Death of Major Von Tempsky

Archibald Willis, Lithographer

This is one of the prints in our collection. It was made in 1868. The place where it was made is unknown.
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About the Work
The Prussian soldier of fortune Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was killed during an assault on Tītokowaru’s south Taranaki pā. His exploits during the tumultuous 1860s had made him a folk hero for many settlers.

Aged only 40 when he died, von Tempsky had earned a reputation as ‘one of the most colourful characters of nineteenth century New Zealand’. An adventurer, writer and soldier, he was also an able watercolour artist who captured many scenes of the New Zealand Wars.

He served with the Forest Rangers, a colonial force established during the Waikato War. Von Tempsky’s commission as an officer was granted on condition that he took out British citizenship. By the end of the Waikato War he had reached the rank of major and established a reputation as an intrepid leader and strong disciplinarian who was popular with his men.

In January 1868 he was appointed to the Armed Constabulary, the new colonial regular army which was commanded by Thomas McDonnell. On 7 September this force attacked Tītokowaru’s strongpoint at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. The troops were severely mauled and after some indecision McDonnell ordered a retreat. Von Tempsky was killed outside the pā before he could receive this order.

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.

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. In 1965, Tonga Awikau, aged 101, described how as a child he had seen this cremation of 20 British dead, including Major von Tempksy.

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 himself 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.
Image 428 x 628 mm
Forest scene showing a battle during the New Zealand wars
Credit Line
Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Gift of Mr N.G. Leary, 1980.
Collection Type
Permanent collection
Acquisition Date
Jan 1980



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