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Arriving at Aitape


From Dutch New Guinea to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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Well, I had completed my task, I had gotten something like 3000 bird specimens and I also had collected vast plant collections. From my collections, for instance, 38 new species of... of Orchids were described; I think 12 new species of Rhododendrons; and many other things, and so I had really completed my task as far as Dutch New Guinea was concerned. However, the Berlin Museum had given me some funds to make a collection of a relatively unexplored mountain range in the Mandated... Mandated Territory of New Guinea, the former German New Guinea, in eastern New Guinea. And when I tried to find out how I could get from Dutch New Guinea to this other part – they were actually bordering each other – I found that there was no connection. The two governments, the Dutch and the Australian, which was now running the Mandated Territory, they didn't want to have any connection between the two. And I would have had to go from Dutch New Guinea back to Java, from there down to Australia, and then from Australia up to eastern New Guinea. And that trip would have cost more than the money I had available for my whole... expedition to eastern New Guinea. So what should I do? And I finally decided: 'Oh, I am going to take some canoes and I go along the coast into the mandate territory'. And everybody I talked with said, 'That's impossible. You can't do it. First of all, this is a very exposed coast, there is a tremendous surf, you can't land with these canoes. And the people are very nasty, they're famous for being very aggressive and unpleasant and uncooperative'.

The first port in the Mandated Territory was called Attack Harbour because every expedition or people that came there were immediately attacked by the natives. And I in my youthful enthusiasm or ignorance or whatever, ignored it all and I got myself about six canoes together. They were all small outrigger canoes – no, no big transport canoes – and off I went. And I sent my three Javanese, Mantoese, assistants back to Java, and I hired two former bird-of-paradise hunters, local Malays from the Maluccas to be my new assistants. They both knew how to skin birds. So off I went. Well, the first stop was this Attack Harbour, and they were not... they were not friendly, but they weren't really bad, and I was able to send my canoes back to Hollandia, to the Dutch part. And I hired some new canoes to take me to the next village, which was called Laitrae, and when I got to Laitrae – first of all, as we were going through the surf, my canoe capsized but fortunately the natives – they were very clever and very good – they put me sideways out of the canoe so it would not fall on me and I got ashore, of course wet from top to bottom. My equipment that was in that canoe of course was in the water, but they were able by diving down get all of it out and the damage wasn't too great because much of it I had packed waterproof.

But there I sat in Laitrae and they wouldn't give me any more canoes to go on, they wouldn't service my porters and I sat there for about three days and finally I got so exasperated that I jumped up and I grabbed my gun and I said, 'I'm going to shoot you all if you don't do it'. And they saw how utterly mad I was and they probably afraid that I might really in... in my excitement shoot somebody, and by God, they finally produced some canoes and off we went to the next place. Well, I will not tell you the stages but... but it went like this, from place to place, and the last 70 miles I had to walk on the shore, no trail, in the hot sun all day, and I finally got to the first port in the Mandated Territory. This was the most difficult, most dangerous, most unpleasant experience I ever had in my whole life.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: Rhododendrons, Orchids, New Guinea, Berlin Museum, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, Java, Australia, Attack Harbour, Hollandia, Laitrae

Duration: 4 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008