Phillip Tapsell and his daughter Kataraina. (Taken by John Low, Waikato. 1/2-005486-F: Alexander Turnbull Library)

It’ll be no surprise if somehow you’re connected with a Danish seafaring adventurer and trader who was known as Hans Falk after his birth in Copenhagen 270 years ago. That’s because, as a young man, he once found it advisable to become Phillip Tapsell and then keep that name when he settled in New Zealand well before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

His marriage with Hineitūrama, a Ngāti Whakaue woman, led to kids and grandkids and so on — and, so the calculations indicate, to thousands who can now whakapapa to that couple. 

Even if you’re not among their descendants, there’s still a good chance that you’re well aware of the surname because of Tapsells who’ve been making their mark in politics, medicine, education, sport and academia.

Lloyd Ashton, who has connections to the Tapsell whānau through marriage, looks at the life and times of Te Tāpihana (as he became known in te ao Māori), as detailed in a new book, Events in the Life of Phillip Tapsell, published by Oratia Books.


They reckon about 3000 New Zealanders can link directly back to Phillip Tapsell, a sailor who first came ashore in Aotearoa, in the Bay of Islands in 1809, and who later set up shop as a flax trader in Maketū, in the Bay of Plenty.

Almost all of his descendants identify as Māori — thanks to his marriage to Hineitūrama, a Ngāti Whakaue woman of mana who helped him thread his way through tribal wars and set up trading deals. She met her end at the point of a British bayonet at the Battle of Ōrakau in 1864.

Hineitūrama was in fact the third of Phillip’s wives, but the only one to bear him children. She had eight with him, six of whom survived. 

And if you look at who each of his three wives were, and if you look at the clergy who conducted those three weddings, you’ll see how well-connected Phillip Tapsell was, and how close he was to the action in the early European settlement of New Zealand.

His first marriage was to Maria Ringa, at Rangihoua, in the Bay of Islands, in 1823. She was the daughter of a rangatira. The missionary Thomas Kendall led them through their vows, and that was the first Christian marriage in New Zealand.

It was also one of the briefest, because, within hours, Maria ran off. 

In 1830, Tapsell tried marriage a second time, with Karuhi. And this time the couple swapped vows before Samuel Marsden. 

That marriage was a happier affair. And it was Karuhi’s brother, the chief Wharepoaka, who told them that the grass was greener down Maketū way. 

But Karuhi caught the measles a couple of years later, and died. 

Shortly after that, Phillip Tapsell got together with Hineitūrama — and when Bishop Pompallier sailed into Whakatāne years later, in 1841, he married them. Baptised their kids, too.

. . .

Besides those 3000 direct descendants, of course, there are heaps more who link into Te Whānau a Tāpihana through marriage — including me. 

Most of us outliers probably had the notion, too, that the first Aotearoa Tapsell wasn’t, in fact, born “Phillip Tapsell”. 

I’ve heard three theories about how he came by that name. I’m going with the most colourful, as told to me by one of my Tapsell cousins.

“Tapsell” was actually born Hans Homman Falk, in Copenhagen, in 1790. He went to sea as a teenager, shortly before war broke out between the Brits and Denmark.

The Danes came off second-best in that stoush — and shortly after hostilities ended, Hans Falk was on a ship which diverted to a British port. 

He knew it wouldn’t be a smart move to own up to his origins.

So, as he was making his way down the gangplank, he heard a sailor yell out: “Top Sail!” And that’s how come Hans reinvented himself as Phillip Tapsell. 

It’s a nice story, anyway.

. . .

A new book, Events in the Life of Phillip Tapsell, edited by Jonathan Adams, a Copenhagen-based British academic, reveals what a remarkable character Tapsell was.

He was a born adventurer. Neil Armstrong-astronaut class. He was also a Bear Grylls-type survivalist — though his dramas were for real, and not invented for TV.

And he was a diplomat. A small-scale 19th century version of Sergio Vieira de Mello, perhaps, the Brazilian UN troubleshooter who sorted Sarajevo, Timor, and was blown up trying to fix Iraq.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, called Pacific Viking, Adams gives us a modern look at Tapsell’s life. The second section, by far the book’s largest chunk, is the story Tapsell told in 1868 to a Maketū court clerk, Edward Little. And the third section looks, among other things, at how Tapsell has been written about in Denmark.

. . .

We learn that Tapsell had the nine lives of a cat — and he used a couple of them early.

For example: his mother died in 1798, when Hans was eight. His father then sent him off on a sailing ship to join his grandparents in Jutland. 

He woke in the night, choking. He struggled on deck to find the ship engulfed in flames — and the crew gone. 

He was about to jump overboard when the crew, having remembered their passenger, appeared in a lifeboat. They then spent three days adrift before being rescued.

. . .

His father packed Hans off to sea for good in 1803, when he was 14. 

In 1807, he saw Admiral Nelson’s naval bombardment of Copenhagen. Hundreds were killed, the city half-destroyed, and the Danish naval fleet captured.

Then, at the age of 18, he was made captain of the Cort Adeler, a private ship used to attack British merchant ships. One night, though, the Cort Adeler was surprised by a British raiding party.

In Edward Little’s account, the action then went like this:

Mr Tapsell in a hand-to-hand conflict received a sword cut across the abdomen from which the intestines protruded, and he fell to the deck. But the boarders were beaten off with heavy loss, and retired, after the order had been given to “jump into the boats”.

Mr Tapsell was conveyed below, and his wound dressed by the two doctors belonging to the ship, the operation being so excruciatingly painful that he several times entreated the surgeon to put a pistol to his ear and blow his brains out. The doctor smiled, and told him it would be all right soon.

Later, the Cort Adeler was trapped in ice, and Tapsell was taken prisoner by the Swedish, who were allies of Britain. 

The Cort Adeler (colour drawing by Christoff Wilhelm Eckersberg (1808) of an attack on the Cort Adeler, 20 August 1808, in Snekkersten Bay, Øresund.00028730: Museet for Søfart, Helsingør)

Tapsell made the first of several voyages to New Zealand in 1808, and in 1810, he came on the Eliza, which was part of a whaling fleet, bound for the East Cape.

While the whalers were there, they heard about the Boyd. Sixty-six had been murdered, and the ship blown up.

That whaling fleet — including the Eliza, with Tapsell on board — immediately sailed for the Bay of Islands, intent on revenge.

But instead of squaring off against Te Puhi — who’d led the attack on the Boyd — they attacked Te Pahi’s pā, killing about 60 innocent people, and wrecking the pā. 

Justice supposedly served, they returned to their East Cape whaling.

. . .

On the Eliza, Tapsell served under an American captain called Jonathan Clarke — who was a tyrant.

So much so, that while the Eliza was whaling off the coast of Timor, seven of the crew, including Tapsell, took off in a lifeboat. 

They were soon recaptured. Clarke wanted them hung for piracy. But he also needed them to sail his ship. 

On their way back to London, they continued whaling — and at one point, according to Tapsell, a harpooned whale smashed into the Eliza, flinging him overboard.

Clarke carried on chasing his whale, while Tapsell was left swimming in shark-infested seas. 

But he was picked up by another boat, and he escaped the mad American.

. . .

The biggest turning point in Tapsell’s life came in 1827.

In December of the year before, the Wellington had sailed from Sydney, bound for Norfolk Island, with 66 convicts on board

En route, the convicts overpowered their guards, crew and captain, and then set course for the Bay of Islands.

They moored near the Sisters, on which Tapsell was first mate. 

Tapsell watched the Wellington through a spy glass. He smelled a rat, and told his captain, Robert Duke. 

Duke didn’t want to know.

Tapsell grew more suspicious — till finally, at his lead, the crew of the Sisters fired the ship’s guns at the Wellington. 

Tapsell was proved right. The mutineers were caught, and sent back to Sydney for trial.

When news of the Wellington’s recapture got back to Sydney and London, Tapsell was feted —and Duke was infuriated. He wanted all the credit for the recapture, though he’d done nothing to make that happen.

Things got seriously ugly between them. In Sydney, Duke had Tapsell flogged in front of the Sisters crewand Tapsell returned to the Bay of Islands.

He tried to get back to London, but the only whaler heading that way wouldn’t have him. 

Tapsell was convinced that Duke was behind that refusal. Because he wanted to get to London first, to tell his story of the Wellington’s recapture, and to fill his pockets for doing so.

From that point on, writes Jonathan Adams, Tapsell became convinced that “his fate and fortune lay ashore in New Zealand among his Māori family and friends, rather than at sea among European whalers, sailors and convicts. 

“Again, it was time for him to reinvent himself: Tapsell the Sailor became Te Tāpihana the Trader.”

. . .

In 1830, Tapsell married for a second time, this time to Karuhi, the sister of Tungaroa and the chiefs Wharepoaka and Waikato.

At first, the newlyweds lived at Rangihoua Pā, under Wharepoaka’s protection. Then, on Wharepoaka’s say-so, Tapsell bought land in Maketū from the Ngāi Te Rangi chief Hōri Tūpaea, and began planning to get into the flax trade. (Ngāi Te Rangi had seized the Bay of Plenty coast from Te Arawa, around 1700.)

He contracted to a Sydney company, trading muskets, powder, blankets, tobacco with Māori in return for scraped flax that he would ship to Sydney. 

The chiefs of Te Arawa were keen to have Tapsell at Maketū. Because, until he showed up, they had no reliable way of getting guns.

So, he began operations — and Maketū boomed, growing from 200 people to 3000, with people surging in from Rotorua and Tarawera. 

“The scale of the trade was so great,” writes Adams, “that it led to entire hapū relocating to the trading stations he established and to the flax growing areas and swamps.”

He built a store on the Maketū beachfront, from which the flax could be loaded onto ships. 

A couple of years later, he upgraded, building a flash new house on top of the bluff overlooking the shore, and a larger flax store beside that. He then ringed that property with a battery of 12 cannons — which he never fired.

Karuhi was key to Tapsell’s early success at Maketū. She was well-respected, and well connected. And because her English was good, she helped Tapsell thread his way through living and trading with Māori — and their trading network spread to Tauranga, Waikato, Rotorua, Taupō and Tarawera.

. . .

Things began to go pear-shaped in 1831, however.

Ngāpuhi launched an attack in the Bay, slaughtering on Mayor and Motiti Islands, before they were themselves slaughtered by warriors from Tauranga and Waikato.

Many of the Ngāpuhi killed at Motiti were whanaunga of Karuhi and Wharepoaka — and, knowing that utu was coming, they chose to ship out of Maketū.

Sure enough, Ngāpuhi returned, and besieged Ōtūmoetai pā. Shortly afterwards, they moved south to attack Hori Tupaia’s pā at Te Tumu.

There was a massacre, and feasting on the victims. (Readers need to be warned — there are frequent, horrific accounts in the memoirs of the slaughter and cannibalism in this book, plenty of which Tapsell witnessed.)

But for the time being, writes Adams, Tapsell stayed safe. “He could live in peace with his Arawa neighbours in Maketū,” he wrote “in spite of the fact that he had family and friends among Ngāpuhi and Ngāi Te Rangi, who were among Te Arawa’s greatest enemies.”

. . .

Karuhi died about this time. Tapsell took her back to Rangihoua to be buried, and a few months later, he began living with Hineitūrama.

She was, writes Adams, “a careful, kind and thoughtful rangatira”, who was also a great partner for Tapsell, helping him mediate between warring factions and tie up trading deals.

Through her father (Te Koha-a-Ngatokowaru) Hineitūrama was Ngāti Huia of Ngāti Raukawa, and through her he set up links to her cousins Tupaea, Te Rauparaha and Te Wherowhero.

And when the Catholic Bishop, Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, visited Whakatāne in 1841, he married Phillip and Hineitūrama, and baptised their tamariki.

. . .

By this time, though, Tapsell’s tide had turned.

Because a few years earlier, a Ngāti Whakaue chief had murdered a relative of the Ngāti Haua chief Te Waharoa.

And in March 1836, Te Waharoa descended on Maketū with 1500 warriors.

The details of the fighting, the killing and the cannibalism, are spelled out in gruesome detail in Tapsell’s memoirs, and he pays tribute to his friend, the Ngāti Whakaue chief Te Haupapa, who stood alongside him defending the trading post — till he was shot and beheaded.

After a night of mayhem, the heavily pregnant Hineitūrama and their daughter Kataraina were led to safety by Hōri Tūpaea, and later they were joined by Tapsell, who had to abandon the defence of his home.

His store was plundered. His house and trading post burned down. He was ruined, and never really regained traction. 

Later still, Hineitūrama left him — and she, and Tapsell’s daughter Ewa, were killed at Ōrākau. 

In his last years, Tapsell lived with his daughter Kataraina and her husband, then with his son Retireti in Maketū.

He died, aged 83, in August 1873, and was buried at Maketū.

Phillip Tapsell’s grave in Wharekahu Cemetery in Maketū. (Photo: Jonathan Adams 2015)

. . .

There are, perhaps, a couple more things to be said about Tapsell.

In the first place, his account of his interactions with iwi is valuable simply because he wasn’t British. He wasn’t beholden to top brass, to officials, or to missionaries, and he saw the world “from below decks and from the trading station”.

Secondly, Adams suggests he survived “because of his peaceful and deep commitment to the Māori people and their culture, as well as his ability to supply them with muskets, powder and trading goods.”

He was bicultural, long before that was in vogue. He sought to make peace between warring parties, and although he was a tough guy, he was kind, too. He adopted orphans, ransomed prisoners and slaves, and showed kindness to convicts.

Adams goes further. He reckons Tapsell gained “love, respect and fulfilment living among Māori and a domestic family life he had not been able to enjoy since he was a young child in Denmark”.

. . .

We’ll finish by quoting from the foreword, by one of Tapsell’s descendants, Professor Paora Tapsell.

He says the name Te Tāpihana “reflects the mana he held within and beyond the Bay of Plenty.”

This, after all, was the man who provided the means by which the many hapū from Tauranga to Whakatāne, Maketū to Tongariro and Tarawera to Maungatautari were able to protect themselves from external forces that already had the musket. 

These were desperate times when unarmed kāinga of the central North Island were being wiped out by heavily armed northern raiders. 

Before Te Tāpihana’s arrival the Ngāti Whakaue people of Rotorua were seriously contemplating joining Te Rauparaha in the south, taking refuge on Kapiti Island alongside his well-armed followers. 

Te Tāpihana’s arrival and willingness to trade firearms for muka (dressed flax fibre) was pivotal. Thoughts of migration ceased and for a period Te Arawa relocated to the Maketū-Matatā coastal regions to harvest muka . . . in simple terms, we needed Te Tāpihana’s muskets to survive.


© E-Tangata, 2021

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