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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bowie-Knife Fighter: Gustavus von Tempsky

One of the characters whom I found fascinating when I was researching bowie knives was Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, a globe-trotting soldier of fortune who packed quite a life into his 40 years. There is an entry on him in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which I reprint below in slightly abbreviated form, followed by some discussion of his introduction of the bowie knife to New Zealand.

 Von Tempsky, looking way cooler than Che.
Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky (1828–1868)

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born at Königsberg (Kaliningrad), East Prussia, on February 15, 1828, into a Prussian military family. He attended the junior cadet school at Potsdam and the cadet school at Berlin. These institutions concentrated mainly on military subjects, but students also received a thorough grounding in the Classics, modern languages, history, geography, drawing and music. On leaving school in 1845 Von Tempsky joined his father's regiment but served for only nine months. In May 1846 he left Prussia for the Mosquito Coast of Central America, where a colonization society was intent on founding a Prussian settlement.

The Mosquito Kingdom had been established with British support before the arrival of the Prussian colonists, and when it came under attack from Nicaraguan forces Von Tempsky saw action for the first time as an officer in the local militia. A facile linguist, Tempsky had an excellent command of English and was a constant visitor to the British settlement at Bluefields. Here he met Emelia Ross Bell, the daughter of James Stanislaus Bell, a British government official. He intended to marry her, but her father did not approve of the match, probably because of Von Tempsky's youth and his lack of prospects.

When news of the Californian gold rush reached Von Tempsky in 1849, he set out for San Francisco, arriving in July 1850. He failed to make his fortune on the diggings, but while in California he became proficient in the use of the bowie knife. In July 1853, in the company of a German doctor, Von Tempsky decided to return to Bluefields through Mexico, Guatemala and San Salvador. The pair experienced a number of exciting adventures on the 18-month journey. Von Tempsky kept a record of these events, which later formed the substance of his book, Mitla, published in London in 1858 and illustrated with his own watercolors. (Mitla can be read at Google books.)

On his return to Bluefields, Von Tempsky married Emelia Bell, on 9 July 1855, her father having apparently relented. By early 1857 the British position on the Mosquito Coast had become untenable and the Von Tempskys left for Scotland, Emelia von Tempsky's birthplace. They spent a year there, during which time Tempsky visited his parents in Prussia and made arrangements for the publication of his book.

In August 1858 Von Tempsky and his growing family arrived in Australia, which was then having a gold rush of its own. He worked on the Bendigo diggings and at a variety of other occupations. He also applied for the leadership of an expedition being formed to explore the interior of Victoria but was passed over in favour of Robert O'Hara Burke who, along with his co-leader, William John Wills, and three others, perished in the desert.

Having failed to make money in Australia, Von Tempsky was lured to New Zealand by the news of the Coromandel gold field, and arrived at Auckland on March 10, 1862. He spent about a year working at Coromandel, and the letters which he wrote to the Daily Southern Cross describing activities on the diggings so impressed the editor that he was appointed Coromandel correspondent. His gold mining venture, however, was unprofitable.

The outbreak of the Maori uprising in 1863 led to the formation of volunteer units to supplement British regiments. Von Tempsky applied for and received a commission in the Forest Rangers, an irregular colonial force which the authorities believed could match the bush fighting skills of the Maori. British regulars had shown little aptitude for this type of warfare and consequently were at a disadvantage.

Von Tempsky took part in the actions at Hairini, Waiari, Rangiaowhia, Kihikihi and Orakau, establishing a reputation as an intrepid leader. He was a strong disciplinarian who was popular with his men. When the defenders broke out of the Orakau Pa, he led his men in a ruthless pursuit but strongly disapproved when the British troops killed some of the wounded and women. He encouraged his men to intervene in order to prevent these atrocities.

For his part at Orakau Von Tempsky was promoted to major in April 1864. He next saw action at Wanganui. He led a successful attack on Kakaramea on May 13, 1865 and was subsequently praised by the premier, Frederick Weld, as 'the great bulwark of the self-reliant policy'.

In late 1865 and early 1866 Von Tempsky took part in Major General Trevor Chute's march to New Plymouth. The march is depicted in an evocative watercolor which Tempsky completed later. (This can be viewed here.)

Von Tempsky's "Officer of a military train cutting down a rebel at Nukumaru."

Then came a temporary lull in hostilities and he returned to Auckland, where he remained during 1866 and 1867. While in Auckland he wrote Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign, painted watercolors to illustrate events in the war and worked for a time in Governor George Grey's office. He was prominent in Auckland social life. Endowed with a fine singing voice, he was much in demand at musical gatherings. He also helped to establish a gymnastic club.

In January 1868 Von Tempsky was appointed inspector (the equivalent of major) in the Armed Constabulary and was placed in command of the 5th Division. After serving in Waikato and Wanganui he was placed under the general command of Thomas McDonnell for the Taranaki campaign against Titokowaru and his followers.

On September 7, 1868 McDonnell's force attacked the Maori position at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. His troops were severely mauled and McDonnell ordered a retreat which he left Von Tempsky to cover. Soon after, Von Tempsky was shot in the head. All attempts to recover his body failed and it was later burned on a funeral pyre, along with the bodies of other soldiers, by the Maori defenders.

Although he spent only a short time in New Zealand, Von Tempsky was one of that country’s most colourful 19th-century characters. His independence of thought and action, his talent for writing and painting, and his evident charm and good looks made him something of a folk hero. As a soldier he was flamboyant and apparently fearless. He was known to the Maori as Manurau, 'the bird that flits everywhere'. An adventurer rather than a mercenary, he sought excitement wherever he could find it.

Von Tempsky ranks as a minor New Zealand artist but the style of his work is unique. He was a highly skilled amateur watercolorist who paid careful attention to detail, especially in his rendering of the New Zealand bush. His paintings of the campaigns are of considerable topographical interest and depict events vividly. The influence of romanticism can be seen in all his works.

A modern replica of a Von Tempsky bowie by Svord.

Gustavus Von Tempsky and the Bowie Knife
To equip his troops, Tempsky had about 30 bowie knives made to his specifications by a cutler in Auckland. They were crafted from wagon springs, one of the few sources of steel available to New Zealand blacksmiths in 1863. The blade was about nine inches long, 2½ inches wide near the handle, and ¼-inch thick.

Tempsky taught his men to use the knife in close-quarters combat, holding the knife in the left hand to fend off an opponent's attacking blows while using a revolver with the right hand.

Here's a brief mention of Tempsky in Britain's Roll of Glory; or the Victoria Cross: Its Heroes and Their Valor:
Captain Swift had been instrumental in organising a corps of Forest Rangers, who did good service under a very brave German named Von Tempsky, himself destined to be shot. In one action a Maori, hidden in the branches of a tree, fired at a man of the 13th, the ball piercing his Crimean ribbon, and tearing its way to his heart. Von Tempsky brought the native down by a good aim; and, seeing that he was not dead, drew the bowie-knife he always carried, and finished him, saying: "There; you vill never kill anoder Englishman."
Tempsky is mentioned in The Adventures of Kimble Bent:
He was a good shot, a finished swordsman, and could throw a bowie-knife with deadly accuracy. It was in Mexico that he learned the use of the knife, and he never tired of impressing on his men its advantages in bush fighting.
Here's an anecdote from the New Zealand Railways Magazine (May 1, 1935):
One of my old-soldier acquaintances in the Waikato had been a corporal in Jackson's and Von Tempsky's Forest Rangers. He had a farm near Te Awamutu. Customarily, out on the farm and in the bush, he wore a sheath-knife on his belt. The knife was a veteran like himself. It had been nine or ten inches long of blade, but the point had been broken off, and he had reground and pointed it; even then it was like a young bayonet. He told me its story.

“That's one of old Von's bowie-knives,” he said. “He had a lot made for us at a blacksmith's in Auckland when the Forest Rangers were divided into two companies and he had command of one. You know, old Von was a terror with the bowie-knife. He had learned to use it in Mexico and Central America. Certainly it came in handy in the bush, and as we had no bayonets it was comforting to know you had a good sticker on your hip for a scrimmage. I've had that knife more than thirty years. See how it's worn down.

“I've used it for all sorts of jobs, hacking bush tracks, pig-sticking, skinning sheep, cutting up my tobacco and my loaf of bread. It'll last my day, my boy!”

Old John the Ranger told of one of his warpath mates, a Jamaica negro who had been a sailor and gold-digger like himself before he became a Ranger. At meal-times he used to apostrophise his bowie-knife thus: “You old son of a gun, you've dug into a Maori's vitals, you have, at Waiari, you know you have! Come on now, you're going to cut up me vittles!”
There's an interesting short video on Von Tempsky here.


  1. Thanks for the info. I've been doing some preliminary research on von Tempsky for my blog

    I've always enjoyed your work.

    Jim Cornelius

  2. Just for the record, Bryan Bakers heat treatment at svord cannot be beat -to say that he knows his stuff is a massive understatement. Well worth the money and no mistake... Hell worth ALOT more!

  3. Fascinating to read something on Von Tempsky from a different perspective. Knew of him as a soldier & artist in New Zealand; currently doing preliminary research on his travels in Mexico for my blog on the books held by the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, Your info on the bowie knife very interesting - thanks

    1. Thank you. He was a fascinating, multi-talented character. Dashing, too!

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