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Robin John’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 11 Oct 2011

Location: Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Map'The Adventures of Kimble Bent', life with the Maori tribes.
I have been waiting to find an opportunity to tell the story of Kimble Bent. When I visited the Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki (see diary entry for 26 Sept), a series of displays told the story of Kimble Bent. He was a soldier in the British Army serving in New Zealand around 1860 who had deserted and joined a local Maori tribe. His account of his life with the Maoris was given many years later in a series of interviews with the author James Cowan, who published his story in 1911 in the book 'The Adventures of Kimble Bent'. I was sufficiently intrigued by the account in the museum to want to find a copy of the book and was able to track down a reprint of the book in a second-hand bookshop in New Plymouth.
This time was a defining period in the history of the country, known as the 'Land Wars'. These were a series of battles between the Maoris who were the original inhabitants, and considered the land as belonging to their communities (tribes), and the incoming European settlers who wanted to establish farms on the land. There was an important treaty signed between the British Government and many Maori tribes in 1840 (Treaty of Waitangi). The treaty related to, amongst other things, ownership of many thousands of acres of land. The treaty was written and signed in English and an imperfect translation was produced in the Maori language, based on which the Maori tribes believed they still had traditional rights to the land. This led to continual conflicts between the tribes and incoming settlers. Britain was supporting the settlers and stationed large numbers of troops in the country to protect them. Kimble Bent was one of these soldiers.
Although originally born in the USA, of a white father and American Indian mother, in search of adventure he had found his way to Britain and, running out of money, had been obliged to enlist in the army and was eventually posted to New Zealand. He was always a bit of a rebel and a free spirit and was constantly falling foul of the strict army discipline. He finally decided that he wanted out of the army and absconded from his camp in the Taranaki bush in 1863, with the intention of joining a local Maori tribe. After some time wandering in the bush and evading capture by the search parties from the camp, he was captured by a Maori scout and taken into the Maori camp as a prisoner. The tribe were suspicious of him and they were ready to kill him as a spy, but he persuaded them that he wanted nothing more to do with the army and instead wanted to live with the Maoris. From then on, he lived rough with the Maori tribe, essentially being treated as a slave, having to do many arduous jobs and always in fear of his life. The Maoris of that time were very warlike, constantly getting into battles with the army, both attacking the army camps and having to defend their own, heavily fortified camps (called 'pa') against army attacks. Effectively, Kimble Bent 'went native' and for many years had no contact again with anyone from his previous life. He lived like a Maori and learned the Maori language. He married twice, firstly to a Maori woman, under duress and threat of death from a tribal elder as she was 'ugly' and had only one eye! Later he was given a young Maori girl as a wife, as a token of gratitude for having saved the life of the son of a tribal chief. They had one child, but both child and mother died shortly afterwards.
The Maori never let Kimble participate in their many battles, in case he was tempted to re-join his former comrades. But he performed an important job of making cartridges for the Maori guns. He witnessed many battles at first hand, frequently having to escape from a forest camp/pa that was in danger of being overrun by the army. He also witnessed some of the Maori warriors taking up again one of their traditional practices - cannibalism. Roasting and eating an enemy killed in battle was considered to be a way of gaining status and some sort of spiritual control over the enemy. Many of the Maoris in the tribe however refused to join in with this practice; it was confined to a small number of the more hot-headed and bloodthirsty warriors.
Kimble Bent continued to live with the Maoris for more than 40 years, long after the wars had ended. He was able to give his unique account of this period of NZ history from the Maori side, when all other accounts of the Land Wars were being written from a British and colonial perspective, as related by participants from this side. All-in-all, I found it a fascinating story.