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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


TEMPSKY, Gustavus Ferdinand von


Adventurer, gold miner, farmer, and soldier.

A new biography of Tempsky, Gustavus Ferdinand von appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born in Leignitz, Silesia, in 1828, the son of a lieutenant-colonel in the Prussian Army. Destined for the army from earliest childhood, he entered the Berlin Military School at a tender age and in 1844, at the extraordinary age of 16, he received his commission in the 3rd Fusiliers of Prussia. The political and economic instability of early nineteenth-century Europe, and stories of a brave new world in another hemisphere, were at once a temptation and a challenge to the young officer whose adventurous spirit rebelled against the peacetime manoeuvrings of an army into which he was hustled by an uncompromising jack-booted parent. Unrest and insurrection were paving the way for the consolidation of the new Germany, but politics and intrigue had no appeal for young von Tempsky, and it was only natural that, at the conclusion of his military service in 1848, he should turn his attention to more exciting fields. Armed with an introduction from Lord Westmorland to the British authorities in the tiny Mosquito Kingdom in Central America, he set out with some sturdy companions with the intention of establishing a small settlement there. The colony failed due to rigours of climate and a hostile native population, and von Tempsky drifted into the filibustering that was then almost endemic in the Mexican Confederation. Commissioned as a captain, he led a guerrilla force into Nicaragua late in 1848, and then joined up with British naval units, acting as a guide in forays against up-river Nicaraguan cities.

From Central America the young soldier of fortune turned his eyes towards the Californian gold diggings, where he found plenty of action and excitement but little money. He spent the year 1850 in the maelstrom that was San Francisco, and then turned his back on the Pacific seaboard and returned to Mexico, where he attached himself to an expedition into the interior which extended over 3,000 miles of wild hostile country, including large expanses of Guatemala and Salvador. At the end of two years he returned to the coast and married Emilia, the daughter of the British Resident, James Stanislaus Bell, with whom he and his wife returned to Scotland when his tour of duty was completed. For some months he was content to concentrate on a fascinating book, Milta, which recounted his adventures in the Americas; and it was at this time that he also began to develop a talent for water-colour sketching, later used with effect to illustrate some of his engagements in the Maori Wars in New Zealand. In 1856 he and his wife emigrated to Victoria where he took up farming with some success but little enthusiasm. When the Government planned an expedition into Central Australia, he strove urgently for its command, but the authorities preferred a British national, and since he was not prepared to accept a subordinate position, he sold up his holding and crossed the Tasman to New Zealand where he engaged in gold mining at Coromandel in 1859. He found this venture not unremunerative but, when the Waikato Maori War broke out, he sought a commission in the Colonial Defence Force. His unrivalled qualifications ensured him an immediate appointment as an ensign in August 1863, and he entered upon his task with such avid impatience that he dipped deeply into his own pocket for the equipping of the company of Rangers which he soon had fighting fiercely in the Hunua Forest. From the outset his energy and daring impressed the British officers under whom he served. Within a few months, combining academy tactics with the catch-as-catch-can strategy of his Central American filibustering days, he had achieved such notable results that he was promoted to the rank of captain.

In February 1864 his dare-devil operations and personal intrepidity at the Mangapiko River and the Rangiaowhia Redoubt earned him the warm congratulations of Sir Henry Havelock and other British leaders. Then in April came the celebrated Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, where the Kingites were soundly defeated, largely on account of the performances of von Tempsky's Rangers. He refused to accept reverses and in the face of Rewi's famous words, “Peace shall never be made – never, never!” he led assault after assault on the Maori positions. His losses were considerable, but his success earned him his majority and a proud position in the Colonial Defence Force.

Von Tempsky's appetite for action was insatiable, and he managed to communicate a similar urgency to his men. Within a few weeks of the investment of Orakau, he was in the thick of the fighting on the West Coast of the North Island. He and his Rangers were generally the spearhead of attacks, and at Kakaramea, Nukumaru, and Weraroa they gained fresh laurels. After desultory operations in the Wanganui area in July 1865, the scene of action switched to the East Coast, and von Tempsky at once volunteered for service there, in the firm belief that he would be followed by his Rangers as soon as their transport could be arranged. Owing to a misunderstanding, involving pay rates in various theatres of war, his company was held in Wanganui, and von Tempsky, in high dudgeon, hastened to Wellington to protest to the military authorities and, if necessary, the Government. The Rangers were at once ordered to Wellington and returned to von Tempsky's command. But there was one serious hitch. Von Tempsky was instructed to place himself under the orders of a Major Fraser, a man of proven resource and courage, but junior in precedence to von Tempsky. With typical Prussian impatience, von Tempsky felt he had been superseded. He refused to accept Fraser's orders and tendered his resignation. When the Defence Minister (Atkinson) called him to account, he stamped out of the Minister's room in a rage, and after three further refusals to obey orders that had been given with Cabinet authority, he was placed under arrest. On 16 October the Weld Ministry resigned and Haultain replaced Atkinson as Defence Minister. An inquiry was held, without any real result, but the Governor, Sir George Grey, gave von Tempsky the chance to withdraw his resignation which the irate commander did on the understanding that he was not to be superseded by Fraser.

Once again the von Tempsky Rangers were in the thick of things in the West Coast region, and again they covered themselves with distinction under General Chute at New Plymouth, Whenuakura, and Otapawa. Von Tempsky was accorded special mention in the New Zealand Gazette of 26 January 1866. After this interlude the Rangers were disbanded and von Tempsky returned to his family at Coromandel for a well earned rest. By 1868 he was back in the field again, this time as an Inspector in the Armed Constabulary which, with Rangers and Volunteers, as well as Maori followers, was locked in a grim struggle with the Hauhaus under Te Kooti and some of his fiercest chiefs. In August the Hauhaus, led by Titokowaru, were brought to battle and von Tempsky was prominent in several bitter and costly engagements. Caught out of position with a force of Constabulary, Rangers, and Volunteers, he sought permission to attack, but his commanding officer, McDonnell, hesitated for a fatal moment, and then ordered a retreat. Von Tempsky was holding an exposed position and his force suffered heavily. He himself was shot and mortally wounded by a concealed Hauhau marksman. His body, with those of other Pakehas killed in the action, was burned on a funeral pyre with Hauhau rites.

Von Tempsky died at the zenith of his career. His defects as a soldier, such as they were, stemmed from his Prussian origins. The discipline he imposed upon himself he expected to be exercised by the authorities in the matter of his relations with others, but he could not always rely on it. Rank and precedence were obsessions with him, and his dream throughout the whole of his active service, not only in New Zealand but elsewhere, was of an independent command. If death had not cut his career so tragically short, at the age of 40 years, he must certainly have achieved his ambition, but he made such outstanding use of his opportunities that he left a notable mark in the history of the country of his adoption. His courage and daring were without question and he introduced into all his activities a self-reliance and independence of planning that were recognised as having a vital influence on the development of the colonial soldier. It was said of him after his Taranaki exploits of 1865 by the then Premier, Stafford, that he was a bulwark of the self-reliant policy of the Army and had done more than any other officer of his time to develop and direct the quality and effectiveness of the Colonial Defence Force. Von Tempsky's water colours, which may be seen in the Alexander Turnbull and Hocken Libraries, are of more than passing interest. They depict most realistically a number of incidents in the Maori Wars, and their details of uniforms and equipment are of historical value. In style and colour they have something of the quality of a “primitive”, with attractive decorative treatment.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

The New Zealand Wars, Cowan, J. (2 vols., 1955); New Zealand Examiner, 2 Nov 1869.


Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.