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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter II — Kimble BENT, Sailor and Soldier

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Chapter II
Kimble BENT, Sailor and Soldier

Kimble Bent's early life—An Indian mother—Service in the American Navy—Departure for England—“Taking the Shilling”—British Army life—The flight to America—A sinking ship—Rescue, and landing in Glasgow—Back to the Army again —Soldiering in India—The 57th ordered to New Zealand—The Taranaki Campaign—A court-martial—At the triangles.

While the runaway soldier is riding on to the camp of the brown warriors of the bush—a journey which is to be the beginning of a wild and savage life leading him for many a day, like Thoreau's Indian fighter, on dim forest trails “with an uneasy scalp”—there is time to learn something of his previous history and adventures.

Perhaps the impulse that led to his passionate revolt against civilisation and rigid army discipline came from his American Indian blood.

Kimble Bent's mother was a half-caste Red Indian girl, of the Musqua tribe, whose villages stood on the banks of the St. Croix River, State of Maine, U.S.A. Her English name before marriage was Eliza Senter. She became the wife of a ship-builder in the town of Eastport, Maine; his name page 8 was Waterman Bent; he worked at first for Caleb Houston, shipbuilder, but afterwards had a yard of his own. This couple had seven children, two sons and five daughters; one of these sons was Kimble Bent. He was born in Eastport on August 24, 1837.

The roving wayward element in young Kimble Bent's blood soon made itself manifest. When he was about seventeen, he ran away from home and went to sea. He shipped on a United States man-of-war, the training frigate Martin, and spent three years aboard her, cruising along the Atlantic Coast. He quickly became a smart young sailor and gunner, and from the rank of seaman he graduated to deckman, a sort of quartermaster. It was part of his duty during the last year of his service to instruct the boys who came aboard as recruits in the working of the muzzle-loading 6-pounder and 8-pounder guns.

Paid off from his frigate at the end of his three years, Bent returned to his people as unexpectedly as he had left them. But he didn't stay in Eastport long. The prosaic life of the old town was no more to his liking than when first he had run away to follow a sailor's life; so he soon took to the seas again. He gathered together what money he could—a considerable sum, he says, for his father was indulgent—and took ship across the Atlantic, in his head some such unexpressed sentiment as page 9 Robert Louis Stevenson long afterwards put into verse in his “Songs of Travel”:

“The untented Kosmos my abode
I go, a wilful stranger,
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of Danger.”

But no man-of-war life for him. He booked his passage in a barque sailing for Liverpool, resolved to see something of life in the Old World.

When he landed in the big city he “made himself flash,” to use his own expression, and went the pace with a few like-minded young fellows, and one way and another his stock of cash soon vanished, and he found himself stranded, friendless, and alone—his companions of the “flush” times had no more use for him. One day, as he wandered disconsolate along the streets, his eye was taken by the scarlet tunic and lively bearing of a smart recruiting-sergeant, and on the impulse of the moment he took the Queen's shilling and was enlisted in Her Majesty's 57th Regiment of Foot. This was in the year 1859.

The young Eastport sailor soon bitterly regretted the day that his eye was dazzled by the Queen's scarlet. The British Army was less to his taste than life in Uncle Sam's Navy. He was sent to Cork with a draft of two hundred other recruits, and the interminable drill soon gave him an intense disgust for the routine of barrack-yard instruction. page 10 Four months of recruit-drill—then one day Private Bent took a stroll down the Cork wharves and cast his eyes round for a likely craft in which to give the army, drill-sergeants, and all the slip.

A Boston barque, the Maria, happened to be lying at one of the tees, and her skipper, one Captain Cann, Bent, to his joy, found to be an old acquaintance. He unfolded his dejected tale, and the sailor at once offered his assistance in rescuing a fellow-countryman from John Bull's grip. That evening Bent stole away quietly from the barracks, boarded the barque, and was stowed away safely below in the dunnage-hole. He did not show his nose above hatches for two days; the barque by that time had left the harbour on her return voyage to Boston, and the deserter was able to appear on deck, a free man.

But not for long. Bent's misfortunes were only beginning. When about three hundred miles off the land a furious easterly gale began to blow, and the old barkey sprang a leak. Hove-to in the storm, all the crew could do was to stand to the pumps. The huge Atlantic seas came thundering on deck, and more than once washed the men away from the pumps. For six days and six nights they wallowed in the deep, all hands, sailors and passengers, taking turns at the pumps, working for their lives.

All those terrible days of storm and fear the page 11 Maria's hands had nothing to eat but hard biscuits soaked with salt water. There was no place to cook and no means of cooking, for the galley with all its contents had been washed overboard. While the crew laboured at the pumps, the captain tried to cheer them up and put a little life into their weary bodies and despairing hearts by playing lively airs on his concertina and singing sailors' chanteys.

“One day,” says Bent, “a German brig hove in sight and spoke us. Seeing our signal of distress she asked the name of our barque and the number of the crew. We signalled our reply, and she answered that she could not help us, there was too much sea. Then she squared away and left us. All this time we were labouring at the pumps to keep the old barque afloat. Next day another brig, a Boston vessel deep-loaded, from the West Indies, hailed us and stood by, signalling to us to launch our boats. This we did, after hard and dangerous work, and managed to reach the brig's side, where all the sixteen of us were hauled on board safely. About two hours after we left our ship we saw her go down.”

To Bent's intense disappointment he found that the brig that had rescued him was bound for the wrong side of the Atlantic. She landed the shipwrecked mariners at Glasgow. Bent was walking about the streets one day, wondering however he page 12 was going to get a passage home, for he had no money, when he was arrested as a deserter—recognised by the description which had been posted in every barrack-room and every police-station. He was taken to the military barracks, and then sent under guard to Ireland and down to Cork, where he was tried by court-martial, and sentenced to eighty-four days in prison. When he had served his term he was shipped off to India with his regiment, landing at Bombay, and for some time did garrison duty at Poona.

The 57th spent two years in India, only just recovering from the terrible throes of the Mutiny. Then news came of a serious war with a wild native race in a distant country called New Zealand, far away down in the Southern Ocean, and the regiment was ordered to hold itself in readiness to go routemarching to Bombay, thence to sea. Marching orders soon followed, and the headquarters of the regiment sailed for Auckland; the company in which Bent was a private (No. 8 Company) was one of those left behind to look after the women and children of the regiment. Orders for them also quickly came, and they took the road for Bombay.

The journey from Poona to Bombay took four days, or rather nights, for all the marching was done by night. Part of the way was through a dense jungle in which man-eating tigers swarmed. The troops marched through this jungle by torch- page 13 light, winding along a narrow track through the densely-matted vegetation. The growling of the tigers was heard all round at night, but the blazing torches kept them away.

Embarked in a troopship at Bombay, Bent and his fellow-soldiers sailed not unwillingly for a land spoken of by report as a country which, though wild and new, was a pleasanter place to live in than scorching sun-baked India.

After a voyage of eighty-nine days, the troopship anchored in Auckland Harbour, and her soldiers spent their first week on New Zealand soil in the old Albert Barracks, where the bright flower-gardens and tree-groves of a beautiful park now crown the hill that in those troubled days was girt with a massive crenellated wall, and was alive with all the martial turmoil of campaigning-time. Then the new arrivals were sent down to Taranaki by sea to join the headquarters of the 57th, and went into new barrack life on Marsland Hill, New Plymouth.

Kimble Bent's longing for a free independent life became stronger than ever in this new country. He would gladly have exchanged camp-life for even the perilous occupation of a frontier settler, so that he were free. The parade ground was a purgatory, and the restraint of discipline and the ramrod-and-pipeclay system of soldiering were irksome beyond words. He was sick to death of page 14 being ordered about by sergeants and corporals. Fighting would have been a relief, but there was none yet. He endeavoured to get his discharge from the regiment, but without success; and his impatience of discipline led him into various more or less serious conflicts with the regimental authorities.

. . . . .

So opened Kimble Bent's life in the new land, the land in which he was to roam the forests an outlaw for more than a decade.

In those war-days of 1860–70 dense forests covered the wide plains of this Taranaki province, where now most of the dark old woods have been hewn away, and have given place to the pastures and homesteads of dairy farmers. It was a wild but beautiful land. The coast curved out and round in a great sweeping semicircle from Waitara in the north to Wanganui in the south; the intervening region of forest, hill, and plain was the theatre of war. High and central, Taranaki's great mountain-cone, which the pakeha calls Egmont, swelled to a height of over 8,000 feet, its base hidden in the forests, its snowy peak glittering far above the broad soft swathes of clouds, the sailor's landmark a hundred miles out at sea. Remote from all other high mountains it soared aloft—“lonely as God and white as a winter morn,” as Joaquin Miller wrote of his beloved Mount Shasta. page 15 On all sides Taranaki—the holy mountain of the Maoris—sloped evenly and gently to the plains, and from its recesses sprang the head waters of many a beautiful river. The mountain, huge yet exquisitely symmetrical, was revered by the old-school Taranaki Maori as the mighty symbol of his nationality, and regarded as being in some mystic fashion the source of his tribal mana.
Mount Egmont, Taranaki.

Mount Egmont, Taranaki.

Under the shadow of Taranaki began the Ten Years' War; here the Hauhau fanaticism took its mad rise in 1864. From Taranaki's foot set out the Hauhau apostles, preaching a strange jumble of Scriptural expressions and pagan Maori concepts, promising their converts that no pakeha bullet should harm them if they but repeated their magic incantations; and brandishing before the ranks of their devotees the dried and smoked heads of page 16 slain white soldiers. The relapse into barbarism was more marked in Taranaki than anywhere else, and even to this day the hatred of the white man lingers there, amongst the remnants of the old Hauhau stock. Te Whiti, the Prophet of Parihaka, until his death in 1907, held his court under the shadow of lofty Taranaki, and preached his old mysticism fortified by the towering presence of his mountain-god, cold and immutable, and all unmindful of the pakeha's march through the plains below.

. . . . .

In March, 1864, the 57th were ordered from New Plymouth to Manawapou (not far from the present town of Hawera), near the Tangahoé River. The fanatic Hauhau faith had just been born amongst the Maoris, whose palisaded pas dotted the outskirts of the great forests on the farther side of the Tangahoé, and whose war-songs could sometimes be heard from the white soldiers' camp. At Manawapou the regiment went under canvas, and now began the regular round of sentry-go and outpost duty, and all the preparations for an advance on the rebel positions.

Meantime there was fighting in the northern and western parts of the Taranaki province, between the 57th camp and New Plymouth. There was the disastrous affair at Te Ahuahu, where Captain Lloyd and several soldiers were killed; their heads page 17 were cut off and smoke-dried by the Hauhau savages, and were carried away to distant tribes by Kereopa, Patara, and other rebel emissaries, the Hauhau recruiting officers. Another momentous affair which happened soon after the 57th took post at Manawapou was the desperate assault on the British redoubt at Sentry Hill (Te Morere). A large
A Taranaki Frontier Fort.Sketch by Mr. S. Percy Smith, 1865.)

A Taranaki Frontier Fort.
Sketch by Mr. S. Percy Smith, 1865.)

force of Hauhau warriors, deluded by their prophet Hepanaia into believing that his incantations rendered them invulnerable to the white man's bullets, rushed against the redoubt in open daylight one morning, but were beaten off, leaving some fifty of their number lying dead in front of the fort. It was in this engagement that Titokowaru—who was afterwards Kimble Bent's chief page 18 and master—lost one of his eyes through a bullet wound.

. . . . .

Kimble Bent's final revolt against constituted authority came one wet, cold day in the Manawapou camp in April 1864. It was pouring with rain, but a corporal, one who took a vindictive sort of pleasure in asserting his authority over those privates whom he happened to dislike, ordered Bent to go out and cut some firewood in the bush. Irritated by the manner in which the order was given, the young “Down-Easter” was foolish enough to argue with his enemy the corporal.

“Look here,” he said, “this is no day to send a man out cutting wood. The officers can stay in their tents laughing at us fellows out in the rain. We're treated like a set of blessed dogs.”

“Oh, you won't go, won't you?” sneered the corporal, rejoicing at having irritated the soldier into insubordination.

“No, I won't go,” said Bent defiantly; “so you can do what you like about it.”

The corporal reported Bent to his immediate superiors, and the soldier was arrested and lodged in the guard-tent. Next morning he was brought before a court-martial and tried for disobedience of orders. Major Haszard was the president of the court. With him sat Captain Clark, Lieutenant page 19 Brown, and Ensign Parker. Bent knew it was useless to attempt a defence, for his offence was an inexcusable breach of discipline. He was found guilty, and the sentence of the court was that he should receive fifty lashes, and serve two years in gaol.

The triangles were then a familiar institution in every military camp in the Waikato and in Taranaki; for those were flogging days, when even slight breaches of military rules brought down the lash upon the soldier's back.

One of the regimental surgeons, Dr. Andrews, examined Bent, as was the practice before flogging was inflicted, and he reported that in his opinion the young soldier was not constitutionally fit to endure the fifty lashes ordered.

Soon after Bent had been taken to his tent under guard, one of the officers of the court-martial came in to see him. This was Captain Clark, a fine jovial young Canadian-born soldier, who had rather a liking for the unfortunate man from his end of the world.

“Cheer up, Bent,” he said; “you'll only get twenty-five—the sentence is reduced. And put that in your mouth when you go to the triangles,” and he threw down a sixpence. Then, when the guard-tent corporal was not looking, the kindly officer took a flask of rum from his breast-pocket, laid it on the tent floor, and walked away to his quarters.

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When Bent was called out for punishment, he quickly drank off the rum, and put the sixpence in his mouth. He knew the old soldier's recipe for a “stiff upper lip” in the agony of flogging—“bite on the bullet.” The sixpence would serve him as well. It would keep his teeth from biting through his tongue in the throes of that horrible punishment.

A bugle sounded the “Fall in.” No. 8 Company was paraded in review order on the drill ground to “witness punishment.” Bent was marched down to the square; he was stripped to the waist and tied to the triangles. The big drummer of the Company stepped to the front; he was the flagellant. Bent bit on his substitute for a bullet as the cat swished through the air and fell like a redhot knife on his quivering back. Again and again came the frightful cuts, criss-cross upon his back and shoulders, till the tale of twenty-five was complete. Then the prisoner was cast loose, swearing in his pain and passion to have the drummer's life. A blanket was thrown across his raw and bleeding shoulders, and he was inarched back to the guard-tent, where the surgeon prescribed for him in rough-and-ready fashion; then to prison—he refused to go into the camp hospital.

Bent served some months in Wellington Prison, doing cook-house work, in expiation of his offence page 21 against military discipline. Then he was sent back to his hated regiment. The shame of that morning at the triangles, with his comrades paraded to witness his disgrace and agony, was burned into him for ever. He grew morose and desperate. At last he resolved to desert to the enemy. He confided his resolve to his tent-mates, and they, knowing that other soldiers had deserted to the Maoris and had not been killed, did not attempt to dissuade him. “I can't be worse off with the Maoris than I am here,” he told them; “if they do tomahawk me, it will end all my troubles. I don't very much care.”

So he bided his time for a favourable opportunity to steal from the camp; and soon his chance came. It was on June 12, 1865, that he broke camp and fell in with the Hauhau scout on the banks of the Tangahoé.