The Adventures of Kimble Bent: Drinker, Deserter, Slave, Folk Hero

James Cowan https://wellington.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/3183#idx3722

James Cowan, courtesy of wellington.recollect.co.nz

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.

A forest in Taranaki

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?”

“Kimble Bent.”

“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.

kimble bent

Kimble Bent as an old man

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.

The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman

charlotte badger

Worcestershire, 1796. A teenage girl is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. Torn from her poverty-stricken family, she is thrown in gaol to await her fate. Her sentence is commuted, however, to seven years’ transportation. Her name is Charlotte Badger. Within a decade, she will become “Australia’s first female pirate” and – more intriguingly – the first white woman to live amongst the Māori of New Zealand.

convict ship

A convict ship

We don’t know much about Charlotte’s life. Tales of her piratical exploits have almost certainly been exaggerated. The story goes that she was transported to Australia and ended up in the Parramatta Female Factory, a notorious prison/workhouse in New South Wales. There, she gave birth to a daughter. Charlotte’s adventure began when she was made a servant and sent to Hobart. She never turned up in Hobart.

The ship upon which she was being transported suffered a mutiny. The degree to which Charlotte was involved in said mutiny cannot be ascertained, but let’s go with the legendary version. Charlotte and her fellow Parramatta inmate-turned-servant, Catherine, were the only female convicts onboard. They seduced a couple of the male convicts and convinced them to start a mutiny. Then, dressed in male clothing for the ultimate swashbuckling effect, Charlotte flogged the captain in revenge for him flogging her.

female pirate

Not actually Charlotte, but Anne Bonny, a legit pirate from the 18th century

Charlotte’s child was with her throughout this escapade. Free, the convicts sailed east to New Zealand. The women were dropped off in the Bay of Islands, whilst the men went off pirating down the New Zealand coast… not very successfully. (Legend has it they were captured and eaten.) Catherine soon died of an illness. Left to fend for herself, Charlotte befriended the local Māori, members of the Ngāpuhi tribe. She may even have struck up a romantic relationship with their chief.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th Century

A late eighteenth century Māori chief

Charlotte seems to have enjoyed her life amongst the Māori. She refused to leave when offered in any case. Or did she? Was she ever in New Zealand at all? The scant records we have are contradictory. For our purposes, we’ll believe she was. One story has her “escaping” the Māori aboard a whaling ship to America, via Tonga. This comes from a ship that turned up in Sydney in the 1820s. It’d just been in Tonga, where locals had mentioned seeing a white woman and her daughter some years earlier. Their description of the woman fit Charlotte, (fat, pretty much,) and she’d have been able to communicate with the Tongans, given their language’s similarity to Te Reo Māori.

And that’s it, really. I’d never heard of Charlotte Badger until her story showed up on Rejected Princesses. I researched this blog post by reading her entries in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand and on New Zealand History, as well as an article about her from Radio New Zealand. I was immediately drawn to her story. (Might have something to do with the whole British-immigrant-to-New Zealand thing.) Stories like this – about “the little people”, as opposed to kings and captains and chiefs – make history human.

If you liked this story, read: The Adventures of Kimble Bent: Drinker, Deserter, Slave, Folk Hero.

An Intriguing Find

I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Scotland. It was called Old New Zealand: A Tale of the Good Old Days, by A Pākehā Māori. I immediately looked for the publication date. It was a 1948 edition of a book first published in 1863.

There was also a bookseller’s stamp. This copy had been purchased in a stationer’s in Pukekohe, close to where I lived when I moved to New Zealand! Here was a book that had travelled the world, from a small town in New Zealand to a small town in Scotland. Just like me.

It was quite a ragged tome. I wondered what adventures it had been on. I was intrigued by its anonymous author: A Pākehā Māori. Was this a Māori who had adopted the European settlers’ way of life, or vice versa? Or were they half-European and half-Māori by blood? Whatever the case was, it seemed they were a bridge between the two cultures, and not at all in favour of the British mission to “civilise” New Zealand.

Later, I indulged in a bit of research. The Pākehā Māori in question was an Irishman by the name of Frederick Edward Maning. He arrived in New Zealand as a young man in 1833 and lived among the Ngāpuhi, a Northland tribe. He married a Māori woman and warned people not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, (though how much he was motivated by a desire to preserve the native culture, and how much by more selfish trading interests, I can’t say. No doubt people who’ve actually studied the subject can.)

In another connection to me, Frederick Maning was buried in Symmonds Street Cemetery, right by where I lived when I attended the University of Auckland. I’ve walked past his grave and not known it!

The Great Tower of Matamata

It’s not often you see a tower like this in New Zealand. It’s called Firth Tower and it’s in Matamata, not far from Hobbiton. What’s a stone tower doing in a Waikato farming community, you ask? A couple of weeks ago, I went to find out. I ended up finding a lot more than I expected…

Firth Tower

It’s not just a tower, you see. There’s a whole complex of historic buildings containing museum exhibits, from a Victorian post office to machinery sheds and railway carriages. Not only that, the grounds around them are extensive and quite lovely, with beautiful flowers and trees.

flower butterfly

You’re allowed to explore the grounds for free, but a small fee is required if you want to go inside the buildings. You’re also allowed to stay the night there in your campervan. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan rental holiday, I highly recommend taking advantage of this. There are decent toilets and picnic spots on top of everything else.

firth tower museum

I was delighted to discover that the Victorian post office contained a miniature secondhand bookshop. The selection left a lot to be desired, but still… nice idea. The best exhibition, I thought, was the main house, which had a scene-setting audio track. Why was there a tower in the garden? Because the Victorian estate owner simply felt like having one.

I entered the tower and climbed the precarious, wooden stairs around and around, all the way up to the lookout. I climbed the final ladder and marvelled at the expanse of fields… for a second or two. It was stifling up there! I hurriedly retreated, squeezing my way around the latest generation of children excited to be inside a “castle”.

firth tower

I had a lovely time at Firth Tower Museum. The day had started off cold and gloomy, but became wonderfully hot and sunny. I spent a lot of time simply wandering the grounds, taking photographs of the flowers. Unsurprisingly, you can hire the place out for weddings, as one of the historic buildings is a church.

firth tower museum

train carriages firth tower museum

old farm machinery firth tower museum

red flower

An Afternoon in Russell

Christchurch, Russell

I’d wanted to visit Russell ever since I’d read it was once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’. New Zealand’s first European settlement, the port seethed with boozing, gambling and native girls offering their services in exchange for nails, muskets and syphilis. Traders and whalers mingled with Māori tribesmen and missionaries. Sails creaked. Barrels rolled up and down gangplanks.

You’d never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Russell

Today, Russell is a bit different. It’s a charming, little tourist town in the Bay of Islands, which you can reach by ferry. (There’s a passenger ferry from Paihia, or a vehicle ferry from Ōpua. There’s also a road that wends its way around from Kawakawa, but having driven it with my partner, I don’t recommend it. Just get the ferry.)

Aside from water-based activities such as swimming with dolphins, Russell’s three main attractions are the museum, the old church and the Victorian printery. Personally, I’d say the number one thing you can do in Russell is have an evening meal on the Strand, overlooking the sea. The Strand is an idyllic street of old, wooden buildings containing a row of very nice restaurants, with an abundance of beachside seating. But more on that later.

The Strand, Russell

When my partner Tim and I arrived in Russell, it was absolutely chucking it down with rain, so we sought refuge in the museum. It was actually quite disappointing for the price. There were only two rooms, but I’ve visited some excellent small-town museums and this… wasn’t one. (If you want to visit an excellent small-town museum in Northland, go to Waipu.) I’d still recommend checking it out if you know nothing about Russell’s history, but if you don’t have much time in Russell, definitely visit the Victorian printery instead, otherwise known as the Pompallier Mission House.

Both my partner and I really enjoyed our tour of the printery. By this time, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing. (New Zealand summer!) Consequently, the gardens around the house – and the fishing-boat-bobbing sea beyond – looked glorious. There was a tannery behind the house; the gift shop sold leather-bound notebooks made on the premises. Next to the house was a lovely-seeming café, but unfortunately, we were too late to patronise it, having caught the last tour of the day.

Pompallier Mission House Printery

As for Russell’s old church, Christ Church, it won’t take you long to look around. Do, though. It’s rather pretty and if you look closely, you can find a few musket ball holes in its side. The graves are quite interesting as well. We saw one that had what looked like a chessboard on top of it, and we both though it might be nice to be buried with a chessboard on top of us, so our descendants can come and play chess on our graves. Then Tim thought why stop at chess? You could have a hexagonal layout for playing Settlers of Catan, or a world map for playing Risk… But anyway.

The Strand, Russell

We’d made a booking for dinner at New Zealand’s oldest restaurant, The Gables, on the Strand. It was built in 1847. We had a window table, which opened right out onto the beachfront. The water reflected the golden light of the evening as we dined. And the food was wonderful, of course.

Russell

The ferries to get you out of Russell keep going until quite late. They’re also really cheap, which was good for us after we’d splashed out at the restaurant. We drove away from Russell feeling all warm and fuzzy. We’d just had a marvellous day.

Vikings, Trolls and a Magical Gateway

Streets in Norsewood

There’s something strange going on in Norsewood. A small, sad town on the way up to Napier, its main tourist attraction is a shop selling woollen socks. Most people don’t bother looking further than that, but I’m glad I did. Like I wasn’t going to explore a town whose street names include Odin, Thor, Hengist and Horsa!

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

My partner Tim and I were on a New Zealand campervan hire tour of the central North Island. (That’s why I didn’t post anything last week.) After a couple of days around Tongariro National Park, we were driving towards Napier and decided to spend the night at Dannevirke Holiday Park, because it had received excellent reviews on the Rankers Camping NZ app.

Dannevirke Playground Viking Longship

The first thing you notice upon entering Dannevirke is a giant Viking. That’s because Dannevirke, like the nearby town of Norsewood, was settled by Scandinavians. Dannevirke literally means Danes’ work. The roadside barriers in the town centre are decorated with shields, there’s a miniature windmill in the town square, and the children’s playground features a Viking longship!

Fantasy Cave, Dannevirke

Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much for us to do there, and the Fantasy Cave, which looks delightful, albeit tacky, was closed. We decided to continue on to Norsewood. It was a little eerie when we arrived. No one was about, although, to be fair, it was raining. We popped into the information centre: a tiny room devoid of human life.

At least there were people in the café, which was actually quite nice. Outside, three ugly trolls were waiting for us. They led us into the Pioneer Cottage Museum. I’ve explored many such cottages throughout New Zealand and this was definitely one of the best, although the cardboard cut-outs of the early settlers were very creepy – especially when the lights suddenly went off!

Norsewood Trolls

You turn on the lights yourself when you go in, and they only stay on for a few minutes at a time, you see. I was in the barn at the back of the cottage when it went dark, surrounded by scary farming implements and sour-faced settlers, including an old woman who looked like a cross between Peter Cushing and blue vein cheese. It was like I’d suddenly entered a horror movie. I was half-convinced the figures would come to life and converge on me!

Stavkirke in New Zealand

Across the street from the Pioneer Village is a place called Johanna’s World. It’s advertised as having a traditional Norwegian log cabin, a troll cave and the southern hemisphere’s only stavkirke, or stave church. (If you don’t know what they are, google it – they look really cool!) When we stood at the wooden gate, looking in, there was no one there. It kind of seemed like someone’s garden, but there was no sign telling us not to go in, so we opened the gate.

CatImmediately, a cat came running up to us. It was super friendly, but still managed to be regal and authoritative, demanding much attention. When we started to explore the attractions, it followed us.

“Are you our tour guide?” I asked it.

It meowed affirmatively.

The cat accompanied us around the log cabin and the stavkirke. There was still no sign of human life. I began to suspect that our feline tour guide was Johanna’s World’s actual tour guide, turned into a cat by some malign magic.

“It must be the trolls’ doing,” Tim agreed.

Norsewood Troll CaveThe troll cave was actually quite disappointing. It’s not a real cave, but a children’s playroom inside a storehouse. Of course, there were no children there.

“Are we even allowed to be here?” Tim asked.

I had no idea, but the cat was delighted with our presence, and that was good enough for me. I was sorry to leave it.

We had a last look around the village before heading off, checking out an old, wooden gaol and meeting a pair of affectionate horses that stared mournfully after us as we walked away. Had all the humans in Norsewood been turned into animals? No, of course not – what about the people in the café? It was then that we discovered the Gateway.

Gateway Garden, Norsewood

We almost missed it: a tiny garden tucked away in a corner. At the back, partially obscured by foliage, was a gateway – but a gateway to what? Feeling rather like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, I stepped through the gate and found… nothing. Just the back of the garden, a narrow strip of earth and a high fence.

“Maybe the portal only appears if you believe hard enough,” said Tim.

So I took a deep breath, pictured Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects our world to Asgard, and jumped through the Gateway.

Norsewood Crest

I landed on the earth in front of the fence.

I must not have believed hard enough.

Norsewood PostSo that was Dannevirke and Norsewood. If you’re into history, fantasy or Norse mythology, I recommend having a look around both, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Napier. Otherwise don’t bother. The one person we did meet seemed thoroughly confused as to why we’d want to be there. It was an old, scruffy-bearded guy in a battered pickup truck.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“No, we’re just looking around,” Tim replied.

He gave a sceptical shrug and drove off, leaving us to wonder whether we’d just escaped the local serial killer. Either way, it was time for us to be moving on.

Norwegian Log Cabin

How Many Trees Does One Tree Hill Have?

One Tree Hill

It’s not a trick question, but I bet you’d have a hard time telling me the answer…

One Tree Hill Auckland View

My little sister, me, my mum and my grandpa at the summit of One Tree Hill

Cornwall Park is a great place to go if you’re in Auckland: marvellous views, large playing fields, nice cafés, historic buildings, surprisingly stunning tree-lined avenues, an observatory and planetarium, and a lot more farm animals than I was expecting from a park in the middle of a city. At its centre lies a volcanic cone topped by a distinctive obelisk. It’s called One Tree Hill – the very One Tree Hill that U2 wrote a song about – but look at this photograph from last year:

Why is it called One Tree Hill? There isn’t a single tree on it. (And if you’re counting the trees on the slopes, well, there’s a lot more than one.) You see, way back before the British came to New Zealand, One Tree Hill was the site of a Māori pā, or hill fort. Then, in 1845, the British acquired the hill and named it after the single, striking tree that stood near its summit. That tree was cut down by a British settler in 1852, either to make some sort of point, or because he needed firewood.

Either way: dick move.

In 1853, the land surrounding the hill was purchased by Sir John Logan Campbell, who repeatedly attempted to grow trees on the summit, but it was like the place was cursed. Only two trees survived. (Two Tree Hill?) One was chopped down in 1960 in another dick move, and so for over thirty years the hill once again lived up to its name. Then the remaining tree was attacked by Māori activists with a chainsaw. Twice.

One Tree Hill

Me and Grandpa at One Tree Hill in 2005

Despite a valiant effort, the tree could not be saved and, in the year 2000, it finally came down. One Tree Hill was now, yet again, None Tree Hill.

But that’s not the end of the story. Last year, after that photograph was taken, not one, but nine new trees were planted on the summit of One Tree Hill. Apparently, the plan is to get rid of the weaker trees until a single strong tree remains, and One Tree Hill has one tree once more. I wonder how long that tree will survive…

So, you see, “How many trees does One Tree Hill have?” has no simple answer. However many it has – one, none, two, nine, or however many the future may hold – it’s a place worth visiting.

Cornwall Park

Cornwall Park