Creators > Gustav Ferdinand von Tempsky

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Gustav Ferdinand von Tempsky

Gustavus Ferdinand Tempsky [1828-1868] was a Prussian adventurer and talented artist, was educated in the Berlin Military academy and served many years in the army and later as a mercenary. His wife, Emilia Bell, was born in Greytown, Nicaragua. He spent three years in California possibly as John Sutter's personal bodyguard and gives an interesting [and positive] account of Joaquin Murieta. In later years, Tempsky immigrated to Australia and then went on to New Zealand, where he was killed in bush fighting against the Maoris.

The political and economic instability of early nineteenth-century Europe, and stories of a brave new world in another hemisphere, were at once a temptation and a challenge to the young officer whose adventurous spirit rebelled against the peacetime maneuverings of an army into which he was hustled by an uncompromising jack-booted parent. Unrest and insurrection were paving the way for the consolidation of the new Germany, but politics and intrigue had no appeal for young von Tempsky, and it was only natural that, at the conclusion of his military service in 1848, he should turn his attention to more exciting fields.

Armed with an introduction from Lord Westmoreland to the British authorities in the tiny Mosquito Kingdom in Central America, he set out with some sturdy companions with the intention of establishing a small settlement there. The colony failed due to rigours of climate and a hostile native population, and von Tempsky drifted into the filibustering that was then almost endemic in the Mexican Confederation. Commissioned as a captain, he led a guerrilla force into Nicaragua late in 1848, and then joined up with British naval units, acting as a guide in forays against up-river Nicaraguan cities.

From Central America the young soldier of fortune turned his eyes towards the Californian gold diggings, where he found plenty of action and excitement but little money. He spent the year 1850 in the maelstrom that was San Francisco, and then turned his back on the Pacific seaboard and returned to Mexico, where he attached himself to an expedition into the interior which extended over 3,000 miles of wild hostile country, including large expanses of Guatemala and Salvador.

At the end of two years he returned to the coast and married Emilia, the daughter of the British Resident, James Stanislaus Bell, with whom he and his wife returned to Scotland when his tour of duty was completed. For some months he was content to concentrate on a fascinating book, Mitla, which recounted his adventures in the Americas; and it was at this time that he also began to develop a talent for water-colour sketching some of his engagements in the Maori Wars in New Zealand.

Some idea of the mettle of the man may be inferred by Tempsky's legendary skill with the Bowie knife and the monicker of Manu Rau (Thunder Bird) bestowed on him by the Maori for his fighting prowess. Yet, the man could paint a delicate watercolor landscape or capture the details of Native dress or the floor plan of a Mitla structure with his pen and pencil.: