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Events in the Life of Phillip Tapsell


In the early 19th Century, a diverse group of traders, sealers, runaway seamen and escaped convicts from Australia became part of Māori communities and were known as Pākehā-Māori.


One was Hans Falk, born in Copenhagen in 1790 who later changed his name to Phillip Tapsell. He had an amazing life. After many adventures at sea, he settled down in Maketu and became a key trader in the Bay of Plenty.


Events in the Life of Phillip Tapsell is his memoir recorded by Edward Little when Tapsell was in his eighties. The original manuscript is in the Alexander Turnbull Library. It has now been published in book form for the first time making it readily available to a contemporary audience.


Those with an interest in NZ History will especially welcome this scholarly book. The manuscript has been meticulously researched with close editing and annotation by Dr Jonathan Adams who came upon the story of Phillip Tapsell in the course of his research into Danish migration to New Zealand in the 19th Century.


In Part One he discusses Tapsell's life and identity as a Pākehā-Māori. Part Two contains Tapsell’s reminiscences as recorded by Little. In Part Three Dr Jonathan Adams considers significant events in the story, the manuscript as an artefact, and includes accounts of Tapsell's life and how that has been interpreted in Denmark.

Those who became traders, such as Tapsell, played a crucial role in the escalation of inter- tribal wars by supplying Māori with muskets in exchange for goods such as scraped flax. These musket wars lead to thousands of deaths.


In the foreword Prof Paora Tapsell, one of more than 3,000 of Philip Tapsell’s descendants, puts a more positive spin on his ancestor’s trading activities saying that he deliberately allocated firearms in an equitable way so ensuring that no one hapu gained an unfair firearm advantage. Providing them with firearms also meant they were able to protect themselves against invasion from Northern tribes who already had the musket.


Phillip Tapsell had three Māori wives. His first marriage is said to be the first Christian marriage in New Zealand, and arguably the shortest. His bride ran off within hours of the ceremony. The brother of his second wife, influential Ngāpuhi chief Wharepoaka, persuaded him to buy land in Maketu. From this base Tapsell created his trading networks. Here he lived for many years in a grand house surrounded with 12 cannons, never used but acting as a deterrent).


A common misconception is that women always played a subservient role in traditional Maori society. But as a woman of high rank Karehu, his second wife, who was fluent in English, played an important role in Tapsell’s success as a trader by acting as his interpreter and cultural guide.


A few months after her death from the measles Hineitūrama was presented to Tapsell as a puhi-bride (woman of high rank set aside for political marriages) by her uncle Te Amohau to ensure he remained at Maketu. She too assisted him greatly in his trading activities through her chiefly connections. Together they had eight children.


Once he settled in Maketu the risk of an attack on his life and damage to his property constantly hung over him. As a trader he found himself in dangerous situations which he approached in a fearless and sometimes reckless manner. He was a great survivor but after many years both his business and marriage ended tragically.


Adams writes that 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”. But his family life in New Zealand and his relationship with his whanau do not play a significant part of in this memoir.


Instead, Tapsell chose to focus on events in his life, both before and after he settled in Aotearoa, where there was much turmoil and violence. In Aotearoa Tapsell was a witness to beheadings, cannibalism and the curing and preserving of human heads after intertribal conflicts. He describes these in lurid detail. Just occasionally was he able to rescue some captives from certain death or slavery by paying a ransom. It makes his memoir a harrowing read.


A memoir like this helps to fill a gap in the knowledge of most New Zealanders about the lives of Pākeha -Māori before the Treaty was signed, lives which were lived very differently from those of the missionaries who had also settled in Aotearoa at that time.


But it must be remembered that they were seen through their eyes, not through the eyes of the Māori community in which they lived so they are only part of the story.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Events in the Life of Phillip Tapsell was researched and edited by Jonathan Adams. Oratia Press. RRP $45.