today, with South Sudan an independent state, its main military and political supporter has been the state of Israel. The support for South Sudanese rebels fighting the dictatorial regime in Khartoum is motivated by Israeli strategic and economic interests, not any humanitarian concerns for subjugated peoples.

It is no longer a secret that Israel maintained a flourishing and profitable relationship with apartheid South Africa for many decades, while the rest of the international community was demanded an end to any links with that racist regime in Pretoria. That particular international cause for democracy and racial equality was ignored and sabotaged by the Israeli authorities – however, now, Netanyahu wishes to invoke the moral authority of the international community’s support for his alleged stance against terrorism. Israel’s outreach to African countries is based on cynical and ruthlessly calculated political interests. The Israeli authorities are looking for friends to outflank all the Arabic-speaking countries. That calculation is no secret – Israel was fully supportive of the newly-independent African states back in the 1960s; those relations have gone through various fluctuations and changes since then, but the underlying rationale has remained the same.

Thankfully, Amin’s regime has passed into the pages of history. After his overthrow in 1979, he was exiled and never saw his native Uganda again – he remained forgotten and irrelevant. He spoke out on various issues concerning his country, but now no-one was listening. Uganda itself has remained firmly in the orbit of the United States; current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. As Helen Epstein explains in her New Yorker article:

Early in Museveni’s tenure, Uganda once again became a pawn in the seemingly endless undeclared war between the Arab world and the West. In 1994, the Clinton Administration began funding Uganda and other countries to destabilize the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom it held partly responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993. Ugandan troops have also been deployed, at the West’s beckoning, in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. plows roughly seven hundred and fifty million dollars annually in developmental aid into Uganda, including a hundred and seventy million dollars in military aid. Meanwhile, the Ugandan leader has for years received a free pass when it comes to human-rights abuses. These include allegations of election rigging, torture, and the killing of opposition supporters.

Was the Entebbe raid a victory against terrorism, as Netanyahu boastfully claims? Yes and no. What does that mean?

Yes, it was a victory against terrorism – if by that, you mean the terrorism of the dispossessed, desperate and vulnerable. The Palestinians, stuck in squalid refugee camps, denied a basic existence, their future hopeless and abandoned by the international community, resorted to desperate tactics, lashing out at any target however soft its vulnerability. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the very existence of the Palestinians as a nation was routinely denied by top-level Israeli politicians. Condemned to rot in refugee camps, with no education, prospects of hope of a bright future, the Palestinians struck out in dangerous, desperate and lawless ways, the only methods available to those that have been pushed out to the margins of existence.

Was it a victory against terrorism? No. The terrorism of the rich and powerful, those with the resources of a state at their disposal, goes unpunished and unaccountable. When refugee camps are bombed by warplanes, those who gave the orders for such actions remain at large, uninhibited by legal sanction. When an entire territory is blockaded and starved into submission, those who order and carry out such measures remain unpunished. When such punitive measures deny an entire population the basic necessities for survival, and undermine the ability of a society to sustain itself, the international community must do more than just watch. We would do well to remember the words of the late great humanist activist and author, Peter Ustinov, who stated that; “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”