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Luigi Maria D'Albertis

Luigi Maria D'Albertis

1841-1901

Italian Explorer

Luigi D'Albertis led two unprecedented trips of exploration up the Fly River into central New Guinea. During these expeditions, he made a number of important scientific and ethnographic discoveries, but also fought many battles against the inhabitants, alienating virtually all of them. He was severely criticized for the manner in which he dealt with the local natives during these trips, as well as for his methods in collecting ethnographic specimens.

D'Albertis was born in preunification Italy. In his youth, he fought at the side of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the struggle for Italian independence and unification. D'Albertis was an energetic, larger-than-life person—lusty, fatalistic, excitable, and flamboyant. He also seemed to have remarkably few scruples when it came to protecting his expedition or gathering samples. Unfortunately, his lack of tact in dealing with New Guinea natives and his questionable collection methods turned the natives against him, making the return from his first trip difficult and his entire second voyage dangerous.

From his youth, D'Albertis was convinced that his life would reach a pinnacle during his thirty-fifth year, a conviction that proved true. This premonition—or self-fulfilling prophecy—came to fruition after D'Albertis fell under the spell of New Guinea. He decided that his first journey of exploration would be bold. He would follow the Fly River (named for the ship that discovered it) as far inland as possible, with the goal of being the first to penetrate more than a few tens of miles into the island. To do this, he bought a small steamship, the Neva and, in 1875, set forth on his first voyage to New Guinea. With its shallow draft and small size, the Neva was not a comfortable vessel, but it proved able to steam 580 miles (930 km) up the Fly, allowing D'Albertis to collect many specimens new to science. On this trip, D'Albertis took a crew of nine, a sheep, a python, and a pet dog, as well as a large number of rockets, guns, and ammunition. This voyage, as it turned out, was the peak experience of D'Albertis's life, as he would never again accomplish so much or penetrate so far into New Guinea.

Upon his return, D'Albertis came under increasing criticism for his treatment of his crew, his willingness to open fire at the slightest provocation, and his tendency to pilfer villages, graves, and other sites for specimens. This criticism did not, however, stop him from launching a second expedition in 1877. One incident on this voyage, which occurred after an attack on the Neva that ended in the fatal shooting of a New Guinea native, sheds some light on the origin of the criticism leveled against him. In D'Albertis's words:

"Should they return [referring to the dead man's companions], they will perceive our guns are weapons not to be despised, and they will learn to moderate their desires for the heads of strangers. But, meanwhile, I shall preserve this man's head in spirits, for Bob [a native guide], in remembrance of his younger days, did not hesitate to cut it off the poor savage's body."

With that, he pickled the head in alcohol. His second voyage did not accomplish nearly as much as his first, and was marred by severe problems with his new crew as well as by nearly constant skirmishes with the natives. Returning to Italy, D'Albertis wrote a two-volume account of his voyages and never again left his native land. He spent most of the rest of his life at his home in Rome and died 24 years later of mouth cancer.

P. ANDREW KARAM

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