By Roger Childs

Who was Andreas Reischek?

49 of these ancestors were collected by Austrian taxidermist and grave-robber Andreas Reischek who spent 12 years in New Zealand from 1877 to 1889. –Piers Fuller, Dominion Post, Monday, October 3 

The intrepid traveler

Reischek is in the news because the ancestral remains of Moriori and Maori he collected were repatriated on Sunday from Austria. He came to New Zealand for a couple of years to help out with setting up the Canterbury Museum. But he stayed for twelve. 

With his dog Caesar, a pack and a gun he traversed the country, exploring and tramping through inland Canterbury, Northland, the Waikato, King Country, Volcanic Plateau, the West Coast, Fiordland, Nelson and the Bay of Plenty. He also visited all the sub-Antarctic islands south of mainland New Zealand.

His autobiography — Yesterdays in Maoriland — which came out in 1930, over 40 years after he had returned to his homeland, is a fascinating record of his travels, interaction with Maori, and observations on native flora, fauna, New Zealand history and Maori customs.

A great survivor

On the ship coming out to New Zealand in 1877, Reischek lived through a smallpox epidemic, just one of many challenges he would face. During his adventures up and down the country he would come through slipping down cliffs, enduring snow storms, crossing flooded rivers, being knocked down by a falling tree, accidently poisoning himself and being tipped out of a boat.

He mainly lived off the land, and the combination of his gun and the amazing retrieval skills of Caesar, allowed him to survive in very difficult conditions. Although he sometimes had human company, he was generally on his own and one winter spent several months alone in the remote sounds of Fiordland.

His resilience and adaptability were amazing. Back in “civilisation” he spend plenty of time in helping set up museums in Christchurch, W’anganui and Auckland, as well as private collections, however his innate curiosity about New Zealand birds and vegetation impelled him to regularly head out into the back country. 

Once in the remote areas he showed amazing fitness, navigational skills and seldom got lost. He scaled a number of peaks and climbed Mt Ruapehu after tramping north from W’anganui!

Huge respect

English and Maori alike esteemed Reischek as a man and a pioneer of the true breed and he spoke lovingly of the colony to the very day of his death. –H.E.L. Priday

Reischek was fluent in both English and Te Reo, and the latter knowledge enabled him to readily mix with tribes up and down the country. 

Maori in villages and white settlers on remote farms were always happy to welcome and support the traveller, and Reischek was very grateful for any hospitality he received.

He became the friend of Maori “king” Tawhiao, and was the only white person free to travel through the king’s domains.

Challenges for ‘politically correct’ historians

Andreas Reischek provides his version of New Zealand history and given his perspective from the late 19th century. His detailed comments on Maori history, lifestyle and traditions are from unique first-hand experience.

However, some of his explanations are not accepted by the Wokeist historical establishment. Like some other travellers, missionaries and scientists he reiterates the view that Maori found people living here when they arrived. 

The chiefs told me the Maori are a mixed race … They landed at different spots in the North Island and found them inhabited by dark coloured men with curly black hair and short of stature … So the Maori conquered them, killed the men and took possession of the women. This union would account for the three differentiated types I noticed. 

There is no reason why Reischek should have sought to deceive his readers about the possibility of earlier inhabitants or about the love of some Maori for human flesh. He had great respect for Maori culture and told it as he saw and heard it.

Controversy and reputation

Ceremony for the return of remains from Austria last week.

Reischek has come in for criticism in the 21st century because he did send human remains, as well as plant and bird specimens, back to Europe. However, in the late 19th century this was not uncommon and when the book came out in 1930, these actions by the Austrian collector did not receive adverse comment.

Maori chiefs back in the 1820s and 1830s traded smoked tattooed heads for muskets and these later appeared in museums and collections all around the world.

Historian Michael King called him The Collector, but he was much more than that. Andreas Reischek remains one of New Zealand’s great 19th century travelers and observers. Back in the 1880s he expressed very modern views about respect for Maori culture, concern over European settlers devastating the environment and the problem of the threat of rats to the local birdlife.

Yesterdays in Maoriland is one of the most interesting books on late 19th century travels in New Zealand, and if you haven’t read it, try to track it down through your local library.