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Shedding light on a complicated character

Born in modern-day Poland, buried in Taranaki, Gustavus von Tempsky has been called the first colonial soldier hero of New Zealand by some and a terrorist by others.

The adventurer and mercenary was one of the most famous men in Aotearoa throughout the 1860s, the star of a hundred songs and stories, but now he is almost forgotten.

He was so adored by colonial society that photographers could not produce enough photos of von Tempsky to keep up with demand.

And Gisbornites now have access to almost all of von Tempsky's wild life, artists endeavours and self-congratulatory tales.

On behalf of legendary Gisborne winemaker, the late Denis Irwin, a copy of the limited edition book was gifted to the HB Williams Memorial Library last week.

The book, GF von Tempsky; Artist and Adventurer, was written by historians Rose Young, Heather Curnow and Michael King.

The book will be available to view in the reference area.

Born into a Prussian noble family with a long history in the military, von Tempsky was trained in war at a young age to follow his family but instead fell for adventure. In 1846 he left his father's regiment in the Royal Prussian Army for the Prussian settlement on the Mosquito Coast near Honduras.

But the settlement was unruly and von Tempsky headed to California for gold, which he failed to find, afterwards travelling through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

After finding a wife in Scotland, von Tempsky departed for Australia where he and his young family stayed a few years before slipping across the Tasman to New Zealand.

Although he was trained for battle, von Tempsky was a talented artist and writer.

While gold mining in the Coromandel, von Tempsky became a correspondent for The Daily Southern Cross newspaper, where he would go on to write prolifically throughout the New Zealand Wars.

Von Tempsky was a singer, musician and writer “whose romantic, heroic image made him the most popular man in the colony”, wrote William Ray, the host of RNZ's Black Sheep, a podcast about controversial and sometimes villainous characters in New Zealand's history.

As talented as the man was, he was also ruthless and racist.

Although there are no records he committed war crimes, von Tempsky was often found nearby, writing about the crimes. Sometimes he would downplay their severity, sometimes he would criticise his comrades.

Von Tempsky was a confusing character even in his own time, Ray said.

After failing to find gold and fortunes in Coromandel, von Tempsky tagged along with the fighting group the Forest Rangers, a ruthless crack team of soldiers who would “beat Māori at their own game”, as they were agile fighters who could move and strike fast.

After accompanying the Forest Rangers as a correspondent and sharing his stories as an adventurer and military man, they asked him to join.

Von Tempsky was quickly naturalised as a British citizen at the behest of Governor George Grey and became the leader of the Forest Rangers until his death.

He was adored by his soldiers.

“He was a handsome man, his features embodied all that was noble and manly,” wrote one of his fellow men.

Some accounts positively doted on him.

“Swarthy of visage, with long black curling hair, upon which a forage cap was cocked at a defiant angle, his grey flannel shirt carelessly open at the neck, his trousers tucked into long boots that came nearly up to his knees, a bowie-knife in a sheath and a revolver at his belt, a naked sword, long and curved in his hand.”

One of the most important contributions the complicated man did for New Zealand history was to produce first-hand accounts of the things he saw while at war.

During the New Zealand Wars in Waikato at Rangiaowhia, a place of refuge for the elderly, children and women, von Tempsky detailed parts of the attack where war crimes were committed.

Although he minimised many of the war crimes he saw, he still described them in detail, helping bring high definition to horrible parts of our history.

Māori enemies called him Manurau (one hundred birds), because he seemed to be in many places at once.

“A man who was not a saint, who could be selfish, arrogant, bullying and short-sighted,” writes historian Michael King in the book's introduction.

But at the same time, he was also a man full of “optimism, flamboyance, eloquence and resourcefulness”.

Principal librarian of collection services Sharon Cornwall said the book could help shed light on the western lens which immigrants and colonists brought with them.

“It provides a unique opportunity to view art, to look at how Māori were portrayed, particularly by von Tempsky, in the 19th century, and to learn about him as a man of his times.”

ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS: Principal librarian of collection services Sharon Cornwall (left) is pictured with Violet Irwin, who gifted the book, GF von Tempsky; Artist and Adventurer, on behalf of her late husband Denis. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
Gustavus von tempsky
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