By Lucas Bernard
In the modern age, one can’t be faulted for feeling a little boxed in. By fate or circumstance, many find themselves a cog in some great indecipherable machine, where our labor seems wholly divorced from any tangible outcome outside of a regular check. People tend to define themselves in terms of the character of their job: accountant, lawyer, plumber, electrician, et cetera. We are so worried about making a living, we forget to actually do the living part. Man isn’t meant to be things, he is meant to do things. Specialization is for insects. Soldier, artist, newspaper correspondent, gold miner, adventurer, these aren’t occupations; they are tasks. Gustavus von Tempsky did them all. He didn’t make a living doing these things, he made history.
Gustavus von Tempsky was born in 1828 to a Prussian noble family with a long military tradition. After completing his obligatory military education, he was commissioned into his father’s regiment. Unlike the rest of his countrymen, Gus felt trapped by the rigid discipline and robotic repetition that characterized the cold and efficient Prussian military machine. After only nine months of active service, he chose to cut all the red tape strangling him and set out for South America. Accepting a British commission to command a force of Miskito Indians, he adjusted to both the warm climate and a new sense of self-ownership. Leading his small force of irregulars, he and his men did fine work spanking the Spanish for Britain. As good sport as it was, it being the 19th century, nothing gold can stay. One fateful day his close friend, the British Consul-General slipped from a boat they were on and was immediately torn apart by alligators. At this, Gus decided he had enough of Latin America and decided to try his luck at mining for gold in California.
Although his attempts at striking it rich fell through, Gus took this failure in stride. He returned to South America, this time as a writer, taking a more leisurely trip while scribbling a book about his travels. To distract himself from writing, he took some time to court Emelia Ross Bell, the daughter of a British agent in Nicaragua. They eventually married and began a family when Gus’ wanderlust took hold again, leading them to Australia. Once they settled in, Gus’ adventurous streak encouraged him to take great pains to secure a spot leading the proposed (and redundantly named) “Trans-Continental Exploring Expedition.” Its goal was to go longitudinally across the eastern side of Australia over 2,000 miles inland, at a time when only the aboriginal peoples had ever ventured into the interior. British prejudice against Prussians held Gus back from this opportunity. This ended up being a lucky break for Gus, seven men died attempting the journey, including its leaders, with only one man successfully making the trek.
From there, Gus decided to seek his fortune in the nearby colony of New Zealand as a newspaper correspondent and gold miner. As he settled into these new roles in a new land, he found himself embroiled in renewed efforts of New Zealand’s colonial struggle against the Māori. After a two-year stalemate, colonial forces feared an attack on the city of Auckland, situated close to Māori territory. After receiving an arguably anticipated rejection of an ultimatum to pledge allegiance to Queen Victoria or face expulsion, it served as good an excuse as any to go clear the way for more settlement. While working as a news man, Gus made friends with William Jackson, who formed a company of brawlers—dubbed the “Forest Rangers”—to fight the Māori on their own terms. Due to his familiarity with such fighting, Gus was quickly extended an invitation to join them on campaign.
In short order, Gus recognized the standard kit of the British forces was wholly inadequate for bush fighting. To that effect, he procured breech-loading carbines and revolvers. But Gus was no fool, he knew that his men needed a weapon suited for an even more visceral form of combat. His travels in the Americas made him an avid devotee of the Bowie knife. As such, he had a local blacksmith fashion the deadly implements out of old wagon springs. His men properly outfitted, Gus lived the next five years of his life engaged in close and hectic encounters fighting to the hilt. The Māori gave him the moniker of Manurau, “the bird that flits everywhere.” He made sure to fashion the war by his own hand, with brush as well as knife, producing a series of watercolors depicting the campaign.
In 1868, Gus met an undeserving end, falling to a bullet in the head. With British forces unable to retrieve his body, it was burned in a funeral pyre amongst his fallen comrades by his Māori foes. The flames sent his ashes to the firmament; Von Tempsky took his place amongst the stars.