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Gustavus von Tempsky

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky
Gustav von Tempsky , ca. 1868
Born (1828-02-15)15 February 1828
Braunsberg, Ost-Prussia or (Silesia).
Died 7 September 1868(1868-09-07) (aged 40)
Te Ngutu o Te Manu ("The Bird's Beak", Titokowaru's main Pa), New Zealand
Occupation Adventurer, artist, newspaper correspondent and soldier
Spouse(s) Emelia Bell
Children Randal, Louis, and Lina
Parent(s) Karoline Henriette Friederike Wilhelmine von Studnitz and Julius Louis von Tempsky

Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky (Polish: Gustaw Ferdynand Tempski) (15 February 1828 – 7 September 1868) was a Prussian adventurer, artist, newspaper correspondent and soldier in New Zealand, Australia, California, Mexico and the Mosquito Coast of Central America. He was also an amateur watercolourist who painted the New Zealand bush and the military campaign.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Joins the Forest Rangers 2
  • Court-Martial 3
  • The Taranaki Wars 4
  • Family 5
  • Further reading 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Gustav von Tempsky was born in Braunsberg, Ost-Prussia (now Braniewo, Poland) into a Prussian noble family of Polish origin. The family had branches in Silesia and elsewhere and had a long military tradition. Von Tempsky was brought up in Liegnitz in Lower Silesia. After this time he was sent to a junior cadet school in Potsdam and then a cadet school in Berlin. His cousin was the German writer Valeska von Gallwitz. In 1844 he was commissioned into his father's regiment in the Royal Prussian Army, possibly the Garde-Fusilier Regiment in which his brother, Benno Waldemar von Tempsky was a second lieutenant.

In 1846, tiring of routine, he left the regiment after only nine months for the Prussian settlement on the Mosquito Coast of Central America. He accepted a commission to command a force of Mosquito Indians, which had been set up by Britain. In 1850 he went to the new California goldfields, but did not strike gold. In 1853 he returned to the Prussian Colony, via Mexico, Guatemala and Salvador, and later wrote a book, Mitla, about his journey. He had been courting Emelia Ross Bell at the nearby British settlement of Bluefields (or Blewfields) before he left, but her father did not approve, probably because of his youth and lack of prospects. After his return, on 9 July 1855 at Bluefields, he married Emelia, the elder daughter of the British government agent from Scotland, James Stanislaus Bell. In 1858 a son, Louis von Tempski, was born in Glasgow, Scotland. The family emigrated from Liverpool to Victoria, Australia on the ship 'Sirocco' arriving in Port Melbourne on 1 August 1858, with young two sons, Randal age 2, and Louis, age 1.[2] Two more children were registered as born on the Bendigo goldfields. The above-mentioned Louis von Tempsky's birth is registered at Sandhurst, Victoria for 1858, and Lina von Tempsky, born 1859 at Sandhurst.[3] In Melbourne, Major von Tempsky made vigorous approaches to lead the proposed Trans-Continental Exploring Expedition, but his suit was ill-favoured by the committee, in the main because of the English prejudice of leading members, who chose Robert O'Hara Burke to lead in von Tempsky's stead.[4] The venture became known as the Burke & Wills expedition, with the well-known and fatal outcomes. In the aftermath, von Tempsky took his family via the ship 'Benjamin Heape' across the Tasman to New Zealand, departing Melbourne on 13 February 1862.[5]

Joins the Forest Rangers

On his arrival in New Zealand he settled on the Coromandel Peninsula as a goldminer and newspaper correspondent.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1863 von Tempsky moved to Drury just south of Auckland where he was a correspondent for a newspaper The Daily Southern Cross. Here he quickly struck up a friendship with Captain Jackson and the officers of the Company of Forest Rangers and was soon invited to accompany them on their patrols. Soon afterwards, on 26 August 1863, Governor Grey responding to a suggestion by Captain Jackson granted von Tempsky British citizenship and made him an Ensign in the Forest Rangers.

The Forest Rangers were an irregular force intended to take the war into the bush and to fight the enemy Māori on their own ground. Jackson was a cautious officer who was determined to give his men a thorough training. Von Tempsky relied more on dash and élan; he was also a tireless self-publicist, avid for glory and admiration.

Very early on it was realised that the weapons and equipment used by the British army were unsuited to irregular warfare in the dense wet New Zealand bush. With only about 100 men in the Forest rangers at any one time it was relatively easy to gather special equipment although in the early period in the Hunua Ranges they were fobbed of with second hand revolvers most of which were unserviceable. When von Tempsky formed his own 2nd company for service in Taranaki he had 30 or more large Bowie knives made by a cutler in Symond St, Auckland, from the spring steel of a cart. Only one of these knives is believed to still exist. The standard long weapon was the Calisher and Terry .54 carbine, called the Terry by the rangers. With its short barrel, light weight, breech loading and waterproofed cartridge unit, it was the ideal weapon for the mainly close quarter fighting. The Taranaki Rangers carried just one Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle for sniping. Von Tempsky himself carried 2 Colt Navy .36 pistols and was able to obtain more of these smaller calibre revolvers for his unit. The rangers also used the .44 calibre Beaumont–Adams 5 shot revolver. Von Tempsky himself is often portrayed as carrying a sabre which he carried unsheathed when expecting battle. The uniform and equipment was all specially selected to match the mobile role of the rangers. The unit frequently carried only 3 days rations in the field, being expected to live off the land to some extent.[6]

In November 1863 the Forest Rangers were disbanded, not because they were unsuccessful but because their period of enlistment was finished. However Jackson was immediately authorised to form a new company along similar lines.

A formal portrait of Gustavus Ferdinand van Tempsky. Probably taken by Hartley Webster circa 1868

A few days later von Tempsky, called Von by his men, was promoted to captain and also commissioned to raise a second company of Forest Rangers. From then onwards he and Jackson were always in competition for men, resources and glory.

During the early stages of the Waikato War the Forest Rangers were used to protect the army's supply lines from marauding Māori, patrolling mainly in the Hunua Ranges south of Auckland and trying to intercept enemy war parties before they reached the Great South Road. It was during this time that von Tempsky emerged as a very effective leader who was able to inspire great loyalty in his men. He was known to the Māori as Manurau, "the bird that flits everywhere".

Later the Forest Rangers were moved to the front and took part in the siege of Paterangi. It was during this period that they were involved in a dramatic rescue of some soldiers ambushed by the Māori while swimming in the Waikato River. Both Jackson and von Tempsky received an honourable Mention in Despatches and Von Tempsky later painted a well known water colour showing himself in a very dramatic light. However it was another officer, Charles Heaphy, who was awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of his bravery in this action. It was later said that von Tempsky felt slighted by this and determined to win a Victoria Cross for himself, a decision that may have caused his subsequent unnecessary death.

The Forest Rangers were involved in the siege of Orakau, and then heavily implicated in the massacre which followed the breakout of the defenders.

By 1865 Jackson had resigned his commission and von Tempsky, now a major, was in command of the Forest Rangers. They were soon involved in the Governor Grey personally took command of the New Zealand forces. Von Tempsky however missed the subsequent action being laid low by rheumatism.


After a brief holiday in Auckland, von Tempsky became involved in the Tauranga Campaign (though it is not clear how) and was present at the siege of Opotiki. From there he sailed to Wellington and resumed command of the Forest Rangers who meantime had mutinied and were refusing to embark and sail for the East Cape War. Finding that when he got there he would be expected to serve under an officer he considered junior to himself von Tempsky joined the mutiny and refused to accept any further orders.

He was arrested and court-martialled. The outcome could have been serious, but a fortunate change in government brought new personalities to the scene and von Tempsky was given a second chance. While the bulk of the Forest Rangers went off to the East Cape von Tempsky and the other mutineers were allowed to return to Wanganui where he took part in McDonnell's and Chute's later Taranaki campaigns against the Hau Hau.

The Taranaki Wars

The Forest Rangers were finally disbanded in Te Awamutu in mid-1866. Von Tempsky was immediately invited to take command of No. 5 Division of the Armed Constabulary. When Titokowaru's War broke out in 1868 von Tempsky and his division were very soon drafted and sent to the front.

On 12 July 1868 there occurred an incident which is still a matter of controversy among New Zealand historians. While in command of the fort at Patea von Tempsky was told that an unfinished redoubt about seven kilometers away was under heavy attack. Giving his second-in-command strict orders to hold the fort he immediately rushed off on foot to join the battle. By the time he arrived ten of the defenders were dead and another six injured while the attackers were able to escape. Had he chosen instead to send out the mounted troopers he had available they could have arrived on the scene in time to prevent some of the deaths. But that would have meant the glory going to someone else.

von Tempsky's death in fighting against Titokowaru at Te Ngutu o te Manu, 1868 by Kennett Watkins

The Government was anxious for a quick end to the conflict and they pressured McDonnell into making a premature attack on Titokowaru's main Pa, Te Ngutu o Te Manu or The Bird's Beak. The defenders were ready and waiting when the militia arrived and they came under heavy and accurate fire. Wisely McDonnell very soon decided to withdraw as he was well aware of the futility of trying to attack a defended Māori Pa. This was too tame for Von Tempsky, who protested and then began to advance on the Pa. Within a few moments he was dead, killed by a bullet through his forehead, one of the fifty or so killed and wounded in the engagement.

James Shanaghan, an eyewitness, reported how von Tempsky died:

I had not gone far when a man of our company was shot. The Major went to his assistance, and was shot, the bullet entering the centre of his forehead. He fell dead on top of the man to whose assistance he was going. That was how Von Tempsky died.[7]

Although the corpses of some other soldiers were eaten, Von Tempsky was held in high esteem by the Maori, and Kimble Bent said that Titokowaru ordered that Von Tempsky's body be placed onto a funeral pyre in the centre of the marae.[8] In 1965, Mr Tonga Awikau, aged 101, described how as a child he had seen this cremation of 20 British dead, including Major Von Tempksy [2].

The local Maori returned his sword sheath to his widow and it is held these days by the Thomsons in Hawkes Bay.

His contemporaries said later that it was his hunger for glory and particularly his desire to win the Victoria Cross which drove him to attack in such a desperate situation. This may seem to be a harsh judgement but von Tempsky had written earlier: "Heaphy has the Cross and I want it."

After the loss of their leader his unit fell apart. Many of the men mutinied and then deserted refusing to serve under any other commander. At the end of September, the 5th Division of the Armed Constabulary was disbanded and never reformed.


His widow, Emelia, died in 1900. His daughter lived in New Zealand. Two of his three sons, Ronald and Louis moved to Hawaii where they became ranchers. Louis managed the Haleakala Ranch. Armine von Tempsky, a daughter of Louis, became one of Hawaii's best-known writers. They sometimes used the alternate spelling of their surname, (von) Tempski.

More descendants of von Tempsky remain in New Zealand and especially in the Hawkes Bay area (Thomson family).

In 1948 Edmund L. Kowalczyk published in the Polish American Historical Association about Gustav von Tempsky and erroneously claimed him as "One of the most colorful Polish Argonauts...born in Lignice 1828.[9]"

Further reading

  • Belich, James The New Zealand Wars (Penguin Books, 1986)
  • King, Michael and Young, Rose G. F. von Tempsky, artist and adventurer (1981)
  • Parnham, W. T. Von Tempsky: Adventurer (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1969) SBN 340 10798 7
  • Stowers, Richard Forest Rangers (Self-published, Hamilton, 1996)
  • Von Tempsky, G. F. Mitla: A Narrative of Incidents and Personal Adventures on a Journey in Mexico, Guatemala and Salvador in the years 1853 to 1855 (London, 1858)
  • Walker, W. The War in Nicaragua (New York, 1860)
  • Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels, Adelige Häuser B Band V, Verlag C. Starke (Limburg 1961)


  1. ^ McMillan, N. A. C. "Tempsky, Gustavus Ferdinand von". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. 
  2. ^ Index of Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852–1923
  3. ^ Diggers Pioneer Index, Victoria 1836–1888
  4. ^ Burke & Wills: The German Involvement (
  5. ^ Index of Passengers from Victoria Outward to NZ 1852–1923
  6. ^ Forest Rangers. R Stowers. Print House.Hamilton 1996.
  7. ^ "A Maori War Hero". The New Zealand Tablet: 12. 12 September 1908. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ false claims by Edmund L. Kowalczyk, Polish American Historical Assoc.

External links

  • Artworks by Von Tempsky in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Notes by Una Platt
  • NZETC; search website for "Von Tempsky" for many paintings and photos
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