Page 1: Biography
Soldier, deserter, Pākehā-Māori, character
This biography, written by W. H. Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Kimble Bent, also known as Kimball Bent, was born in Eastport, Maine, USA, on 24 August 1837, the fourth of the seven children of John (or Waterman) Bent, a shipbuilder and carpenter, of Nova Scotian origin, and his wife, Eliza Bagley (or Reynolds). Kimble Bent once claimed that his mother was half-Amerindian, of the Musqua tribe; but in the records both parents appear as 'white'. In later life Bent emphasised his American origins, perhaps to make his desertion from the British Army appear less objectionable.
Still in his early 20s and, by his own account, penniless through drinking, Bent enlisted in the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot on 18 October 1859, in Liverpool, England. He may have been married by this time. He later claimed that he had married Sarah E. Crosby in 1855 at Portland, Maine, and that there were three children of the marriage. Other evidence suggests that he had a wife, E. C. Bent, at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. From mid November 1860 Bent served in India, and was sent to New Zealand in March 1861. Between June 1860 and June 1865 (when he deserted) Bent piled up a formidable list of sentences. A sergeant of the 57th described him as a man 'repeatedly punished for acts of petty thievery and drunkenness'.
After his regiment had been posted to Manawapou, South Taranaki, in March 1865, Bent was, by his own account, punished with 25 lashes on the triangles before his entire company, for refusal to obey an order, and then served a prison term in Wellington. Back in Taranaki, he deserted in June 1865. He fell into the hands of Ngāti Ruanui leader Tito Hanataua, who kept him as a servant and protected him. He remained with the Māori forces for the rest of the war.
There is little evidence of the events of his life except from his own much later testimony. Bent was undoubtedly a liar: in his youth to save his own skin; in later life to retrieve his reputation. But many of his stories are not improbable, and much of the information he gives is not relevant to his quest for self-justification. Further, his biographer, James Cowan, checked his tale with survivors from both sides of the conflict.
After his capture Bent was put to work by Tito at the village of Otapawa; forcibly married to a Ngāti Ruanui woman, Te Rawanga, whose ugliness did not please him; and given the name Ringiringi, a contraction of one of the names of his master. While at Otapawa, where he helped to strengthen the defences, he was taken before the prophet Te Ua Haumēne. Bent described Te Ua as a stoutly built man in his 40s, who carried a taiaha, and wore European clothing and a plaited flax belt, in which a greenstone mere was thrust. He claimed that Te Ua took him under his protection, shared tapu food with him, and gave him a flax cloak and some tobacco. On a later occasion, at Te Paka, Te Ua refused to allow Bent to be tattooed, for this would break the tapu.
Bent both observed and participated in the rituals of Pai Mārire and helped in the Hauhau war effort. After the fall of Otapawa in January 1866 he tended the wounded. He noted that Māori successfully treated gunshot and bayonet wounds with the fluid produced by boiling flax roots. He described the 'praying-house and council-hall' at Taiporohēnui – it was about 120 feet long with four pillars supporting the ridgepole, had tōtara timbers, raupō walls and a nīkau roof, and was lined with tukutuku panels.
Bent met other deserters and captives. Humphrey Murphy, also from the 57th, was later executed because he planned to kill a chief who had treated him harshly. John (Jack) Hennessy, a captive from the 57th, eventually recrossed the lines, to be acquitted of the charge of desertion at a court martial. Charles Kane (or King), known to Māori as Kingi, a deserter from the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, was killed after spreading the tale, to prepare for his return to the British, that he and Bent planned to kill the chief and prophet Tītokowaru. Bent heard about another Pākehā, William Moffatt, who manufactured low-grade gunpowder on the upper Whanganui River.
After some time with Tito Te Hanataua, Bent was handed on to Rupe, a Taiporohēnui chief, with whom he was to stay for most of the time from 1866 until 1878 or possibly 1879. He was given Rupe's 15-year-old daughter, Rihi, or Te Hau-raro-i-ua, for a wife, after he had cured Rupe's son of a serious illness. Rihi met with his approval: she was pretty, and decoratively tattooed on her chin, body, hips and thighs. They lived together for nearly three years and had one child, who died; Rihi herself died soon after.
Bent was living with Rupe at the village of Te Paka, near the site of Otapawa, when Tītokowaru arrived in 1867, on a tour to explain his proposed strategy. Tītokowaru was, said Bent, one-eyed from a battle wound and not tattooed; he had a deep, roaring voice when roused, and was often clad in a European suit and hat. Bent joined Tītokowaru at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu in early 1868; he described the Wharekura, or House of Knowledge, there, built of sawn timber, and 70 feet long, in which Tītokowaru conducted the prayers and ceremonies before and after battle. Bent later recalled these ceremonies and the revival of traditional rituals and cannibal practices. Tītokowaru gave Bent the name Tu-nui-a-moa.
Te Ngutu-o-te-manu was the chief stronghold of Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru forces. Bent's military service was limited to cartridge making and the repair of arms. He had a reputation in the 57th as a gunsmith; if his word is to be trusted, he displayed some ingenuity in extracting powder from captured grenades, and finding substitutes from animal tissue for cartridge paper. Bent denied ever being allowed by his captors to bear arms; but he would not have been likely to admit to a combatant role. He claimed that he took no part either in the war parties that left Te Ngutu-o-te-manu in June and July 1868, or in the two defences of the pā against Thomas McDonnell's troops in August and September. During the second engagement at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu Gustavus von Tempsky was killed; Bent was summoned by Tītokowaru to identify the body.
Bent followed Tītokowaru as he moved into the lower PāteaValley and helped to construct Otoia pā there in October 1868. Soon afterwards Tītokowaru moved on to Moturoa, where another pā was built and defended against an attack by troops on 7 November 1868. Tītokowaru continued his advance to the strategic position of Tauranga-ika, where Bent helped build another pā. Tītokowaru's mana faded after he abandoned Tauranga-ika in February 1869; according to Bent because he had lost prestige with the other chiefs after a liaison with the wife of one of them. When the pā was abandoned, Bent took refuge on the upper Waitara River.
Thereafter the record is very scanty for over 30 years. During the war, and for some time afterwards, Bent was reviled as a traitor. He probably avoided contact with Pākehā authorities even after public hostility had given way to curiosity. He continued to live among Māori at Rukumoana, where Rupe's grand-daughter became his wife, and then at Taiporohēnui. There is an isolated report of 1886 that he baked and decorated six large wedding cakes and sixty smaller ones for the opening of a meeting house at Hokorima, on Hastings Road, near Hāwera; the report describes him as a confectioner. As time went on, he had more contact with Pākehā, often journalists seeking a tale of the old times. At some point he moved to the Blenheim district, possibly to join the branch of Ngā Rauru who lived there. He was befriended by the Stafford family of Wairau and worked on their farm. It is said that relatives tried to persuade him to return to Maine, and that he refused to go until he could establish his innocence of the charges made against him. He did, in the end, win some public sympathy through the efforts of James Cowan.
In 1903 Bent was brought to Wellington to be photographed and interviewed. Cowan met him then and pieced together the story of his life from further interviews and letters. Bent usually wrote to Cowan in Māori. In 1911 Cowan published The adventures of Kimble Bent: a story of wild life in the New Zealand bush. From this work the one-time villain, Kimble Bent, emerges as something of a character. Bent had a few years left to him to play out this role. He died at Wairau hospital on 22 May 1916.