Charles Moihi Te Arawaka Bennett was born at Rotorua on 27 July 1913, one of 19 children of Frederick Augustus Bennett of Ngāti Whakaue of Te Arawa, and his second wife, Arihia Ngārangioue (Rangioue) Hēmana (or Pōkiha). Frederick Bennett, an Anglican minister, then superintendent of the Māori Mission at Rotorua, was later the first Anglican Māori bishop of Aotearoa. Arihia Hēmana was the daughter of Hēmana Pōkiha, and a direct descendant of Mokonuiārangi, an important Te Arawa chief in the early nineteenth century, and of Te Pōkiha Taranui (Major Fox), a leading pro-government chief of Ngāti Pikiao in the New Zealand wars.
At six months of age Charles was given to his grandparents at Maketū to raise, and remained with them until he was 13. His first language was Māori. He received his primary education at Maketū School, then rejoined his parents at Kohupātiki, where his father was stationed. Charles won a scholarship to Te Aute College, where he was a distinguished student, head prefect and footballer. He then attended Canterbury University College, completing his BA in 1936 while training as a teacher at the Christchurch Teachers’ Training College. That year he was also a South Island Māori rugby representative. He began teaching at Mangateretere primary school the following year, but in 1938 was recruited as an announcer for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service. He presented his grandparents with their first radio so that they could hear him; his grandmother would often chat back to him when she heard his broadcast voice.
Charles Bennett enlisted as a private at the outbreak of war in 1939 and was soon transferred to the newly formed 28th (Māori) Battalion. He trained as an officer at Trentham Military Camp, embarking overseas in May 1940 as a second lieutenant in B Company. He fought in Greece and Crete as a member of Lieutenant Colonel George Dittmer’s staff; in Greece, by now a lieutenant, he led an intelligence unit responsible for reconnaissance. He was often required to issue instructions for battalion movements by radio, spoken in Māori to prevent their interception by the enemy. By November 1941 Bennett had been promoted to captain and was the battalion’s quarter-master.
Appreciated for his cool head in times of crisis, by October 1942 Bennett was commanding B Company as a major. Early in November, in fighting near Tel el Aqqakir, his two superiors were wounded and Bennett took charge of the Māori Battalion. His command was later confirmed and he was promoted lieutenant colonel; he was then the youngest battalion commander in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
In March 1943 at Tebaga Gap, Tunisia, Bennett preceded his attack on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s lines by sending Captain Arapeta Awatere and C Company, including Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngārimu, to take and hold the adjacent point known to the Māori Battalion as Hikurangi. The following day a hill called Point 209 was taken and 231 Germans were captured. For this action Bennett received the DSO, and he wrote the citation that led to the award of a posthumous VC to Ngārimu.
In April he was given responsibility for capturing Takrouna and Djebel Berda. During this campaign Lance Sergeant Haane Manahi distinguished himself by capturing and holding the Takrouna pinnacle, beating back two counter attacks. For this he received the DCM. However, Bennett stepped over a trip wire on to a wooden box mine and was severely wounded. Invalided home, he spent nearly three years in hospital recovering; his leg injuries were to leave him lame, walking with the aid of a stick and surgical boots for the rest of his life.
After his recovery Charles Bennett worked under Major General Howard Kippenberger on the draft of the Māori Battalion’s history with the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. Remaining at Internal Affairs, in June 1947 he was gazetted as an interpreter. On 10 October, in Wellington, Bennett married Elizabeth May Richardson (née Steward). Elizabeth had two children from her first marriage, but had none with Charles.
In 1949 Bennett was appointed assistant controller of Māori Welfare in the Department of Māori Affairs, and was responsible for an overhaul of the policy of the Māori Welfare Division. He was a member of the Prisons Board (1947–51), and served on the National Council of Adult Education (1947–53). In 1952 he completed a diploma in education, and also studied ways in which the School of Social Science at Victoria University College could help to train Māori welfare officers. In 1955 he completed an MA in history; his thesis was entitled ‘An account of the Māori Battalion’s contribution to the capture of the Mareth line’. That year he returned briefly to El Alamein, Egypt, as the Māori Battalion’s representative at the unveiling of the Alamein memorial. In 1955 he took part in crucial Māori education conferences, which would lead to the establishment in 1961 of the Māori Education Foundation.
In 1956 Bennett was appointed controller of the Māori Welfare Division, but shortly after this appointment he was granted two years’ leave of absence from the Department of Māori Affairs to further his academic career. He had won a scholarship from the Ngārimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund, and attended Oxford University in England to read for a doctorate on the problems of cultural adjustment of the Māori people. This thesis was not completed. Instead, in September 1958 he accepted an invitation from the prime minister, Walter Nash, to become New Zealand high commissioner to the Federation of Malaya (later Malaysia). He took up his position the following January.
Bennett was the first Māori to be appointed a head of mission and New Zealand high commissioner, and initially the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Alister McIntosh, doubted the wisdom of the cabinet-made appointment, calling it ‘extraordinary’; he considered that Asians were far more racist than New Zealanders and would be insulted. However, the only incidence of discrimination to embarrass Bennett was when the Malayan press reported that one of his brothers had been refused a drink in a New Zealand hotel. Charles Bennett was an unqualified success as a diplomat. He was a fine speaker in English as well as Māori, was quiet and courteous, and his time as a battalion commander had transformed him from a reticent young man into a statesman whose presence filled any room he entered. Contemporary Malay officials recognised their distant linguistic kinship with Polynesians, and he was also a popular figure in Kuala Lumpur; he established a strong friendship with the Malayan prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, a golfing companion with whom he also played the occasional weekend game of poker. Bennett was made the recipient of political confidences, and treated almost as the tunku’s younger brother. The Malayan government was anxious that he be reappointed for further terms, but the New Zealand government did not agree.
On his return to New Zealand in May 1963, Bennett took up the position of assistant secretary for Māori Affairs. He had applied for the position of under-secretary, but Jack Hunn had been appointed. Although working in Wellington, he established his family in a pleasant house suitable for formal entertaining in Waikanae, continuing a diplomatic lifestyle with receptions and cocktail parties for present and former colleagues. He maintained his contacts in Malaysia, especially with Rahman and his family, and a flow of gifts and cards continued between Malaysia and Waikanae each year.
Charles Bennett retired from the public service early in 1969. He moved from Waikanae to Rotorua that year to contest the Rotorua seat as a New Zealand Labour Party candidate. While increasing support for Labour in the seat he was defeated. He was president of the Labour Party from 1972 to 1976. In 1973–74 he served on the Rotorua High Schools’ Board, and from 1974 to 1976 on the Parole Board. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Canterbury in 1973 and was knighted in 1975.
Bennett moved to Maketū and then Te Puke, until settling in a retirement village at Mount Maunganui, but his long lifetime of service was not over yet. In 1978, with other prominent members of Ngāti Pikiao, he laid a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, asking for the prohibition of the scheme for a pipeline to carry the whole of the treated effluent from Rotorua city’s sewerage system into the Kaituna River. Bennett and Ngāti Pikiao objected to this use of the river – the upper reaches of which flowed through their territory – on medical, social and, more importantly, spiritual and cultural grounds. This claim was to occupy Bennett’s time for years and he appeared to give evidence. The Waitangi Tribunal found in favour of his claim in 1984 in a ruling that set a significant precedent for future cases involving Māori rights over rivers, and indigenous fishing rights. From 1993 Bennett headed the committee that worked without success to upgrade Manahi’s DCM to a VC; he believed that the only obstacle was the military authorities’ unwillingness to permit two Māori VCs. In 1995 he and other Māori leaders initiated a new national Māori organisation, which became known as the Māori Congress.
Charles Bennett had carried on the tradition of valuable public service and inspiring leadership established by his father and practised by many of his family. His brothers included Manuhuia, bishop of Aotearoa; John, knighted for work associated with Māori education and the kohanga reo movement; and Henry, a psychiatrist. Charles died in Tauranga on 26 November 1998, survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and her two children, whom he had regarded as his own. During the tangihanga at Tamatekapua, Ōhinemutu, attended by Māori and Pākehā national leaders, the New Zealand Defence Forces announced that their emblem was to be changed in his honour from two swords crossed to a sword crossed with a taiaha. Charles Bennett was buried at Kauae cemetery, Ngongotahā.