In 1903, New Zealand journalist James Cowan met an old man with an extraordinary story. He was American, he said, but after decades of living amongst the Māori, avoiding European settlements, he was barely able to speak English. His name was Kimble Bent. Slowly, through a series of letters written in te reo Māori, he told Cowan the tale of his life.
Born in Maine in 1837, Bent was restless young man. He took to the sea as a teenager, eventually ending up in Liverpool, England. A penniless drunk by 1859, he joined the British Army. He hated it. After serving in India, he was sent to New Zealand, into the middle of the Taranaki Wars.
The Taranaki Wars had begun in 1860. A growing faction of Māori, worried that the British rule would destroy their way of life, had rebelled. In response, the Government had confiscated vast tracks of Māori land. This, naturally, led to more fighting.
Bent, still a drinker, drank even more to cope with the harsh conditions of fighting in the New Zealand bush. He was often punished for drunkenness, as well as for thievery and insubordination. He even did a stint in prison, where he received twenty-five lashes. By 1865, he’d had enough. He deserted.
Pretending he wanted to bathe, Bent left his comrades, making his way down to a nearby river. He tried to ford it, but found the current too strong. Instead, he bashed his way through the ferns along the riverbank until he was exhausted. As luck would have it, he soon encountered a Māori scout on a pony. As even more luck would have it, the scout didn’t shoot him on sight.
“Take me with you!” Bent begged.
After a little consideration, the scout asked, “What your name, pakeha?”
“Too hard,” said the scout. “We give you more better name – good Māori name. If my tribe don’t kill you.”
Obviously, the Ngati Ruanui tribe didn’t kill Bent. Instead, he became the personal slave of their leader, Tito te Hanataua. He was given the name Ringiringi, as well as a tribeswoman’s hand in marriage. The latter, Bent was not so happy with, as he thought her ugly. Later, he was to marry a younger, prettier Māori woman, (or, rather, a fifteen-year-old girl,) but she died soon after the death of their only child.
Fearing punishment for desertion should he rejoin European society, Bent stayed amongst the Māori for many years. He participated in rituals, tended to the sick and wounded, and crafted weaponry. Of course, he would never admit to taking up arms against the British. We can only speculate as to the truth of much of what he told James Cowan.
Kimble Bent died in 1916. James Cowan’s swashbuckling biography, The Adventures of Kimble Bent, was published in 1911. It’s a fantastic read. I first learned of Kimble Bent at Nigel Ogle’s magical Tawhiti Museum in South Taranaki. I can’t recommend that place enough. They sell Cowan’s book in the gift shop. It’s hard to find elsewhere, but there’s a free digital version on the Victoria University of Wellington Library’s website. I used that and Kimble Bent’s Te Ara encyclopedia entry as sources for this article. The featured image is of Mount Taranaki.
If you liked this story, you’ll like The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman . Reckon I should do more of these? I quite enjoy them.