Phillip Tapsell was the assumed name of Hans Homan Jensen Falk. His name is also recorded in a variety of other guises, including Philip Tapsell or Tapsall, Phillip Tapsel or Tapsal, Hans Tapsell and Hans Felk. Family tradition is that he was born at Copenhagen, Denmark, the son of Jens Hansen Falk and his wife, Maria Dorothea Esmarck, about 1777. His mother died when he was eight. After spending two years with his grandparents in Jutland, Hans Falk attended school at Copenhagen. He went to sea early in the 1790s, and served in merchant ships. About the turn of the century he joined a ship in England, where he assumed the name Phillip Tapsell (topsail), posing as a Manxman to explain his accent, as Britain and Denmark were at war. He claimed to have served in Danish privateers in the campaign to exclude British vessels from the Baltic during the Napoleonic wars, and returned to England about 1802. However, Danish official sources suggest that he was born about 1791 to Jens Hansen Falk and his first wife, Giertrud Homand, who died in 1798. His father married Maria Dorothea Esmann in 1801. He joined his first English ship in about 1809.
The whaling trade brought him repeatedly to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, and on 23 June 1823, while serving on the Asp, he was married there by the missionary Thomas Kendall to Maria Ringa. Tapsell claimed it was 'the first marriage that ever took place in New Zealand'. The bride decamped the same day.
Tapsell went to Sydney, New South Wales, returning to the Bay of Islands as mate of the whaling ship Sisters late in 1826. He claimed to have led the party which recaptured the brig Wellington from escaped convicts and returned the ship to Sydney. There he commanded the schooners Darling and Samuel, and the brig Minerva, before settling permanently in New Zealand. On 21 April 1830, at Kerikeri, he was married by the Reverend Samuel Marsden to Karuhi, sister of Nga Puhi chief Wharepoaka. At the invitation of Te Arawa chiefs of Rotorua, Tapsell settled at Maketu in the Bay of Plenty in November 1830. As agent of a Sydney trading firm he supplied muskets, gunpowder and other goods in exchange for flax. His business prospered, and he appointed representatives at Matamata, Tauranga and Matata. Although his dealings in firearms when Nga Puhi invaded Tauranga in 1832 earned him the displeasure of Henry Williams and other CMS missionaries, he acted as a peacemaker in the war between Te Arawa and Ngai Te Rangi at Maketu in 1833 and wrote to Williams in the hope that he would send missionaries as a means of keeping peace between the tribes. After the death of Karuhi, Tapsell took as his wife Hine-i-turama (Hineaturama) Ngatiki, a high-ranking woman of Ngati Whakaue of Te Arawa. They were to have six children. The marriage was solemnised, and the children baptised, by Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier during a visit to Whakatane in 1841.
Tapsell was a tall man, strong and powerfully built, and displayed a great deal of nerve in threatening circumstances. In 1836, in retaliation for the murder of a relative, the Matamata chief Te Waharoa brought a war party of Ngati Haua to Maketu, and with the help of Ngai Te Rangi, destroyed Maketu pa. Tapsell watched his premises go up in flames, 'standing with a good deal of apparent composure, a drawn sword in his hand', according to the missionary printer W. R. Wade. Tapsell was driven out, going first to Matata and then to Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua. His eldest son was born there, and named Retireti (Retreat) to commemorate his parents' flight from Maketu.
Tapsell went to see his principals at Sydney, but they ended their arrangement with him. Another merchant, Frederick Peterson, agreed to employ him, and at Whakatane he entered into partnership with John Middlemas. However, his fortunes never recovered from the destruction of his Maketu business. Ammunition was still wanted (although the initial demand for guns had subsided) but flax had lost ground in the export market, and the Maori had turned to producing food for the local trade. Tapsell traded along the coast, but his fortunes did not improve. In the late 1830s one of his agents was drowned at Matata, and on 1 March 1840 the ship Falcon, under charter to Tapsell, was wrecked near Maketu. Ngati Awa of Whakatane quarrelled with their Ngati Pukeko neighbours upriver, and trade was halted. Tapsell had to move house, as his store was needed to form part of a fortification.
Trading declined further, and had to be supplemented by boatbuilding. In 1848 Tapsell applied for work as a pilot, mentioning among his services to the government the ransoms he had paid for the release of Maori and Pakeha captives over the years. He acquired both Whakaari (White Island) and Motutohora (Whale Island), and for a time lived with his daughter, Kataraina, and her husband George Simpkins, who had opened a store on Motutohora. Hine-i-turama, who had gone to Waikato to visit her daughter Ewa, died at Orakau pa when it was attacked by British troops in 1864.
In 1866 Tapsell petitioned the governor for a pension, as recognition of his recapture of the Wellington in 1826, but his request was referred to the government of New South Wales and not further acknowledged. In later years he lived with members of his family (known in Maori as Tapihana) at Whakatane and Maketu. His reminiscences, dictated in 1869, provide a fascinating (although sometimes unreliable) account of his long and eventful life. Remarkably vigorous until his last few weeks, he died at Maketu on 6 or 7 August 1873, and was buried in the Wharekahu cemetery.