The Three Wives of Philip Tapsell
The descendants of a man who first made landfall on the New Zealand coast in 1809, and who died at Maketu in the Bay of Plenty in August 1873, today count more than two hundred, constituting the ‘Whanau-a-Tapihana’, the Children of Tapsell, and a worthy part of the Arawa people.
Philip Tapsell was a master mariner. Born in Denmark in 1779 as Hans Homman Felk, he went to sea at the age of 14. He served in the Danish War against the British, and witnessed the Battle of Copenhagen. He saw Napoleon at St Helena. For 35 years he sailed the seven seas; from 1809 he was chasing whales in Southern waters, his ships being largely based in the Bay of Islands. For fourteen years, he learnt to know the Maori. He was in the vicinity of the Bay of Islands when news reached his ship of the massacre of the crew of the Boyd, and some of his crew took part in the punitive expedition. He saw and admired the work of the missionaries in the region.
Hans Felk took his English name in order to ship in British ships. He claimed to be a Manxman, and thus covered his accent. So it is that his gravestone in the little cemetery at Maketu carries the inscription, Hans Homman Felk, known as Philip Tapsell, a native of Denmark who distinguished himself as a Naval Officer. Died at the age of 94 years on 6 August, 1873.
Tapsell was married three times, each bride being of the Maori race, and each marriage was according to the rites of the church, the first two solemnised by missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, while the last, though delayed well past the time of union, was performed by Bishop Pompallier on a visit to Whakatane, where Tapsell was living, and where there was neither priest nor mission. The Bishop first christened the children, then married the parents.
Philip Tapsell's first marriage is of historical significance, in that it was the first performed in New Zealand according to the rites of the church. The register, carrying the record of Certificate No. 1, states that ‘Philip Tapsell, First Officer of the Ship Asp now at Anchor in this Bay and Maria Dinga a (baptised) native female of this Bay were married at this House by Banns with consent of Guardians this twentythird day of June in the year One Thousand eight hundred and twenty three by me, Thomas Kendall, Minister and missionary’. The certificate was duly signed by the bridegroom. Maria made her mark (and, not being able to read was unaware that her name was misspelt; it should have read Ringa) and the signatures
were witnessed by the Commanders of the Asp and the Royal Sovereign supporting the bridegroom, and by Hongi, a native living at the house of Mr Clarke, and Rahi, a native of New Zealand.
So reads the record on page 1 of the register, which at the time was of marriages solemnised in the Mission House at Mata Hui.
But Tapsell's marriage was short-lived. After the celebrations provided by Captain Brind of the Asp, who provided a keg of rum for the toast, and a wedding feast of roast pork and plum-duff, the bridal couple, after dining with Mr Kendall, went among the native people to display Maria's bridal finery. Perhaps the rum, and wine provided at the missionary's table, were too much for Tapsell, but, during the stroll through the bush, the bridegroom sank into blissful slumber. When he awoke, Maria had disappeared. Nor did he ever see her again.
In 1829, Tapsell learned that Maria was dead. He approached the Rev. Samuel Marsden who was visiting New Zealand to discuss the possibility of his marriage to a well-born girl who was known to Marsden. She was in fact the sister of the chief Waikato, who had accompanied Hongi to England, where they had been feted, and introduced to the King. Marsden, who had known her for fourteen years, speaks of her as a very fine woman, clean in her person, well-dressed in European clothes, and of a very amiable disposition, well acquainted with the English language. She had long resided amongst the missionaries who also spoke well of her. Marsden, after discussion with the missionaries (the brothers Williams and Brown), agreed to marry the couple. He performed the ceremony at Keri Keri on 21 April in the Chapel, and he himself gives some details, averring that the young woman (as he refers to her) was neatly dressed in European clothing of her own making. She conducted herself with the greatest propriety, making her responses very correctly in English. She was given away by her brother, Wharepoaka, who, in spite of his name was a very pleasant reliable person. Her brides-maid was her sister.
Tapsell's second wife was a real help-mate; she was both brave and devoted, and served as his interpreter at Maketu, where Tapsell had opened a trading station.
Early in 1833, Tapsell's wife died. Tapsell placed in her coffin a Turkish kreese which he always wore. With the arrival of the trading cutter, Tapsell took the coffin on board, and he himself took charge of the funeral ship for its journey back to the tribal lands of his wife's people. So ‘The White Woman’, as she was known at Maketu for her very fair complexion, was buried on a hill-top at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands. The funeral service was read by John King, the resident missionary in that place.
Tapsell's third wife was of the Arawa people, and was of the ninth generation in descent from Tutanekai, whose association with Hinemoa has given us the best-known love story in Maoridom.
Hine-i-turama was a handsome woman of high degree, and the union was blessed with a numerous family, which in succeeding generations has brought honour both to the name of Tapsell and to the Arawa people from whom they have sprung. It was this union that was given benefit of Church by Bishop Pompallier in 1841 when he visited Whakatane. Tapsell requested that the ceremony take place out of doors, ‘where all hands can see it’.
The manner of her death has become history, for it was witnessed by Major William Mair, the English officer who parleyed with the Maoris at Orakau, and received the famous reply that they would fight for ever and ever. Hine had been visiting her daughter in the Waikato who had married an English doctor. When the war reached the Waikato. Hine remained with her daughter and with the other inhabitants of the district took refuge in the newly-built
Pa at Orakau. On 2 April 1864, the British entered the pa. Major Mair tried to save the life of Hine, but while he was attending to another woman who had been wounded, Hine was bayoneted. The dead were buried in the trenches where they had been slain; a monument now marks the site of the heroic stand by Ngati Raukawa, assisted as they were by the Tuhoe people of the Urewera.
For the next few years, oppressed by changing fortunes, the captain moved up and down the Bay of Plenty coast, engaging in a number of occupations to do with trading, or with the sea. His fortitude and his courage gave him strength to weather the losses and the hardships he sustained. He lived to see that same strength and character portrayed in his sons and grandsons, many of whom distinguished themselves, not only in peace but in war. Several held important Government positions. In the Maori Wars and in the Great War, Tapsell descendants fought side by side against the enemies of the Sovereign — indeed in the Great War, a Tapsell fought at the side of his son in the Maori Battalion.
Tapsell's last wish was that his people should not cry for him; he wished a gun to be fired as his coffin was lowered into the earth — that ws the only mourning he desired. And had it not been that a daughter was already buried in the cemetery at Maketu, he would have wished to have joined his old comrades by having his body committed to the deep.