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Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky – New Zealand's 19th Century Hero

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America has always celebrated its 19th Century Heroes, who were in many ways deeply flawed individuals, but all of whom could never be accused of being uninteresting. These begin with Daniel Boone and end with Butch Cassidy and in many ways all of these characters strike a chord with how America sees itself, in a way that does great credit to America as a people. All of these 19th Century American Heroes were firstly competent people who did something extremely well, whether it was killing Indians or robbing banks and all did it as Frank Sinatra sang in the song “My Way.” Now that does not mean that Americans have to agree that killing Indians or robbing banks is a good thing, it is more an admiration firstly of competence and the considerable courage that is required to live and die without bothering too much what other people think. Which is a good summation of what essentually a Hero has always been to human society.

New Zealand though is uncomfortable with its 19th Century Heroes. Perhaps it is because of the old joke about the National Character of New Zealanders, that three Australians together would automaticly start a Two Up Game, whereas three New Zealanders together would form a Society. Perhaps the ghastly prigish, sobriety that lurks latent in New Zealand Society is never too far under the surface . We even have a name for it: wowserisim. It is not really just a New Zealand disease. Stuffed shirt, bigotted intolerance. Calvinist and Prodestant anal retentivness combined with stiff disapproval of any behaviour deemed inappropriate lives and thrives from Surrey and Melbourne to the Mid-West, and is sure to live and breath in great dollops of Canada. But in New Zealand it seems to cling like the smell of wet dog to the Nation Character and New Zealander's discomfort with the sort of swashbuckling hero like Von Tempsky probably comes from our deep conviction that being around someone like Von Tempsky would have been more than anything intensely embarrassing. A quick look at his photograph; the Garabaldi shirt, the Bowie knife, the sword, and Navy Colts all shout of someone that is a hopeless Romantic and worse; deeply un-English.

All of which explains why New Zealand's film industry famous for the quicky and the dark has never touched Von Tempsky, whereas America's Hollywood would have loved him.

He was born Gustaw Ferdynand Tempski on the 15 February 1828 in Braunsberg, Ost-Prussia into a Prussian noble family of Polish origin. His family as could be expected of a Prussian noble family had connections in the Military. At sixteen he was commissioned into his father's regiment in the Royal Prussian Army, where his brother served as a second lieutenant. However, the younger Von Tempski tiring of military routine 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 was in the Californian goldfields where he found no gold. In 1853 he returned to the Prussian Colony via Mexico, Guatemala and Salvador, and wrote a book about it.

His time in California probably had something to do with the fact that before he left he had been courting Emelia Ross Bell at the nearby British settlement of Bluefields, but her father did not approve. After his return from failure as a goldminer if not as a writer, he married the said Emelia. In 1858 he was in Glasgow having a son, then he was in Victoria, Australia where he arrived with two. Another burst of goldmining on the Bendigo goldfields produced two more children, but it seems little money. However he had the good fortune to be turned down in his quest to be an explorer ; the Trans-Continental Exploring Expedition Committee preferring to chose Robert O'Hara Burke who ended up with his companion Mr Wills very dead. So von Tempsky took his family via the ship 'Benjamin Heape' across the Tasman to New Zealand for his own appointment with fate.

All this gadding about producing children but little success, could be seen to signify a man of little talent, but this would be a mistake. Von Tempsky as he now spelt himself was a man of prodigious talents. A fine amatuer artist, the watercolours he produced in New Zealand are a rare burst of originality in a Colonial Art Scene that lacked vigor. He could also write and his time on the Californian and Victorian Goldfeilds while producing little gold turned him into a man of action who plainly was attractive to other men with a taste for adventure. His wanderlust and inability to throw down roots were traits he shared with a great many in the 19th century, for the world at least the European and American World was on the move like never before and the gold rushes that started in California in '49 and ended in the Yukon, covered half the 19th century and wandered over the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and South Africa and epitimized a desire for a new life free from the Old World Order.

Of course this wander lust spelt bad news for any indigenous people who happened to get in the way. All through the New World with the aid of infectious diseases modern firearms were fasicitating the clearing of the way for white people to replace brown. In the case of the English this could be done with the pretence of making the lives of the conquered better or as in America where the greed was more naked and effective but just as hypocritical. In New Zealand however, the English had happened upon a people with four hundred years of warfare and twenty years experience fighting furiously with firearms. In the first skirmish in the 1840's the British were outnumbered, out thought and out fought and had survived only thanks to the desire of the Maori to protect what was theirs being overcome by their preference for killing each other over killing Englishmen. In the next round in the 1860's much the same happened except more Maori perceived by then that the greed of the white was insastiable.

The first round had been fought by the British Army with the help to the Navy. In round two the British Home Office expected the vastly increased local white population to do their bit. This probably proved fortunate for the local whites as the British Army had shown themselves inept at the sort of irregular warfare for which the Maori proved themselves adepts. Some of the Colonial British people had had twenty years living in country and were hardened to living in the heavily forested North and proved as good as the Maori at the ambush and run tactics which was standard fare of Maori fighting. In the first war Maori built fortified postitions and lured the Army to fight them giving the whites a lesson in trench warfare and having bloodied the enemy duely disappearing into the night leaving the Europeans to boast victory as if they could not count having lost four men for every Maori killed. The allies of the European, and they always had Maori allies on the basis of the saying “my enemies enemy is my friend”, they watched the English bravely throw away their lives and admired their courage but preferred stratagy to full frontal attacks against well dug in enemy. The second war had some of the flavour of the first, the English Generals refought the European wars of the previous century while the Maori hit, ran and kept the scoreboard ticking over.

However, as usual wiser heads who wished to keep theirs looked for other ways and so colonial officers began to agitate for irregular forces to carry the fight to the Maori using Maori techniques backed by English supply systems which was of course backed by money often borrowed, an option not available to native peoples. Into this world stepped von Tempsky like a man whose whole life was merely preparation for this moment, which it essentually was.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1863 von Tempsky downed his tools as goldminer and newspaperman and moved to Drury just south of Auckland forming 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 intended to take the war into the bush and to fight the Maori on their own ground. Jackson was by nature a cautious officer who was determined to give his men a thorough training, while Von Tempsky was merly keen to have at the enemy. Very early on it was realized 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 off with second hand revolvers most of which were unserviceable. When von Tempsky formed his own 2nd company for service in Taranaki he fell back on his California goldmining experiences and had 30 or more large Bowie knives made by a culter in Symond St, Auckland, from the spring steel of a cart. The standard shoulder mounted firearm was the Calisher and Terry .54 carbine,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 1853 pattern 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 and 11 tomahawks were carried by the unit which suggests service in keeping fires going rather that their enemy who used the tomahawk as a close quarters weapon. 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 with only 3 days rations in the field the unit to some extent live off the land.

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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 authorized to form a new company along similar lines. A few days later von Tempsky was promoted to captain and 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 Maori, 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 and become known to the Maori, who always knew the temper of a fighting man 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 Maori 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. However it should pointed out that the defenders were offered terms, which they stoutly refused, instead choosing to break out and retreat across three kilometres of open ground pursued by cavalry, a guaranted recipe for disaster.

By 1865 Jackson had resigned his commission and von Tempsky, now a major, was in command of the Forest Rangers and they were were soon involved in the Second Taranaki War. This was a frustrating period because of the conflicting loyalties and objectives of Government forces. The commanders of the British Imperial Troops had had enough of fighting what they saw as unnecessary wars on behalf of the New Zealand Government. On the other hand the New Zealand-raised units such as the Forest Rangers wanted to pursue the war with vigour. The deadlock was only broken when Governor Grey personally took command of the New Zealand forces but Von Tempsky missed the subsequent action being laid low by rheumatism caught no doubt from sleeping rough in the wet New Zealand bush.

After a brief holiday in Auckland, von Tempsky became involved in the Tauranga Campaign 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 of which 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 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 and 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. It was said that 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. All of which sounds like the opinions of armchair experts tucked up with their whiskies in front of a good fire. In reality personalities like von Tempsky are too bold, too flashy and too succesful to do anything else but attract detractors and have more enemies than a dog has fleas. Any action were he chose to place himself in the front rank would be bound to attach the accusation that he was glory hunting .

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 Maori 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.

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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 and he fell dead on top of the man to whose assistance he was going.”

With heroes the truth of their character is often best found in the mouth of their opponents and Von Tempsky was held in high esteem by the Maori due to his warrior skills, but then it should be remembered that the Maori had a deserved reputation as a generous enemy. Some Maori oral history states that von Tempsky was eaten, that this statement is rubbish is testefied by the fact that the local Maori returned his sword sheath to his widow and it is held these days by the Thomsons in Hawkes Bay. The Pakeha deserter and turncoat pakaha Maori Kimble Bent told his biographer clearly that he saw Von Tempsky's body, and that it was not eaten. Bent stated that Titokowaru ordered that Von Tempsky's body be placed onto a funeral pyre in the centre of the marae. Other Pakeha dead were stacked on top so that Von Tempsky's corpse could not be reached for eating. According to Kimble, the bodies were burned to ashes and were not eaten but the corpses of some other soldiers were eaten.

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From his own side came the later slur 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. But von Tempsky made no secret of his desire to earn one, writing "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. Thus having served under von Tempsky his troops refused to serve another, no higher compliment can be given a commander.

Further reading

King, Michael and Young, Rose G. F. von Tempsky, artist and adventurer (1981)
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)

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