Page 1: Biography
Taxidermist, collector, naturalist
This biography, written by Ray G. Prebble, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in October, 2022.
Andreas Reischek was born on 15 September 1845 at Linz, Austria, the son of Barbara Danzer and her husband, Andreas Reischek, a collector of shipping fees. His mother died soon after he was born and Andreas was raised by the widow of the head gardener at Weinberg castle in Kefermarkt, north-east of Linz. The castle, with its large grounds and collections of mounted natural specimens, artefacts and exotic flora, was the ideal environment for engendering a fascination with both natural history and wealthy respectability.
About 1853 Reischek returned to Linz for formal schooling, and unable through poverty to attend university was apprenticed to a baker. During this and subsequent employment as a gamekeeper and guide Reischek improved his skills in hunting and preserving animals, and in 1875 he moved to Vienna to set up as a taxidermist.
Through his work Reischek became acquainted with Ferdinand von Hochstetter, intendant of the Imperial Natural History Museum. When in 1876 Hochstetter was asked by Julius von Haast of the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand to find him a taxidermist, he recommended Reischek. Despite having married Adelheid Hawlicek on 5 May the previous year, Reischek eagerly left Austria, with a promise to return in two years. He arrived at Port Chalmers, New Zealand, on the Tararua on 20 April 1877. He was to stay for 12 years. Reischek was short and wiry, bearded, with a receding hairline and an ingratiating and likeable nature.
In Christchurch Reischek immediately began work on the 30 chests of skins and skeletons awaiting him. However, his principal aim in coming to New Zealand seems to have been to amass an ethnological and natural history collection with which he could return to Vienna to the kind of acclaim accorded Hochstetter on his return from New Zealand in 1860. He financed his collecting expeditions by periods of work as a taxidermist, principally at Canterbury and Auckland museums, and by supplying specimens to private collectors and museums. His work was always highly praised.
Reischek's first expedition was a solo trek from Christchurch to the West Coast in 1877–78. He explored the Southern Alps with Haast in 1879 before sailing to the Kaipara Harbour and travelling widely in Northland. He made frequent trips to the northern offshore islands, including four trips to Little Barrier Island in search of the stitchbird. Extensive collecting expeditions in the King Country in 1882 were followed by fruitless searches for the takahē (Notornis) in Fiordland in 1884 and 1887–88, and an expedition to the sub-Antarctic islands on the government steamer Stella in 1888. One final postponement to rejoining his increasingly distressed wife involved an ascent of Mt Ruapehu and travels around the Bay of Plenty. Many of his notes were published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.
Reischek often endured appalling privations in the pursuit of his collection. He was usually accompanied only by his dog, Caesar, whose intelligence and abilities became legendary, and to whom Reischek (by his own account) owed his life many times. Even allowing for the notorious exaggerations and inaccuracies of Reischek's diaries, the expedition to Dusky Sound in 1884 seems to have been especially arduous: he was plagued by sandflies and incessant rain, injured himself with an axe, lost his tent in a snow storm, suffered food poisoning and almost drowned. A sole consolation, the capture of several kākāpō, was denied him when they escaped on the return trip.
As an Austrian Reischek was advantaged in his relations with Māori in the period following the wars of the 1860s. To help his amicable bartering and purchase of a variety of artefacts he sang, played the mouth organ and had Caesar perform tricks. However, if an open approach failed he did not hesitate to use subterfuge, often turning Māori customs, such as fear of tapu, to his advantage. He frequently dug up pā sites and burial caves, taking human skulls, tools and ornaments.
Reischek's most notorious exploit was his removal of the 'Kāwhia mummies'. The King Country had been largely closed to Europeans since 1864, but by 1881 Tāwhiao, the Māori King, was interested in re-establishing contact. After extensive negotiations Reischek gained Tāwhiao's trust, and was permitted to conduct expeditions around Pirongia Mountain and Kāwhia Harbour. Eventually Hochstetter's description of the sacred burial caves in cliffs on the Awaroa River proved irresistible, and knowing the value placed on complete human remains Reischek mounted an assault. Under the cover of darkness and with the aid of helpers he extricated two desiccated corpses, which were smuggled out of the area. One of the bodies was probably that of Tūpāhau, a seventeenth century Tainui chief; both ended up in the Imperial Natural History Museum at Vienna.
The seeming hypocrisy of Reischek's behaviour was characteristic of nineteenth century scientific thought, and is also reflected in his view of nature. He felt no compunction about shooting hundreds of rare native birds – having discovered the nearly extinct stitchbird he eventually shot a total of 150 specimens. However, he could at times express an awareness of ecological and conservationist principles, perceiving a 'connection and coherence of the manifold works of God' and decrying 'civilised man' who 'destroys the wonderful equipoise of Nature' and is 'not even capable of repairing the damage he causes'.
Reischek finally left New Zealand on 20 February 1889. The Auckland Weekly News described him as 'the best ornithologist New Zealand ever saw', and the Auckland Institute wished him 'the success and recognition in Europe which his arduous and valuable researches in New Zealand so well deserve.' He arrived in Vienna on 15 April to be greeted by his wife.
Reischek had the largest single collection of ethnological and natural history specimens ever taken to Europe from New Zealand. It attracted passing popular attention but few buyers, and was eventually sold for a modest sum.
Acclaim and wealth having eluded him, Reischek accepted a job in 1892 at the museum in Linz, and spent his last years in poverty. His prized fellowship of the Linnean Society of London, conferred in 1885, had lapsed after six years through non-payment of the subscription. He died in Linz on 3 April 1902. He was survived by his wife and a son, Andreas.
Possibly Reischek's major achievement was his near-complete collection of New Zealand birds, many specimens of which are still in perfect condition. But it is the removal of the bodies from Kāwhia for which many remember him. The posthumous publication of his autobiographical writings as Yesterdays in Māoriland (1930), with its boastful account of his abuse of Tāwhiao's hospitality, highlighted practices which although not uncommon were generally less publicly aired. Twentieth century attempts to have the bodies returned to Waikato finally bore fruit in 1985 when Tūpāhau's remains were retrieved and buried on Taupiri Mountain. In 2022, the Natural History Museum in Vienna returned kōiwi (human remains) from about 64 Māori and Moriori ancestors to Te Papa Tongarewa for repatriation to their iwi.