The Russians are coming (again)

WARM WELCOME: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen meets and greets.
WARM WELCOME: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen meets and greets.

If you want to watch a decent documentary, you're far more likely to find it quietly nestled away on Maori TV than on any other channel. On Saturday night at 8.30 they had a little ripper - The Russians Are Coming, written and directed by Toby Mills.

Fronted by Moana Maniapoto, with a significant input from Sir Tipene O'Regan, the documentary looked at 10 days in May 1820, when Russian explorers were forced by bad weather to moor in Queen Charlotte Sound.

They were on their way back from Antarctica - arguably the first to sight the mainland there - and, although they knew about New Zealand from Cook's records, they had no intention of popping in for a visit. They knew that there was a slight possibility that a visit could end in a celebrity roast.

Sir Tipene is an articulate and erudite storyteller with a gift of presenting a story at its most straightforward. He put the success of the visit down to the fact that the Russian explorers arrived not the slightest bit interested in taking over the land, and thus treated the inhabitants like human beings as opposed to barriers standing between them and their ambition.

Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen was at the helm of the fine ship that sailed into Queen Charlotte Sound. He sounds like a character from Hairy Maclary, but he was the sort of man who gives explorers a good name. His ship was both beautiful and sturdy, being designed to sail in seas bobbing with icebergs.

Maori in waka immediately came out to meet them. "It was a bit like strangers parking their caravan in your vegetable garden," says Sir Tipene.

And it was indeed produce the sailors were after, particularly fresh fish.

What followed was 10 days of friendship and the canny swapping of goods. No muskets - just mirrors and tools, nails and beads. In return the sailors got greenstone and other artefacts, and fine woven fabric. Of particular interest to the Russian sailors were the Maori rain-capes - there was no such thing in Russia. And the Maori loved the useful knives, saved by the sailors to be traded last.

Moana Maniapoto was a magnificent host, both engaged and engaging. She could barely suppress the glee she was clearly feeling at having landed this particular job. "Hi folks! This is me in St Petersburg! And this is me looking at the incredible artefacts!"

Because not only did Von Bellingshausen gift a collection to the Tsar, he also kept duplicates for himself and they remain at the university in Kronstadt, of which he became governor. So in Russia there is a veritable time capsule, a collection of goods available to a particular tribe in a particular place in May 1820. There are drawings by the ship's artist of the tribe and their pa, their houses, their gardens, their clothes and their adornment.

There are diaries kept by the ship's captain, which include evocative descriptions of the haka, and of the attempts of the sailors on board to later imitate it.

Maniapoto pointed out that this visit took place just five years after Napoleon had lost at Waterloo. Only seven years later, the tribe was annihilated by Te Rauparaha.

Interestingly, at the time Te Rauparaha was camped further up the coast, had heard of the visit, and as the ship sailed past, he lit a huge bonfire in an attempt to lure them ashore again. But they'd given away all their presents by now, and were well stocked with food, so on they sailed.

This is the sort of documentary TVNZ might have made once, before it lost its way and stopped caring about - well, anything much at all, it can seem. It's the sort of documentary that increasingly lures viewers to Maori TV and I do hope they show it again so that you and yours can see it. I guarantee you would love it. Especially when it's such a happy story. There's always a case for bringing our nation's taonga back home, but these were gifts, not stolen. A visiting exhibition of those gifts given in good faith to that very decent sounding captain (by his grave there's a carving written in Maori, expressing the high regard in which the tribe held him) would be marvellous. How about it, Te Papa? Pataka?


There's episode two of Mad Dogs on TV One at 9.30pm and it's not too late to start watching this terrific drama. Series Two of Boardwalk Empire (never warmed to it myself, but bucketloads of others have) started last night on SoHo and there's an encore at 8.30pm tomorrow.

What I do love (so far) is the BBC spy thriller The Hour which started on Saturday at 8.30pm on SoHo, and which encores on Wednesday at 7.30pm. I also love these encores; they make a reviewer's job much more satisfying.

The Dominion Post