The Amazing Andreas Reischek

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. Andreas Reischek

The intrepid traveller

By Roger Childs

He came from Austria 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, accidentally 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, Wanganui 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 of beyond.

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

Huge respect

Maori King Tawhiao

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 always good company and 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 PC historians

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

However, some of his conclusions are not accepted by the politically correct historical establishment. Like some other travellers, missionaries and scientists he reiterated the view that Maori found people living here when they arrived. (See the quote at the top.)

Part Maori today fiercely guard their indigenous status, even though 600-650 years of Polynesian settlement doesn’t really cut it with 65,000 years for the First Australians.

There is no reason why Reischek should seek 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

A legend

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 did not receive adverse comment.

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 travellers and observers. Back in the 1880s he expressed very modern views about respect for native culture, concern over European settlers devastating the environment and the problem of the threat of rats to the local bird life.

Yesterdays In Maoriland is one of the most interesting books on pre-20th century travels in New Zealand, and if you haven’t read it, track it down through your local library.



The historical account he provides is nonsense. As he was told this by Honana te Majoha (Maioha), a cousin of ‘king’ Tawhiao (page 120) and from Wahanui, “the power behind the throne” (page 128), his account simply tells the stories common among kingites around 1882, and their misunderstanding of the causes of conflict.

It provides yet another glimpse into early Maori life. In Northland, “Chief Pairama told me the tribes formerly living here had been very good at working and cultivation, but who knew little about fighting. His forefathers had conquered them, eating those they killed, and enslaving the rest.” That was a time of insecurity, with threat of death from warrior Maori to defenceless Maori. Might was right.

Fair comment Guy, the gathering of cultural remains and sending them to Europe is the black mark against Reischek. This was done by others around the world at the time, but that does not excuse his actions. Just as the practices of slavery, cannibalism, abduction of women and killing of prisoners by Maori and other native groups in the nineteenth century cannot be excused as just being part of the culture.

Nevertheless, things do need to be put into the historical perspective of the times.

Reischek, as you know, had enormous respect for Maori people and their customs, and lamented the encroachment by European and British settlers on their lands and traditions.

He deserves to be remembered as one of the most perceptive observers of New Zealand life in the late nineteenth century and as a remarkable traveller and collector.

Reischek was also an Austrian expert at clandestinely digging up urupa/cemeteries, stealing the remains and artefacts, then exporting these back to his homeland…