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 books about Bent in the gift shop, and there’s a free digital version of Cowan’s book 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!

New Zealand’s Pompeii

That breathtaking view is of Lake Tarawera. As I took that photograph, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was, how much like paradise it looked. In 1886, it was the site of the most terrifying volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s human history.

Government Gardens

Modern tourists admiring a steaming hot pool in Rotorua’s Government Gardens

Back then, Rotorua was just as much a tourist trap as it is today. People came from all over the world to see its geothermal marvels – the mud pools, the geysers, the “healing” waters – all while breathing in the magnificent smell of rotten eggs. Most spectacular of all were the Pink and White Terraces, revered as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Pink and White Terraces were naturally formed bathing pools. They were tiered, flowing with warm, silica-rich water. From the paintings, photographs and written descriptions of delighted tourists that remain, we know they were beautiful. They cannot be visited today because they were obliterated in 1886, along with the lives of about a hundred and twenty people, when Mt Tarawera blew its top.

Lake Tarawera

This is what Mt Tarawera looks like today, from across Lake Tarawera – a shadow of its former self. When it erupted, it buried several villages. You can visit one – Te Wairoa – that has been excavated from the ash, like Pompeii.

Nearby the Buried Village, on the shore of Lake Tarawera, lies a very nice café. The food’s surprisingly awesome, and you can sit on the deck and look out over the lake. Last time I went, it had just been raining heavily, so the lake, Mt Tarawera and the surrounding bush were swathed in mist. It was highly atmospheric. I could easily imagine the ghosts of the eruption drifting across the water. As we ate, the mist slowly cleared. Now we saw the lake in its full sparkling glory. We drove up to the lookout spot and stood amazed.

Blue Baths2 copyAfter that, we drove to somewhere we always go when we visit Rotorua: Government Gardens. I’ve written about Government Gardens before, but they’ve got even better since then. You’ll want to take your time exploring them – it’s easy to miss bits, there’s so much. On the gardens’ periphery is the gorgeous 1930s bath house of the Blue Baths. (That’s it in the picture.) My family loves it there. It’s less crowded than the more famous Polynesian Spa, and more sophisticated with its Art Deco décor.

Bringing us back to the Tarawera Eruption, the best thing about Government Gardens is they’re home to the Rotorua Museum, which has a fantastic exhibition on the subject.  I enjoyed it so much, the science, the history and the artefacts – including a pair of Victorian women’s boots I seriously wanted to steal, and a mummified cat.

Rotorua MuseumThe building that the houses the Rotorua Museum is beautiful. It was built to be a luxury bath house, offering mud baths and electroshock therapy, and some of the bathing rooms remain as exhibits. Rather excitingly, one of the exhibits is an underground labyrinth showing you all the pipes under the building. You’re offered a hardhat before you descend, but I’m so short I didn’t need one. I must say I found it rather creepy. In a good way.

You can also go up onto the roof of the building. As well as being a fascination in itself, it offers a 360° view that encompasses the Government Gardens and Lake Rotorua.

Being a history nerd from England, I often bemoan New Zealand’s comparative lack of interesting history. That day in Rotorua, visiting Lake Tarawera and then the museum, I found a new appreciation for New Zealand’s history. Besides, England doesn’t have bubbling mud pools or steaming geysers. Or quite the same danger of having lava rain from ash-darkened skies…