Although he spent only six years in this country, Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was one of 19th-century New Zealand’s most colourful characters. His independence of thought and action, his talent for writing and painting, and his charm and good looks made him something of a folk hero.
Tempsky was born into a Prussian military family in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) in 1828, and trained at a cadet school in Berlin. He abandoned his military career shortly after graduating to seek his fortune on frontier goldfields in California, Victoria, and from 1862 on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula.
The outbreak of hostilities in Waikato in 1863 led to the formation of volunteer units to supplement British regiments. Once Tempsky had taken out British citizenship, he was granted a commission in the Forest Rangers, an irregular colonial force which the authorities believed could match the bush fighting skills of the Māori.
Tempsky took part in the actions in Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Whanganui and Taranaki, establishing a reputation as an intrepid leader. He was a flamboyant and apparently fearless soldier, and a strong disciplinarian who was nevertheless popular with his men.
During a lull in hostilities from 1866, Tempsky returned to live with his family in Auckland, where he was a prominent citizen. Endowed with a fine singing voice, he was much in demand at musical gatherings.
In January 1868 Tempsky was appointed to command a unit of the Armed Constabulary. He met his end later that year during the Taranaki campaign against Tītokowaru and his followers. Tempsky was fatally shot in the head while attacking a position at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu on 7 September 1868.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by N. A. C. McMillan