Was Kimble Bent a man of great courage or simply a rebel and army deserter who deserved all the trials and tribulations he lived through? You decide.
In 1865, an odd fellow called Kimble Bent deserted from the 57th Regiment, “took to the blanket' and began living with Maori in the backblocks of Hāwera. Little did he know he'd end up isolated from the pākehā for 16 long years!
Not much has been written about Kimble Bent. There are three versions of his remarkable story - the official army one, the one James Cowan took from the lips of the old Pākehā-Māori himself, and perhaps the more famous fictionalised account by Maurice Shadbolt in his book Monday's Warriors.
And which is the truest tale? There's no doubt Bent told lies - in his youth to save his skin and later to restore his reputation - but fact or fiction, the story he told Cowan in The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A story of wild life in the New Zealand Bush definitely lives up to its title.
When Kimble Bent turned 17 he ran away to sea, probably because he couldn't shake his favourite rhyme out of his head.
“The untented Kosmos my abode
I go, a wilful stranger,
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of Danger!”
Born in 1837, in Maine, USA, Bent was the fourth of seven children. Though there is no proof that it was true, he often claimed his mother was a half-caste Red Indian and his father a boat builder.
In 1859, still in his early twenties and penniless through drinking, Bent enlisted in the 57th Regiment of Foot in Liverpool. Records show he married a Sarah E. Crosby and that they had three children together, but there is also evidence his wife was one E.C. Bent of Nova Scotia.
By 1860, Bent was serving in India where he heard of a war with the “wild native race” in faraway New Zealand. He shipped to New Plymouth and lived at the barracks on Marsland Hill until posted with his regiment to Manawapou, near Hāwera.
South Taranaki in the 1860's was covered in wide, dense forests, and it was in the shadow of the mountain that the Ten Years War began.
As more and more land changed hands from Māori to Pākehā it led to altercation and unrest. Under the leadership of prophet Te Ua Haumēne a strange religion had gathered strength to protest. Using a mix of bible and pagan rites, the Hauhau faith offered protection from Pākehā bullets. And if any warrior died in battle, it would not be his faith that let him down, but simply his lack of it.
The 57th Regiment was sent to Manawapou, to stop an uprising before it began. It was here that Bent changed his mind about being a soldier. He didn't like taking orders, for a start. He had already built up a formidable list of misdemeanours. As one sergeant noted, “he was a man repeatedly punished for acts of petty thievery and drunkenness”.
One day, when ordered out in the rain to cut firewood for the officers, Bent flatly refused. Punishment was 50 lashes and a stint in jail. Fortunately for Bent, the sentence was reduced from 50 lashes to 25. A comrade gave him a tot of rum and a sixpence to bite on. After a spell in Wellington jail, he was sent back to his regiment.
Bent stared out across the water of the Tangahoe River, where Palisade pā dotted the banks on the far side and Hauhau war songs rang out across the water. He decided to desert. “I can't be worse off with the Māoris than I am here” he thought. “If they do tomahawk me, it will end all my troubles”.
In June 1865, less than four months after he'd arrived at Manawapou, Bent disappeared into the bush where a Hauhau warrior named Tito Te Hanataua found him. “I want to live with the Māoris and make them my people” Bent said. “You'll be safe”, Tito told him, “But remember. Do what the tohunga tells you and promise him you'll never go back to the Pākehā soldiers or you'll die!” Tito hauled Bent onto his horse and the pair rode away.
In the Hauhau camp, Bent became a slave. “They made me work like a blessed dog”, he said. He realised a change of attitude would be necessary to survive. Grateful at least for new lodgings, Bent settled into Māori ways, participating in all the rituals of Pai Mārire. He wore no trousers, just a shirt made from an old blanket and a flax mat around his waist, was renamed Ringiringi, and given a wife he didn't like. “She wasn't my fancy, to put it mildly. But I suppose it was her last chance and the old man would have tomahawked me if I hadn't taken her.”
When his new wife decided he was thin and puny, she tried to fatten him up with the berries that the tui and woodpigeon liked. But the deserter preferred pork and potatoes and craved bread and salt. “The smell of the corn was enough to kill a dog” he would later say.
In Otapawa pā, Bent had nightmares about being attacked by his own regiment and speared by their bayonets. It was not such a farfetched scenario. Though Te Ua continually called for a laying down of arms, a recent violent skirmish with the army meant Hauhau were still seen as a warring faith.
When a Hauhau warrior, after losing his family on what should have been neutral ground, took utu by hanging a priest and swallowing his eyes, Te Ua's religion was once again condemned as bloodthirsty. Hauhau became the new name for anyone who opposed the government.
Bent's bad dreams became reality when General Chute and the 57th Regiment attacked the pā, aided by colonial troops and the kūpapa of celebrated bush-fighter Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui. A bloody battle ensued. The old chiefs called to their warriors “Sons! Be steady and wait till they come close up, then let them have it! Puhia! Fire!”
Bent would later say he was not present at the fighting but several kilometres away with the women and children. “I have never fired a shot against the whites all the time I was with the Hauhau” he declared. Later, the tribe confirmed that Bent was not allowed to carry a gun.
After the battle, 11 white soldiers lay dead and another 20 injured. The Hauhau quickly gathered their wounded and fled to the river, with Te Keepa and his men on their heels. As the only white man, Bent feared for his life. He kept his head down and tried to stay useful by tending to the warriors' wounds.
When the soldiers moved on to other pā, the tribe settled at Maha village, where they passed a few peaceful months. Soon Bent had been with Tito for a whole year, and there was nothing Pākehā left of him, except for the colour of his skin.
Details of further battles came swirling through the woods. In 1866 several more skirmishes between the Queen's soldiers and the Māori occurred. There was news of General Chute's march along the Whakaahurangi track from Hāwera to New Plymouth, where his men fell so hungry they ate their horses.
One day, out of the mist, came three Waikato warriors full of curiosity for Tito's white man. “Why don't you kill him?” they asked. “He is my Pākehā” Tito said, adding he would always protect him because he was tapu.
For all its limitations, life with the Māori, for Bent at least, seemed better than an army camp. At one time there were at least four other white men living with Māori in the Taranaki and Whanganui area - William Moffat, Humphrey Murphy, Charles Kane and Jack Hennessey, also from the 57th. After Hennessey finally gave himself up, he was court-martialled and sent to prison.
Tito gave Bent to a chief called Rupe, simply because he asked for him, and Bent would remain with him for the next twelve years. When he cured Rupe's son of a serious ailment, the chief gave him his daughter Rihi for a wife. Bent, who enjoyed her gentleness and approved of her body decorations, seems almost lyrical in his praises: “Her chin was tattooed, but not too thickly or deeply. She had too, the rape and the tiki-hope patterns engraved on her body, the hip and thigh, tattooing which was in fashion in those days and which the girls and women were proud of displaying when they went out to bathe.
“Indeed, she was a pretty girl. I'll never forget her. She had handsome features, almost European, though she was of pure Māori blood. Her lips were small, her hair wavy and curly, instead of hanging in a straight, black mat, and she had what was very strange in a Māori, blue eyes.” The couple lived together for three years, until Rihi passed away not long after their first child was born. Sadly, the child died too.
Bent decided it was time to have his own body tattooed. “I lived exactly like a Māori. I wanted my face tattooed, for I was as wild as any Māori then. I intended to have the curves called tiwhara, or arches, tattooed on my forehead, over the eyes, and the kawekawe lines on the cheeks, extending to the corners of the mouth.” But Te Ua forbade it. To moko Bent's skin would break tapu so Bent remained a plain Pākehā until he died, though he amused himself by learning how to tattoo others, sometimes printing their names on their skin.
For a while, things were calm, until Titokowaru, also known as Titoko, Hauhau paramount chief and tohunga, began a new campaign. Bent took up residence with Titoko in the stockaded village of Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu (beak of the bird), the main stronghold of the Hauhau forces which would soon see some of the worst action of the war. The settlement lay deep in the rata forests, less than 20km from where Hāwera is today. On the flat land at the edge of the forest stood the Waihi and Turuturumōkai redoubts, full of armed white soldiers.
Among the tribe, Bent earned a reputation as a gunsmith, taking powder from captured grenades and using animal tissue for cartridge paper to plump up ammunition stocks.
August and September 1868 saw two assaults on the pā, both led by Thomas McDonnell. While the battle was small in terms of fatalities, the army lost several officers who would be badly missed, among them the dashing Major Gustavus von Tempsky, artist and soldier of fortune. Bent was the one that Titoko called in to identify the body.
Bent turned round to face his masters. He asked if anyone had taken from an officer a sword with an unusual curved blade, and a cap with a brass band. 'Yes, I have them,' answered a warrior. “Show me the soldier you took them from.” With von Tempsky's sword in his hand, the Maori pointed to the Major's corpse. “Well” said Bent, “that is the body of Manu-rau.” Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu was razed to the ground and the aftermath would see a return of cannibalistic after-battle customs.
Bent was appalled to see the bodies of fallen soldiers prepared for the oven. The revival of the ancient practice of cannibalism was perhaps the most appalling feature of Titoko's warfare, yet it was based on ancient belief. In old Māoridom, a battle was a battle to the death and to the oven. It was no use conquering your enemy unless you killed him. No use killing him unless you ate him. The eating of white soldiers' bodies after battle served not only to satisfy racial revenge, but destroyed the prestige of the whites, ruining their mana as men as well as warriors.
After Bird's Beak pā was evacuated, another place was found at Moturoa, less than 20km from Pātea river mouth. Once again, Bent worked beside the Hauhau, cutting timber, setting up the great upright posts, lashing the palisades and digging trenches, but this time, his heart filled with dread.
“It was exciting, but none-the-less, it was slavery. Many a night those times, when I lay down on my flax whariki, though I was dog-tired, I could not sleep thinking, thinking over the past and dreading what the future might bring me. Many, many a time I wished myself dead and out of it all.”
Tauranga-ika, the strongest pā ever constructed by Māori, took only three days to build and Bent did not expect it to fall. But the test soon came, when 200 Government soldiers stood outside the door.
The battle at Tauranga-ika was worse than Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu had been two months earlier, but seven dead soldiers gave Bent some welcome new clothes - three pairs of trousers, four shirts and some boots. “I tell you, I was pleased. For a long time I had been wearing only Māori-made garments made of flax.”
When a second charge was ordered, the soldiers found Tauranga-ika deserted. Bent would later say that a “woman was at the bottom of it”. Titoko been caught with another man's wife and for all his mana-tapu, it was a human indiscretion which would result in his fall from power.
In the end the tribe simply packed up and left for Waitōtara. Their leader had lost his spiritual strength, and could not regain it without complicated ceremonies and incantations performed by another tohunga and by then it would be too late. As Bent told Cowan: “We led a miserably rough life in the bush. We were as near starvation sometimes as we could be. Kepa's kūpapas and the white scouts were hunting us, stalking us like wild beasts, and we were hiding in the forest and living on what we could pick up.” They chose Otautu, an ordinary village and not a fortified pa on the upper reaches of the Pātea River for their next refugee camp.
Once more Bent began to dream: “I dreamt that I saw a strange Māori village in which each house was cut in two lengthways, leaving only half the dwelling standing in the shape of a shed or lean-to...” And out of the forest at Otautu came a gang of Kepa's men and, their resistance broken, the Hauhau fought and fled, the kūpapa following in hot pursuit. When Colonel Whitmore promised a reward of ten pounds for every Hauhau chief killed and five for every warrior, everyone wanted the heads of Titoko and his scattered tribe. This put so much terror into Hauhau that they never fought again.
Eventually, still belonging to Rupe, Bent travelled high up the Waitara River to Rimatoto, where he hid out with his companions until 1876. Eventually, he returned to the Pātea valley, where he married for the last time, this time to Rupe's granddaughter. For the next 30 years Bent seems to have dropped from the record books. Called a traitor during the war, he avoided contact with his contemporaries, though as time went by, curious journalists would sometimes go looking for him, to hear a tale of olden times. At some point he moved to Blenheim where he worked on the Stafford family farm.
And in 1903, Bent travelled to Wellington to be interviewed by author James Cowan. Though much of Cowan's book reads like A Boy's Own tale, it's a good thing it exists.
Aged 79, Kimble Bent died on 22 May 1916. His unmarked grave lies in a small South Island cemetery where it has long since been lost under a carpet of wild flowers and weeds.
Belich, J. (1986). The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Penguin.
Cowan, J. (1911). The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush. London: Whitcombe and Tombs.
Grosz, C. (2011). Kimble Bent, malcontent: the wild adventures of a runaway soldier in old-time New Zealand: a graphic novel. Auckland: Random House.
Ogle, N. (2005). Runaway soldier: the Kimble Bent story. Hawera: Tawhiti Museum.
Shadbolt, M. (1990). Monday's Warriors. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton.
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