Strangers in a strange land: Toetoe and Te Rerehau in Vienna

By Chris Barton

Film-maker Tearepa Kahi joined forces with producer Alexander Behse to create a feeling of what it was like to walk in the shoes of Wiremu Toetoe and Hemara Te Rerehau. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Film-maker Tearepa Kahi joined forces with producer Alexander Behse to create a feeling of what it was like to walk in the shoes of Wiremu Toetoe and Hemara Te Rerehau. Photo / Brett Phibbs

When Wiremu Toetoe and Hemara Te Rerehau went to Europe in 1859 on board the Austrian frigate Novara, Te Rerehau kept a journal.

His beautiful cursive handwriting tells, in te reo Maori, of wondrous things: "Water comes out of fountains made in the form of lions and bears, for they have gaping mouths and water gushes forth from inside the mouths of these animals which are made of stone."

There was also a meeting with Emperor Franz Josef, travelling by "land steamer" and seeing tigers and lions for the first time at the Imperial Zoological Gardens in Vienna.

"When the lion roars in hunger, his tail shakes ... On his tail there is a cluster of hair with a pointed end like the horn of a cow."

But while Te Rerehau's wide-eyed observations tell much of the pair's excellent adventure, for a diary-like account there's a surprising lack of private thoughts.

There is little mention, for example, of how each of them interacted with Austrian women - except that they seemed to be in high demand, needing an appointment book to keep track of their social engagements.

And on the scandal - that Toetoe had a son, with the daughter of an officer no less, and that the mother was unable to keep her child, who was sent away to an orphanage in Hungary - Te Rerehau's journal is silent.

It's just one of the twists and turns uncovered in The Flight of Te Hookioi, a documentary retelling Toetoe and Te Rerehau's remarkable story.

A story that sees the emperor gift the two Maori chiefs a printing press that makes its way back to New Zealand, briefly produces Te Hookioi, a te reo newspaper promoting the Kingitanga movement, and then ends up rusting on the banks of Waipa River.

"We made a decision to try to create a feeling of what it is like to walk in their shoes in taking this journey," says director Tearepa Kahi.

"I was in awe and when we went through these places - the Vienna Zoo, the Imperial Palace - there were moments when I felt a sense of what they must have gone through."

The story begins early in 1859 when the Austrian Empire included the ports of Trieste and Venice.

At the behest of Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Emperor and head of the Imperial Navy, the frigate Novara sailed into the Waitemata Harbour. On board were a team of seven scientists - including Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who later became known as the father of New Zealand geology.

The Novara, on a round-the-world scientific expedition, was boldly going to new worlds, seeking out new knowledge and adding to its collection of specimens in any way it could.

The chief scientist, Karl von Scherzer, wrote in his journal: "Since the first day of our arrival, I gave the order to have some nice tattooed aboriginals who are capable and willing to accompany us as seamen on the Novara."

Which is how Toetoe, 32, and Te Rerehau, 20, began their journey. Kahi and producer Alexander Behse began theirs on Te Kotahitanga Marae in the Waikato. For the German-born Behse, getting the permission from the whanau was the standout moment.

He'd never been called on to a marae before.

"I've never needed to go down that track. That for me was very scary." Permission wasn't automatic and both Behse and Kahi got quite a grilling.

"There were moments in there where I would have just liked to walk out," says Behse, who had been looking for a story about German and New Zealand cultural exchange. Part-adventure, part-history and part-travel, it had all the elements his company, Monsoon Pictures, specialises in.

Although he had lived in New Zealand for five years, on the marae Behse was a stranger in strange land. Normally getting the green light involves sorting out the mundane issue of whether any copyright exists. Here, as Behse was confronted with questions about what gave him the right to tell the story, none of that counted. "The Maori world is different. It is their story, no matter how old it is."

For Kahi, of Tainui descent, there was simply no choice. Seeking the whanau's blessing is what you do - something he has done many times before, including for his award-winning short film Taua, when he had asked for permission to drag a waka through the dense bush of the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland.

"All of that matters very little when you are dealing with someone's direct ancestor. You come in with credentials, that you've made stuff before. But for the whanau it's, 'You're talking about our great-great-great-grandfather - so who are you and what will you do with him?"'

Much to Behse's relief, consent was given, making for a better story. The climax is a return to the marae for an emotional presentation to the whanau of their research findings - including a signed copy of the contract Toetoe and Te Rerehau made with the captain of the Novara, plus long-lost photos of both men.

There is a Austrian counterpart to the marae scene in the small ballroom of the Imperial Palace, where Kahi meets Michael and Markus Habsburg, great-grand-nephews of the Austrian Emperor.

Kahi greets the startled descendants with a formal mihi and then presents them with a copy of the first edition of Te Hookioi, which carries the words: "This publication was made with the printing press that was gifted by the King of Austria."

The Austrian segment - shot in seven days - also turned the tables on Kahi, who was now the stranger in a strange land, whereas Behse, who knew Vienna well, was in comfortable territory and using his German language to open doors.

He was helped by Dr Georg Sauer's thesis which, drawing on the journals and writing of Hochstetter, provided more detail of Toetoe and Te Rerehau's time in Vienna.

Initially, the pair were deliberately kept "out of sight of the public eye" by Alois Auer, head of the Imperial Printery, where they learned all aspects of the printing trade. But eventually they made a spectacular public debut in a procession with the crew of the Novara.

Te Rerehau writes: "When the Pakeha noticed us, all the onlookers shouted 'bravo, bravo, New Zealand'; they holloed at us and followed us ... Soon the Pakeha were rushing in and dragging us out of the procession and the women too pulled at us to have a good look, whereupon the batons of the policemen fell upon the people who were dragging us in this unruly way."

After their public outing, the two Maori in Vienna became sought-after objects of curiosity. Sauer talks about people watching them eat - apparently thinking they might be dining on human flesh. There is reference also to their "gallant propensities" and full appointment book for social engagements.

Kahi remains astonished by Te Rerehau's journal, which was originally translated by Maori language scholar Dr Helen Hogan in her book Bravo, Neu Zeeland.

"It's a real piece of Maori literature. There are beautiful words in this diary that we don't hear any more."

Unfortunately, the journal stops just as Toetoe and Te Rerehau are about to depart Vienna, leaving Kahi and Behse to piece together what happens next from other sources. Especially useful was Dr Sascha Nolden's doctorate on Hochstetter.

Kahi, as both narrator and interviewer, tells Toetoe's and Te Rerehau's story in a deeply personal and culturally distinctive style.

But the return to New Zealand raises more questions than it answers. On their way home, Toetoe and Te Rerehau travel to London with Hochstetter, gaining an audience with Queen Victoria and pledging their allegiance - just as war is breaking out in Taranaki.

Franz Josef's printing-press gift finds its way back to New Zealand, but strangely Toetoe and Te Rerehau, now well-versed in all aspects of print, have little involvement in what it produces.

Briefly, the te reo newspaper Te Hokioi e Rere Atu Na (The Mythical Bird that Flies Up There) does cause a stir by promoting the cause of the Maori King and attacking the land greed of the Pakeha. The Government in Auckland is not pleased and sets up a rival te reo printing press, publishing Te Pihoihoi Moke Moke (The Lone Sparrow on the Rooftop), which offends many Maori with its criticism of their King and advocacy of Pakeha settlement of the Waikato.

The Waikato wars intervene and the press falls abruptly silent, ending up ignominiously rusting on the banks of the Waipa River.

Quite how it gets there is unclear, although stories abound: about it tipping from a boat as it was being moved across the river, of the letter blocks being melted down for ammunition, and of it being used to press cakes of torori, or home-grown tobacco.

Kahi brings back what he knows to the whanau, but agrees the story of what happens to both men after their return to New Zealand waits to be told.

Te Rerehau comes back with a suit of armour, leads King Tawhiao's guards, and goes on to have a large family.

Toetoe, a postmaster before he left New Zealand, goes back into an administrative role. Eventually he dies penniless, found naked in the streets of Waiuku with no land and everything taken from him.

The Flight of Te Hookioi - 8.30pm Wednesday, October 21, Maori Television.

- NZ Herald

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