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Bentley family papers including letters of Cakobau government and military authorities of Fiji
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Bentley family papers including letters of Cakobau government and military authorities of Fiji

  • AU PMB MS 1429
  • Collection
  • 1873 - 1965

These papers were found in a suitcase in Victoria, Australia in 2013. The suitcase was labelled with the name of Mr Leonard Charles Norman Bentley. After Leonard’s death, his son, Mr Wilfred Waring Bentley, packed up Leonard’s house and transported many of his belongings to Australia, including the suitcase in which these papers were found. The papers were discovered by Elizabeth Howarth (nee Bentley) after the death of her father, Wilfred Waring Bentley. Though the suitcase had Leonard Bentley’s name on it, there were personal items in the suitcase that indicate it had been packed by Wilfred Waring Bentley.

The Bentley family arrived in Fiji in 1867 when Henry Bentley left Australia to join the cotton boom. In 1871, he left agriculture to work in the government of King Cakobau. He held various posts including chief police magistrate, superintendent of police and controller of general labour. After annexation, he served as sub-agent-general of immigration.

Captain Robert Crawford Miller Bentley was one of Henry’s eleven children. He was five years old when the family arrived in Fiji and at age 13 he was articled to barrister and solicitor Mr W. Scott. In 1883, he was appointed associate to the Chief Justice and later as clerk to the Attorney-General, before moving on to acting-registrar of the Supreme Court and curator of intestate estates. His later posts were as sub-collector of customs and post-master at Levuka. He was the commanding officer of D Company of Levuka in a volunteer defence force under the governorship of Sir George O’Brien.

Robert’s son, Leonard Bentley, worked in the commercial sector, first with Burns Philp and later with Pearce and Co. He was also involved in Levuka Town Council, Chamber of Commerce, Levuka Cricket Club and Levuka Regatta Committee. He was also active in the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia and the Holy Trinity Cathedral chapter. He married Margaret Annie Allport Waring who appears in some of the photos in this collection. Margaret was awarded an MBE for her services to the community including her involvement with the Colonial War Memorial Hospital (aka CWM Hospital). Their son, Wilfred Waring Bentley, who brought these papers to Australia, also worked for Pearce and Co.

Many of the papers in this collection appear to be official government correspondence, mostly to or from James Harding during the years 1873-1874. Many of the letters relate to the Ba campaign that was fought throughout 1873, in which Harding played a significant role. There had long been friction around Ba between the Kai Colo of the interior, coastal Fijians and European planters. There was also tension between some of the planters and the Fijian government. A group of rebellious planters, led by Colonel Whyte and J. de Courcy Ireland, were preparing to travel to Levuka with the goal of deposing government, when the Burns family and many of their staff, were murdered by Kai Colo people on the Vunisamaloa plantation. The government responded by sending Fijian troops under the command of Major W.H. Fitzgerald to set up a defensive outpost at the headwater of the River Ba. The settlers were angered by the arrival of this force, believing it incapable of defeating the Kai Colo and putting their own lives and plantations in more danger. They took up arms against Fitzgerald, who was forced to withdraw until he was joined by Captain James Harding, then head of police, with approximately 50 more Fijian troops.

Fitzgerald and Harding lead an attack on the Kai Colo at Na Korowaiwai, killing approximately 170 people. On their return to the coast, there was a skirmish between the armed settlers and Harding’s men. The situation was diffused when White and de Courcy Ireland were detained and the group of armed settlers disbanded. Major Fitzgerald and Major H.C. Thurston then lead a campaign to wipe out the Kai Colo, which came to a head at the village of Na Culi, where many Kai Colo were killed and many were taken prisoner. Having captured Na Culi, the campaign was paused when Harding and H.C. Thurston accused Major Fitzgerald of cowardice and had him court martialed. There are papers relating to the charges against Fitzgerald in this collection.

The letters also describe plantation disputes including land acquisition, evictions and murder, the collection of taxation and other matters. Most letters are between James Harding and government officials G.G. Whalley, G.A. Woods, J.B. Thurston, H.C. Thurston, M.H. Fraser, John Langford, Thomas Mackenzie, and planters such as A. Eastgate, David Hannah, J. de Courcy Ireland and others. There are also a number of letters in Fijian language, including from Josaia Sorowali. There is also a hand drawn map of action near Na Culi on 19 July 1873.

It is unknown how or when these documents came into the Bentley family. Henry Bentley was employed in law enforcement during the years in which much of this correspondence was written but it is unknown if he knew Harding, or if he had contact with these papers in any way. His son Robert Bentley also held government positions, though post-Cession. There are also papers related to the Waring family in this collection, though less is known about this side of the family. There are two letters addressed to Henry T. Waring Esquire, including an offer of the post of government arbitrator in the acquisition of Makogai and Makodraga islands and from the employees of Messrs Henry Cave & Co of Levuka. A Henry Thomas Waring worked as a plantation manager for Colonial Sugar Refining Company on the Rewa River in the Nausori area and was later a customs officer in Levuka.

Also included in these papers is a collection of verses, Government Gazettes, photos of the Waring family, other photographs and Turpin’s Almanac 1873. There are also envelopes addressed to Mrs LC Bentley (Margaret Bentley), hospital Christmas cards from 1955 and a newspaper article on Mr Leonard Charles Bentley.

Bentley Family