Traveller and researcher in the cultures of Oceania. Pioneer in studies of Micronesia. His ethnographic descriptions belong to the first such detailed reports from this part of Oceania

Jan Kubary, 1873
Source: Wikimedia Commons
(after Smolińska L., Sroka M., “Great known and unknown”, Warsaw 1988)

Born in Warsaw, which was then under Russian jurisdiction, in a Poland partitioned between the neighbouring states of Prussia, Russia and Austria. He studied medicine there. At the age of 17, he took part in the 1863 January Uprising against the Russians. In trying to avoid being sent to Siberia, he got fell into the snares of the tsarist secret police by accepting to work as an agent. To escape from these unfortunate connections and from the suspicion of his relatives, in 1868 he went to Berlin, and then to Hamburg, where he signed a contract with a wealthy owner of a museum specializing in ethnographic and natural history collections – Johann Cezar Godeffroy.

Kubary agreed to travel to the Pacific islands of Oceania to collect “exotic” specimens. He embarked on his mission in 1869, and from that moment became a professional collector and researcher of the world of “the islands of the southern seas.” Although he visited many of Oceania’s archipelagos, the it was the atolls of Micronesia that he studied the longest and most in depth: the Marshall Islands, Carolina, including the islands of Jap, Palau, Ponape, Truk.

Kubary while in Palau
Source: Wikimedia Commons
(after Smolińska L., Sroka M., “Great known and unknown”, Warsaw 1988)

He spent 28 years on the islands of Oceania, returning briefly to Europe several times. He also visited Lwów (in 1875 and 1894), as well as Kraków (in 1891), then under the Austrian occupation. Having found no possibility of stabilization here, he decided to return to Oceania. Moving between the islands, he conducted ethnographic, natural and archaeological research. He compiled dictionaries of local languages and established the names of the islands according to the native nomenclature. He sketched and corrected maps. Moreover, using the knowledge gained from incomplete medical studies, he healed the islanders, thus winning their favor.

Kubary spent the last years of his life in Micronesia. He ran a plantation on the island of Ponape, where he lived with his wife – Anna Yelliot, daughter of a Methodist missionary and indigenous chief’s daughter. He died on October 9, 1896, probably of a heart attack. His activity in this area is commemorated by a plaque with a bust cast in bronze.

Jan Stanislaw Kubary’s contributions to the studies of Micronesia were and remain enormous. Specimens collected by him are found today in German museums in Hamburg, Leipzig, and Berlin. They illustrate the old material and artistic culture of the islanders, and belong to highly valuable objects. The same can be said about the reports he sent from Oceania to Europe. In a very precise, systematic and insightful way they describe the many aspects of the indigenous cultures. His excellent knowledge of local languages, long sojourns on various islands, and close cooperation with the locals, were the reasons why the information collected by Kubary held particular value, as it showed the Europeans the world of a culture completely unknown to them. Therefore, even today, it is difficult to imagine anyone studying the archipelagos who would not have to reach for Kubary’s ethnographic reports. Although his observations and field notes did not play such a significant role in the development of social anthropology, as did the famous works by Bronislaw Malinowski, the information and documentation his notes and publications provided is nevertheless impressive. From his work emerges a picture of everyday life of Micronesian seafarers, farmers, fishermen and craftsmen, that soon after the death of Kubary, underwent rapid changes caused by colonial administration and expanding contacts of the islanders with the outside world.

Kubary’s research in Micronesia was pioneering in nature. His collection of indigenous artefacts as well as precise ethnographic descriptions were the first such detailed reports from this part of Oceania, which unlike Polynesia, was rather poorly explored by European travellers. Kubary was also a pioneer of photo and graphic documentation of the architecture, local customs, daily life and the character of the indigenous society. In the beginning, he was mainly interested in local material culture: construction, sailing, local bartering tools, including the famous giant stone circles of Jap islands, burials, or tattooing. In time, his interests grew to include those cultural aspects that required a good knowledge of local languages, gaining the confidence of the locals and the ability to cohabit with a foreign environment. Thanks to these skills and his passion for research, Kubary could also penetrate the secrets of local common law, religion or social relations.

Kubary’s interests were not limited, however, only to ethnography but also included natural and geographical studies. His detailed maps of the islands and atolls of Micronesia were the first cartograms to be so precisely and expertly made, and were used by numerous travellers and sailors visiting these islands many years after his death.

His scientific achievements and reports from close to 26 years on the islands of Micronesia are very little known today, and this because most were published in Germany during his lifetime, and in specialized ethnographic and museum publications what’s more. Efforts made to date to bring at least some of his achievements into the present day have been futile. The only exception is a book by Konrad Wypych from 1969 titled “In the Shadow of Fe. In the footsteps of Jan Stanislaw Kubary” (Wroclaw, Publ. PTL) in which the author quite accurately reconstructs the history of Kubary’s stay in Micronesia and lists the top Polish and German publications by the researcher.

Jan Stanisław Kubary is commemorated by the summit of Mount Kubari in the Finisterre range in New Guinea (1252 m above sea level), as well as one of the islands in the Ailinglapalap atoll in the Marshall Archipelago. His name was included in the Latin names of several species of birds: the Marian crow (Corvus kubaryi), the shelled fan (Rhipidura kubaryi) and the Carolingian island (Gallicolumba kubaryi).

Ailinglapalap atoll with the island of Kubary
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aleksander Posern-Zieliński, prof. dr. hab

Kubary J., „Wyspy ciepłych mórz: Jana Stanisława Kubarego notaty z podróży po Mikronezji”, Warszawa 1997.
Słabczyński W., „Na wyspach Pacyfiku: o Janie Kubarym badaczu Oceanii”, Warszawa 1956.
Smolińska L., Sroka M., „Wielcy znani i nieznani”, Warszawa 1988.
Wypych K., „Cieniu Fe. Śladami Jana Stanisława Kubarego”, Wrocław 1969.