TAPSELL, Philip, or Felk (also spelt Falk) Hans Homman
A new biography of Tapsell, Phillip appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Hans Felk, “to the best of his own recollection”, was born in 1777 at Copenhagen, Denmark, the son of Jans Hansen Felk, a civil servant. He was brought up in Jutland by his grandparents and received his education in Copenhagen. About 1791 he was apprenticed to a local shipowner in whose service he made voyages to Mediterranean ports and to the United States. When, about 1796, his ship was sold in London, he joined a whaling cruise to the Timor Sea. As England was then at war and Europeans could not be employed in British ships, Felk assumed the name Tapsell (top sail) and explained his slight accent by claiming to be a Manxman. He revisited his homeland in time to witness Nelson's bombardment of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. During the following year he commanded two Danish privateers against the British and spent some time as a prisoner of war in Sweden. Towards the end of 1802 he returned to London and paid a brief visit to Malta in a British Government ship.
After this, Tapsell joined a whaling expedition to the South Seas and called at the Bay of Islands some time in 1803. Six years later he returned to this country as mate in the whaler New Zealander. They were in New Zealand waters when news reached them of the Boydmassacre at Whangaroa, and Tapsell's ship was among those which hastened to the Bay of Islands to punish Te Pahi for his presumed complicity in the crime. Tapsell visited New Zealand twice in the following years: in the Catherine (1815), and the Asp (1823). In January 1827 he arrived in the Bay of Islands as chief mate in the Sisters. While he was there the pirated brig Wellington arrived, and Tapsell organised the whalers who recaptured it. After this he took the prize to Sydney, where he found that the Sisters had preceded him and that her captain claimed to have effected the brig's capture. At this time Captain Rous, of HMS Rainbow, arranged for Tapsell to take his master's certificate and offered him command of HMS Alligator. As the latter was refitting, Tapsell took the Darling to Tahiti and, afterwards, commanded the Samuel on a relief voyage to the sealing station at Codfish Island off Stewart Island. He returned to Sydney via Port Nicholson and the Bay of Islands and then took the Minerva on a short whaling voyage.
In 1828 Tapsell settled permanently in New Zealand. He opened a trading post, on behalf of a Sydney merchant, at Maketu, in the Bay of Plenty district, and entered into friendly relations with the powerful Arawa group of tribes. In 1835, when Te Waharoa besieged Maketu, Tapsell's post was destroyed and he and his family were forced to flee to Rotorua. During the next few years he opposed the extension of missionary activities among the Arawas and, as a result, became extremely unpopular with the Church Missionary Society. Although Te Waharoa's raid had left him almost destitute, Tapsell continued in business with indifferent success. In 1848 he applied for a post as pilot at the Bay of Islands, but the Government was unable to find him a vacancy. In his declining years he lived in comparative poverty with his family at Whakatane and Maketu. Tapsell died at Maketu on 6 August 1873.
Tapsell married three times. His first, performed by Kendall on 23 June 1823, was to Maria Ringa, a Ngapuhi mission girl, who deserted him soon after the service. On 21 April 1830 Marsden married him to a sister of Waikato. Tapsell's third marriage, solemnised by Pompallier in 1845, was to Hineiturama, an Arawa chieftainess, by whom he had six children. Hineiturama was killed in the siege of Orakau.
In his own day Tapsell was noted for his courage and firmness of character. During his long sojourn among the Maoris he acquired a remarkable knowledge of their traditions and culture. He was a highly regarded chief among the Arawa tribe and it was his influence which did much to establish friendly contacts with the Europeans.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
I.A. 1/66 (MSS), National Archives; Australian Almanack, 1829 Hawes; A Trader in Cannibal Land, Cowan, J. (1935); Thames Advertiser, 14 Aug 1873 (Obit).