Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born at Königsberg (Kaliningrad), East Prussia, on 15 February 1828. He was the younger son of Julius Louis von Tempsky and his wife, Karoline Henriette Friederike Wilhelmine von Studnitz. Gustavus von Tempsky came from a Prussian military family and was expected to follow the example of his forebears. 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 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 colonisation 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 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. Although five years Emelia Bell's junior, Tempsky intended to marry her. However, James Bell did not approve of the match, probably because of Tempsky's youth and his lack of prospects.
When news of the Californian goldrush reached Bluefields in 1849, Tempsky 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, a weapon he is said to have introduced to New Zealand. In July 1853, in the company of a German doctor, 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. 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 watercolours.
On his return to Bluefields, Tempsky married Emelia Bell, on 9 July 1855, her father having apparently relented. Randal, their first child, was born at Bluefields in May 1856. For a while Tempsky supervised the cutting of mahogany stands. By early 1857 the British position on the Mosquito Coast had become untenable and the 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. Their second son, Louis, was born in Glasgow in February 1858.
In August 1858 Tempsky and his family arrived in Australia, where one of Emelia's sisters was living. 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, Tempsky was lured to New Zealand by the prospects offered on the Coromandel goldfield. He arrived at Auckland aboard the barque Benjamin Heape on 10 March 1862. His wife and three children (a daughter, Lina, was born in October 1859) followed later. Tempsky spent about a year working at the Coromandel field. Letters which he wrote to the Daily Southern Cross describing activities on the diggings so impressed the editor that Tempsky was appointed Coromandel correspondent. His goldmining venture, however, was unprofitable.
The outbreak of hostilities in Waikato in 1863 led to the formation of volunteer units to supplement British regiments. Tempsky offered to raise a corps from the diggers but the government rejected his offer, possibly because of his nationality. He then transferred his attention to the Forest Rangers, an irregular colonial force which the authorities believed could match the bush fighting skills of the Māori. British regulars had shown little aptitude for this type of warfare and consequently were at a disadvantage. While working as war correspondent for the Daily Southern Cross, Tempsky accompanied a company of rangers, under Captain William Jackson, on an expedition into the Hūnua Range. Tempsky's knowledge of guerilla tactics impressed Jackson, who suggested he apply for a commission in the Forest Rangers. This was granted on condition that Tempsky take out British citizenship, which he did on 24 August 1863.
One of Tempsky's exploits soon after being commissioned ensign was the reconnaissance of the Māori position at Paparata. He was accompanied by Thomas McDonnell, a fellow subaltern, who was later to command the colonial forces. They were able to supply information about the strength of the Māori force to Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, the commander in chief. This feat earned both officers promotion to captain and Tempsky was given command of No 2 Company of the Forest Rangers. McDonnell received the New Zealand Cross in 1886 for his part in the reconnaissance but no posthumous award was made to Tempsky.
Tempsky took part in the actions at Hairini, Waiari, Rangiaowhia, Kihikihi and Ōrākau, 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 pā at Ōrākau, 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.
Tempsky regarded the Māori defence of Ōrākau as courageous but foolhardy, and could not understand why the defenders had chosen such an untenable position. He admired the engineering and fighting skills of the Māori, but otherwise did not hold them in high regard. In his unpublished account of the war, 'Memoranda of the New Zealand campaign, 1863–64', he refers to the need to teach 'those overbearing, headstrong and pampered natives' a lesson, and shows little appreciation of Māori grievances.
For his part at Ōrākau Tempsky was promoted to major in April 1864. He next saw action at Whanganui. He led a successful attack on Kākaramea on 13 May 1865 and was subsequently praised by the premier, Frederick Weld, as 'the great bulwark of the self-reliant policy'. However, on 23 September 1865 the defence minister, Harry Atkinson, ordered Tempsky to place himself and his troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Fraser, at Waiapu. Fraser, a recent arrival in the colony, had been promoted over Tempsky's head. Understandably Tempsky was incensed and offered his resignation, which was refused. He was put under arrest for disobeying orders but was cleared by a court of inquiry. Public sympathy for Tempsky was aroused by this incident.
In late 1865 and early 1866 Tempsky took part in Major General Trevor Chute's march to New Plymouth. The march is depicted in an evocative watercolour which Tempsky completed later. Then came a temporary lull in hostilities and he returned to Auckland, where he remained during 1866 and 1867. In August 1866 he received a grant of land at Harapēpē and Pirongia for his services. While in Auckland he wrote 'Memoranda of the New Zealand campaign', painted watercolours 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 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 Whanganui he was placed under the general command of Thomas McDonnell for the Taranaki campaign against Tītokowaru and his followers.
On 7 September 1868 McDonnell's force attacked the Māori position at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. His troops were severely mauled and McDonnell ordered a retreat which he left Tempsky to cover. Soon after, 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 Māori defenders.
Although he spent only a short time in this country, Tempsky was one of the most colourful characters of nineteenth century New Zealand. 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 Māori as Manurau, 'the bird that flits everywhere'. An adventurer rather than a mercenary, he sought excitement wherever he could find it.
Tempsky ranks as a minor New Zealand artist but the style of his work is unique. He was a highly skilled amateur watercolourist 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.
Tempsky's sons later lived in Hawaii but his daughter spent her life in New Zealand. His widow divided her time between Hawaii and New Zealand, and died in Hawke's Bay in October 1900.