3 Dec 2018

Soldier of Fortune: the story of Gustavus von Tempsky (part 1)

From Black Sheep, 6:30 am on 3 December 2018
Von Tempsky with his famous curved sabre

Von Tempsky with his famous curved sabre Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Gustavus von Tempsky is the star of a hundred songs and stories. The mercenary and adventurer whose Māori enemies called him Manu-rau - "a hundred birds". He was beloved by his troops, the famous Forest Rangers, who refused to fight under any other man after he died.

And it's not all guts and glory, von Tempsky was a talented artist, singer, musician and author whose romantic, heroic image made him the most popular man in the colony back in the 1860s.

His death at the Battle of Te Ngutu o Te Manu only heightened his legend. Thomas Bracken (author of NZ's national anthem) composed a ballad praising his legacy in the most overblown terms imaginable. Newspapers described his death as an "irreparable loss". Generations of New Zealanders have grown up with an image of von Tempsky as the uber hero of our colonial history. 

But the real Gustavus von Tempsky was a deeply contradictory figure even in his own time.

His troops may have hero worshiped him but some fellow officers thought he was a self-aggrandising braggart who played on his public image to curry favour with politicians and further his career. 

His writings may have criticised the British army's mistreatment of Māori wounded and civilians, but those writings also praised indiscriminate scorched earth tactics against "rebel" and "loyalist" Māori alike. 

Von Tempsky had a dark side, and until relatively recently that side of his story was mostly ignored... 

Listen to part 2 here

For further reading on von Tempsky: G.F. von Tempsky, artist & adventurer / Rose Young; with Heather Curnow and Michael King. 1981 

Publisher: Martinborough, N.Z. : Alister Taylor, 1981