Luigi Maria D'Albertis Explores Unknown Interior Regions of New Guinea

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Luigi Maria D'Albertis Explores Unknown Interior Regions of New Guinea


In his two voyages up New Guinea's Fly River, Luigi Maria D'Albertis (1841-1901) became one of the first Europeans to explore the interior of the world's second-largest island. D'Albertis returned with a great number of scientific specimens, relatively accurate maps of the areas he visited, and scarcely credible stories of adventure. He also returned to accusations of disreputable collecting practices (particularly with respect to ethnographic specimens), poor leadership qualities, and needless conflict with the island's natives.


Now that modern scientists have mapped virtually all of the planets and major moons in our solar system, it is difficult to imagine a time in which large portions of our planet remained unmapped, unexplored, and unknown except to the local inhabitants. This was, however, the case through virtually all of human history. By the middle of the nineteenth century European explorers had visited the interiors of Africa, Australia, South America, and much of Asia. There were, of course, many areas left unmapped, but the single largest area not yet visited by Europeans was the island of New Guinea, the second largest island (after Greenland) on Earth.

New Guinea was first visited by Europeans in 1545, and its coastline was mapped in a haphazard fashion over the next 300 years. Early expeditions that attempted to land for provisioning were usually met with fierce attacks by the natives, and stories of cannibalism were quickly spread by survivors of these expeditions. It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that an expedition undertook to explore the New Guinea interior in a scientific manner.

The first scientific expeditions concentrated on the coast and near-coast parts of New Guinea. Russian, Dutch, English, and others spent from a few days to several months in several locations. During this time, D'Albertis made a relatively short trip on foot across a narrow isthmus connecting the northernmost part of New Guinea (the "bird's head") to the main body of the island. One expedition in 1874, led by an explorer named McFarlane, had traveled 150 miles by boat up a river, but no other journeys into New Guinea's interior had yet occurred. D'Albertis was intent on changing this.

D'Albertis was a larger-than-life Italian explorer who had become interested in New Guinea after hearing stories about it from a visiting French naturalist. In his early adulthood, he had earned a good scientific reputation, which he used to convince the government of New South Wales to give him a small steamship with which to ascend the Fly River. On his first voyage in 1875, amid many confrontations with natives, he and his crew penetrated 580 miles (930 km) along the Fly, returning with a great many specimens and no small number of adventures. His second voyage took place a few years later, but was much less successful because of more constant trouble with natives (who probably remembered confrontations during the 1875 voyage) and significant conflicts with his crew. Amid such hindrances, D'Albertis traveled more slowly on his second voyage and only made it as far as 530 miles (850 km) along the Fly. Following his return from New Guinea, D'Albertis retired to Italy to write of his adventures in New Guinea, published as What I Did and What I Saw.


The impact of D'Albertis's explorations into New Guinea can be roughly divided into two aspects—gains in scientific knowledge and the excitement of the popular imagination.

There is no disputing the large amount of scientific and ethnographic information returned by D'Albertis. He brought back hundreds of specimens of plants and animals new to science, as well as geographic information from New Guinea's interior and detailed information about the island's natives. All of this added immeasurably to the scientific knowledge of the day. This scientific haul was met with acclaim upon his return. Unfortunately, D'Albertis may have erred in choosing to return to the Fly River for his second voyage. During his 1875 voyage, he traveled about as far as was possible before the river became too shallow to proceed further. By choosing to retrace his previous path, D'Albertis was unlikely to penetrate further into New Guinea and, in fact, added little new knowledge because he broke no new ground. Had he instead chosen to ascend another major river, he might have accomplished more.

D'Albertis also returned to a fair degree of criticism about his methods of dealing with New Guinea's natives and the manner in which he collected some of his specimens. A volatile man, he was frequently questioned about his tendency to assume he was under attack any time he saw natives approaching. He would frequently set off rockets to frighten or impress the natives and, on at least a few occasions, launched rockets at villages for no apparent reason. On other occasions, he took bodies from funeral sites, took ethnographic artifacts from huts, and even bought heads from natives for his collections. All of these practices earned him controversy and no small degree of criticism.

Because of his apparent misdeeds, D'Albertis's scientific legacy must be viewed as a mixed success. On the one hand, as the first European to explore any significant portion of the New Guinea interior, every new fact and specimen he returned was a gain for science. On the other hand, his dubious collecting practices served to taint many of his ethnographic discoveries. Finally, by choosing to ascend the Fly a second time, he not only revisited areas previously described, but made things more difficult for himself by having to fight off natives who remembered his previous voyage. This, in addition to ethical questions, no doubt limited his ability to make scientific observations during this voyage.

Scientific and ethical issues notwithstanding, D'Albertis's expeditions were of great interest to the public. New Guinea was among the last places on Earth where exciting new discoveries could be made. Though the polar regions still awaited intensive scientific scrutiny, there was convincing evidence that there was little to be discovered except ice, rock, and cold. No new animals or exotic tribes awaited explorers. New Guinea, however, was subject to literature that was closer to fantasy than to reality. Writers spoke of cannibals, tall mountains, volcanoes, and strange animals, all of which was true. They also wrote of cities of gold, striped ponies, birds with 18-foot wingspans, and marsupial pachyderms, none of which was true. However, in the absence of any actual explorers, there was no way to reliably separate fact and fantasy. D'Albertis's trips began to change that and, in the process, managed to rekindle public excitement for exploration at a time when it was beginning to wane.

Public interest in exploration had begun to subside during this time for reasons similar to those behind flagging support for American lunar exploration after the first few Apollo landings. In July 1969 landing on the moon was the most exciting thing ever done by mankind, and the moon landing commanded a greater audience than any other event in human history. By 1972 public interest was so low that Apollo rockets already built were turned into museum pieces because nobody wanted to fund another trip to the moon. In the case of terrestrial exploration in the late nineteenth century, there was the tendency to feel that, once a few initial forays into the unknown had returned with a great deal of information and little incident, there was little reason to return. The excitement of breaking new ground by visiting a place for the first time vanished and the public had much less interest in the longer and less exciting process of consolidating those first tentative journeys. Or, in other words, the first few visits were a lot of fun, but after that, exploration became more like work, which was neither fun nor interesting to the public. As the last major landmass to be explored beyond the coastline, only New Guinea still excited the public imagination as Africa, Asia, and South America once had, and D'Albertis had a major role in that process.

D'Albertis's journeys had residual effects on subsequent exploration into parts of New Guinea and the discovery of New Guinea's economic potential. His stories of conflict with the natives tended to reinforce previous stories of danger, encouraging future expeditions to approach New Guinea with loaded weapons and the willingness to use them. In the Fly River area, the natives certainly remembered his visits and made life difficult for future expeditions along the Fly. However, this information and resulting animosity was not easily transmitted to other tribes because of the thick jungles, high mountains, and generally impassable terrain around New Guinea.

It was eventually discovered that New Guinea has significant economic resources, including gold and petroleum. While neither of these resources are found in the areas visited by D'Albertis, there are now mining camps in the upper reaches of the Fly River basin, as there are in many other places in New Guinea. Though D'Albertis discovered neither gold nor petroleum during his travels, his trips did help begin the process of mapping the entire New Guinea interior, setting the stage for the initial exploration upon which recovery of mineral resources depends. In this sense, D'Albertis's explorations in New Guinea can be considered the first of many that had the end result of opening the New Guinea interior for commercial development.


Further Reading

Souter, Gavin. New Guinea: The Last Unknown. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1963.

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Luigi Maria D'Albertis Explores Unknown Interior Regions of New Guinea

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