Von Tempsky St in Hamilton, soon to be renamed Putikitiki St. (Photo: Connie Buchanan)

A city street in Hamilton will soon change from Von Tempsky Street to Putikitiki Street. The decision comes after city councillors argued hotly about whether the name change erases the city’s past — or does a better job of reflecting it.

But for Waikato-Tainui there was never any doubt a name change was the right thing to do.

As Tukoroirangi Morgan, the chair of Te Arataura (Waikato-Tainui’s executive board), and historian Vincent O’Malley explain, it’s a small switch that carries a heavy history.


Tukoroirangi Morgan: ‘We should not celebrate murder’

The name von Tempsky is a reminder of a past filled with despair and anguish and injustice. We did not want to have a name on our street which commemorates that man’s hand in the invasion of Waikato.

As a consequence of the illegal invasion, hundreds of my people were slaughtered and Waikato-Tainui lost 1.2 million acres of our whenua, including the land of the street that bears von Tempsky’s name.

We’ve had to carry that pain of injustice and despair for 159 years. Our people — and today there are 75,000 tribal members — have borne the weight of that history of wrongdoing and of murder.

It’s a much simpler task for city councillors to deliberate in their comfortable chambers about the small job of changing a street sign, than it is for the descendants of those who fell during the invasion to carry the burden of that history on their shoulders.

They don’t have to endure the memory of murder for generation after generation, which is still imprinted in the minds of our young Waikato people.

It takes people like me to remind successive local councillors that they have an obligation to do their part in repairing a despicable part of our country’s history.

One councillor questioned why we still care about changes like this when Waikato-Tainui has a Treaty settlement. The implication being that we should get over these things, and move on, because we have our money now.

Our Treaty settlement was a moment in our history that acknowledged the issue of raupatu, or stolen land. But our settlement does not lift the burden of history from our shoulders, which we will continue to carry for a long, long time. We must never forget what was perpetrated upon our people.

Despite our enormous suffering and dispossession, we have since contributed in every way possible to help fashion a better city. Have a look at our commercial developments. Have a look at everything we’re doing as a people to embrace that which is good and productive for a better community in Kirikiriroa. That is our commitment, and we will never walk away from it.

But if you expect us to leave aside, or forget, those dreadful things perpetrated upon our people 159 years ago, that is an impossibility. We must do all we can to correct the injustices of the past so that the lives of our tūpuna who fell at Rangiriri and Ōrākau and elsewhere will never be forgotten.

The new name “Putikitiki” refers to the topknot worn by our nobility in ancient times. It’s a symbol of importance. So, instead of celebrating our pain and slaughter, the street name will be a reminder of our chiefly status on this land.

It is not an erasure of history, for those painful memories are etched forever in the hearts and minds of generations of Waikato people and in the landscape around us. Rather, we are choosing what is right and good to celebrate.

Tukoroirangi Morgan is the chair of Te Arataura, Waikato-Tainui’s executive board.


Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, in 1868. (From the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-0876-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22308963)

Vincent O’Malley: Who was von Tempsky and what do we know about what he did?

The values and priorities of a community are never more evident than in who it chooses to honour and remember through street signs, place names, monuments, memorials and statues.

Von Tempsky Street, located in Hamilton East, was named after the Prussian-born soldier, adventurer, and artist Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky.

In 1906, when Hamilton Borough Council chose to pay tribute to this “hero of the Waikato War”, the New Zealand Wars were viewed by many Pākehā as chivalrous and noble conflicts that had brought peace, prosperity, and unrivalled harmony to the colony.

Tainui had a different understanding of this history, of course, but they were not only effectively landless but also entirely shut out of local government. They had no say in the naming.

So, who was this “hero” and what do we know about his actions during the wars?

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born in East Prussia on 15 February 1828. He came from a prominent military family but lasted only nine months in the Prussian Army before setting off to travel the world and make his fortune.

Von Tempsky moved to Australia in 1858, where he tried digging gold in Victoria and dabbled in other jobs.

 In 1862, he crossed the Tasman, spending the next year attempting to work the Coromandel goldfields. Although that again proved unprofitable, he did secure a position as the local correspondent for the Daily Southern Cross newspaper.

When the Waikato War began in July 1863, von Tempsky sought to put together a volunteer unit from among the goldminers. But his efforts were rebuffed, partly, it seems, because of his German nationality. Von Tempsky instead reported on the early phases of the war and befriended William Jackson, a member of the Papakura Valley Rifle Volunteers.

In August 1863, Jackson was appointed as the commander of a new and elite volunteer unit, known as the Forest Rangers, which was intended to specialise in irregular warfare such as bush fighting.

Von Tempsky was invited to join the Forest Rangers on an early expedition into the Hunua Range. Impressed by von Tempsky’s skills, Jackson suggested that he apply for a commission in the unit. Von Tempsky was appointed ensign in the Forest Rangers, conditional on becoming a naturalised British subject, which was granted on 24 August 1863.

Von Tempsky, along with Thomas McDonnell, was able to supply valuable information to the commander of the British forces in New Zealand, Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, about the strength of Māori defences around Paparata.

In recognition of their efforts, both men were promoted. Von Tempsky took control of the Forest Rangers No. 2 Company, with Jackson leading No.1 and having overall command by dint of his seniority.

On Sunday 13 December 1863, Jackson’s company attacked a camp of Māori men, women and children at Paparata, killing at least seven of them. The Māori party were reportedly at prayer at the time and Jackson’s men were soon accused of “cold-blooded murder” in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper.

Von Tempsky and his men did not take part in the attack, and he recorded that on hearing of what had taken place “my first emotion was a strong pang of jealousy”.

Four days later, both of the Forest Rangers companies embarked on another three-day expedition into the Hunua Range in pursuit of Māori. Although the invading Crown forces had pushed south as far as Ngāruawāhia by December 1863, the Forest Rangers remained based further north at Papakura, securing the Great South Road and Auckland from potential attack from the direction of the Hunua Range.

Because of this, von Tempsky did not take part in the actions at Meremere and Rangiriri through October and November. That changed in January 1864 when von Tempsky and the Forest Rangers No. 2 Company received orders to advance south into Waikato.

On 11 February 1864, von Tempsky and his men took part in a significant engagement at Waiari, a bend on the south bank of the Mangapiko River. It was there that a party of about 50 British soldiers bathing in the river found themselves ambushed by a Māori party. While a small covering party of 20 men held the Kīngitanga force at bay, reinforcements were called for, among them von Tempsky and about 30 of his men.

Von Tempsky recorded of the battle that:

A ditch of the breastwork of an ancient pa slopped down to the river. It was densely covered with scrub, as well as the bank of the river. My men bounded down into it like tigers. On our hands and knees we had to creep, revolver in hand, looking for our visible foes. The thumping of double-barrel guns around us announced soon that we were in the midst of the nest. I had in all about thirty men. Some were stationed on the top of the bank, others in the very river, and the rest crawling through the scrub. There were strange meetings in that scrub. Muzzle to muzzle, the shot of despair, the repeating cracks of revolvers and carbine thuds, and the brown bodies of Maoris made their appearance gradually, either rolling down the hill or being dragged out of the scrub.

Although the exact figures are unknown, the Māori force at Waiari suffered heavy losses, with a likely figure of around 35 killed, compared with six dead on the Crown side. Von Tempsky’s official report of the engagement stated that his own men had personally killed seven Māori.

Late on the evening of 20 February 1864, a column of 1230 troops marched silently and in single column along the banks of the Mangapiko River, over an old cattle track, before reaching a dray road that took them to the settlement of Te Awamutu. Among the advance party was von Tempsky and his men.

The first troops reached Te Awamutu towards dawn on 21 February. The settlement was nearly deserted, save for a few Māori who had stayed back to protect St John’s Anglican church. And so, Cameron issued orders for the attacking party to immediately press on to Rangiaowhia a few kilometres away. Cavalry were the first to enter the settlement, receiving orders to charge as they came within sight of it.

Von Tempsky recorded that he and his men had heard the “rapid crack-crack of revolvers and carbines” as they followed behind, realizing that “the conflict had commenced”. What followed was completely different from other pā battles of the Waikato War because Rangiaowhia was not a fortified settlement. It was not a pā at all but rather an open village without fortifications of its own. The main body of Kīngitanga fighters were at Pāterangi awaiting a British attack that never came.

Most of the residents of Rangiaowhia were women, children and elderly men, sent there in the belief that the British forces would respect its status as a place of safety and sanctuary for non-combatants. Instead, in the early hours of Sunday morning, 21 February 1864, they found themselves under attack, at first by cavalry, followed by foot soldiers, including von Tempsky and his men.

Von Tempsky recorded that “our blood was up”, as a result of which his men reached the settlement considerably in advance of many of the other foot soldiers. There are multiple first-hand accounts of what followed and some of these disagree on crucial points. But the official British return noted that 33 prisoners were captured: 21 women and children and 12 (probably elderly) men.

These returns also noted that 12 Māori had been killed in the attack on Rangiaowhia but made no reference to their ages or gender. That was perhaps hardly surprising given the make-up of most of the residents. Other unconfirmed estimates put the death toll at more than 100.

Von Tempsky recorded that he had set out to seize a group of Māori huddled in the Catholic church at one end of the settlement before receiving orders from Cameron to stand down. Obeying reluctantly, von Tempsky and his men marched towards the centre of the settlement, from where firing was still to be heard.

There, a circle of soldiers had surrounded a whare with a sunken floor and a narrow entranceway. The body of one soldier shot while attempting to enter lay in the doorway. Inside were a group of Māori.

Von Tempsky recorded that “Some neighbouring whares had been set fire to, with a view of communicating the fire to the all-dreaded one”. That seemed, he wrote, “unfair”, and so he decided to rush the whare, retrieving the body of the fallen soldier. By this point the flames were lapping over from a neighbouring whare and von Tempsky and his men withdrew.

Von Tempsky then described an “old looking man” coming out of the now burning whare with his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender and cries of “Spare him!” ringing around. He noted that some of the men, “blinded by rage, at the loss of comrades perhaps”, ignored these pleas, firing at, and killing, the man. None of the other occupants of the whare dared come out after this incident. All, including a young boy, were torched to death. In all, seven people died in the burning whare.

Hearing of the attack on their families, the Kīngitanga men of fighting age abandoned their position at Pāterangi and rushed back to come to their aid. Prised out of their formidable fortifications, they found themselves under attack the following day at nearby Hairini, suffering heavy losses (at least 30 killed) in the engagement.

Von Tempsky and his men were again present — von Tempsky subsequently permitting the Forest Rangers to loot nearby Māori dwellings. They were also present on 23 February 1864, when Crown forces raided and looted the Ngāti Paretekawa settlement of Kihikihi, previously home to Rewi Maniapoto and his people. In the space of a few hours, the entire settlement was destroyed before the soldiers returned to camp at Te Awamutu with their spoils.

Ōrākau memorial. (Photo: Vincent O’Malley)

Von Tempsky and the Forest Rangers were also present at the final battle of the Waikato War, which took place at Ōrākau, a few kilometres from Kihikihi, between 31 March and 2 April 1864. Around 300 Māori from multiple iwi, including women and children, were gathered in the still incomplete pā when it was attacked by Crown forces on 31 March 1864. Women and children had likely been brought into the pā after what took place at Rangiaowhia, when what was understood as their sanctuary had been attacked.

The British commander, George Carey, dispersed his men around the pā. Von Tempsky and his men took up a position to the east. Inside the pā, matters quickly became critical, the Māori defenders soon running out of food, water and ammunition.

Declining to surrender, they instead later fled the pā on foot, attempting to break through British lines and make their way towards the Pūniu River several kilometres to the south.

Large numbers were killed in the subsequent pursuit, around 150 in total. Those killed included a number of women, including, in at least one case, a wounded woman who a number of soldiers gathered around to kill.

Describing the scene afterwards, von Tempsky noted that he was “sorry to see” women among both those killed and the wounded prisoners. However, he declared that nearly all of these cases, apart from one, had been “accidents”.

Von Tempsky and his men remained in the Waikato district for nearly 12 months after the Ōrākau battle, awaiting the allocation of confiscated lands promised them in return for their services.

As a senior officer, von Tempsky received an allocation of 400 acres of rural lands in the Pirongia district. In 1865, he took part in attacks on Pai Mārire supporters in the Whanganui district, and early the following year, he was part of Major-General Trevor Chute’s extraordinarily brutal five-week campaign in Taranaki that saw no fewer than eight pā and 20 open villages attacked indiscriminately, amid allegations from one senior British officer of multiple atrocities committed by Crown forces.

Following the disbandment of the Forest Rangers, in January 1868, von Tempsky accepted a commission as Inspector (the equivalent of Major) in the newly-established Armed Constabulary.

After serving for a time in Waikato and Whanganui, he was sent to Taranaki when the war against Titokowaru broke out.

On 7 September 1868, von Tempsky took part in an attack on Titokowaru’s stronghold at Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu. Advancing through dense bush with a view to attacking from the rear of the pā, the main body of troops became lost and eventually arrived at a clearing in front of Titokowaru’s position. Here they found themselves exposed to attack from those inside the pā and others hiding in nearby bush covering, falling in great numbers before orders could be issued for survivors to retreat.

Among the colonial troops killed was von Tempsky, or Manu Rau (100 birds) as he was said to be known to Māori on account of his ability to rush from one place to another, doing the work of many soldiers. His death caused panic among other nearby troops and the subsequent retreat was chaotic and confused.

The fact that von Tempsky’s body, along with the other men killed, could not subsequently be recovered was seen as particularly humiliating. Titokowaru’s party instead burned them on a funeral pyre.

A painting by Kennett Watkins showing Gustavus von Tempsky falling to his death after being shot, his sword in his hand, at  Te-Ngutu-o-te-Manu, in 1868. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)

Von Tempsky had achieved almost folk hero status among many Pākehā during his short time in New Zealand and his death was widely mourned. Although he remains a romantic figure for some, in recent times his reputation has undergone closer examination and critique.

As understandings of the past shift, and contexts change, it is appropriate to revisit decisions made by earlier generations where these are no longer consistent with the values and priorities of today. That is not rewriting history, as some would have it, but rather making history.

In renaming Von Tempsky Street, the Hamilton City Council signals that it is no longer acceptable to celebrate the invasion of Waikato or to pay tribute to one of the leading figures responsible for bringing enormous suffering to Waikato-Tainui.

In adopting a new name gifted by the iwi, it heralds a more inclusive set of values and priorities.


Vincent O’Malley is a historian and writer. His outline of the life of von Tempsky draws from a report he authored commissioned by Waikato-Tainui and Hamilton City Council on Hamilton street and city names.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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