Scoop Review of Books

Biography of a Purse-Mouthed Parson

Samuel Marsden – Altar Ego, by Richard Quinn
Dunmore Press, 2008, $35. Reviewed by MARK DERBY (PLUS: An alternative review by BOB MALLOY)

1877399353.jpgI was predisposed to like this book. I enjoy a good old historical hatchet job, one which chops at the pedestal of a figure of probity and renown to reveal the clay feet and bad breath which earlier biographers have overlooked or discreetly sanitised. And Samuel Marsden is a prime candidate for forensic literary comeuppance. The plump, purse-mouthed parson has had it far too easy at the hands of historians in this country, where he is practically revered. In Australia, by contrast, he is widely reviled even though, as Richard Quinn notes here, Marsden shuttled across the Tasman for much of his career and did not appear to change his spots as he did so. So which Marsden is the more real – the stern yet saintly soul-saver who has a posh girl’s school named after him in Wellington, or the vindictive flogger who became a watchword for High Church hypocrisy in Port Jackson? I opened this book eager to find out.

Its dedication reveals that the author’s antecedents, like mine, lie in Ireland – a promising qualification. Marsden’s hatred of Irish Catholics was as virulent as Ian Paisley’s, and he faced far less opposition to his bitter bigotry. The author also acknowledges, with refreshing candour, that he has had no secondary, let alone tertiary education. This makes his assault on the reputation of a weighty historical figure seem bold but not necessarily unwise. New Zealand academic circles are notably constricted and interlocking, and a writer who stands outside them may supply a perspective which is more valuable for its unconventionality.

I soon found, however, that this book’s many stylistic oddities contribute little or nothing to its appeal. The author’s weakness for puns begins with the title, carries on to the chapter headings (“Court red-handed”, “Let us prey”) and abounds in the text (Marsden “suffered from demonstrable Mass hysteria. He preferred cat licks to Catholics.”). The jocular, bantering effect created by all this word-play contrasts uneasily with the book’s disturbing subject matter and its ambitiously revisionist intention. Quinn also appears to have been poorly served by his editor and publisher. Quotations from other works are both exceptionally frequent and liberally peppered with ellipses, the little sets of three dots indicating that something has been left out of the original. When those ellipses appear at least three times in a sentence, and more than a dozen times in a single brief quote, the reader tends to wonder whether the source document has been used with integrity. Further, the text swarms with typos, including one in the very first line, the caption to the book’s only illustration.

Throughout this book the author refers to his protagonist simply by his initials, a curious and disconcerting device in an historical work, and one which makes Marsden a cipher rather than a man. This initial impression of a distancing, even a dehumanising, of his subject is greatly reinforced by Quinn’s selection of material. The first 30 years of Marsden’s life, including an impoverished Yorkshire upbringing, education at Cambridge, marriage, a child and a posting to Australia, are disposed of in less than two pages. Thereafter the reader acquires no further information which might help to bring the contumacious cleric into focus as a person.

Instead Marsden looms as a villainous force, a blast of wickedness. Quinn piles up the charges against him – of sadism, religious prejudice, gunrunning, flagrant dishonesty and administrative incompetence, to name but a few – like a prosecuting counsel aiming for a maximum sentence but losing the attention of the jury. One chapter opens with the unappetising sentence, “In 1821 SM refused to repay Butler monies advanced to John King for timber SM bought from King, Hall and Kendall in 1819”. The research required to amass this amount of incriminating evidence is impressive, the handling of it rather less so.

In particular, the author repeatedly fails to set the historical scene for the manifold monstrosities he catalogues. In Sydney, we are told, Marsden abused his position as a ‘turnpike judge’, but that term or its significance are never explained and the impact of Quinn’s accusations is thereby much diminished. We are, however, treated to a baffling disquisition on the points of difference between Australian bushrangers and American gunfighters, which adds nothing whatever to the author’s thesis.

Quinn relies heavily on published sources for his arguments but makes little attempt to rate their reliability or quality. If they damn his subject, they are quoted, often at length. If they praise or defend Marsden, they are invariably “hagiographic”. A more measured approach would have better convinced this reader. I admire the vigour of the author’s attempt at a gloves-off hammering of this slippery historical figure, and applaud his choice of target, but his blows are too wild and furious to deliver the knockout he intends.


Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and researcher. He is editing a history of New Zealand’s response to the Spanish Civil War, to be published later in 2008 by Canterbury University Press.



Chris Laidlaw Radio New Zealand Interview

A Second Opinion…

Deconstructing Marsden
A review by Bob Molloy for the Bay Chronicle, Kerikeri.

Samuel Marsden, founder of the first mission stations at Rangihoua and Kerikeri, friend of Maori, Apostle to New Zealand, tireless worker in the vineyard of the Lord and sainted enough to have the Anglicans plan a $12.5m visitor complex at Rangihoua to honour his good works.

What better way to ensure each generation remembers such a hallowed heritage than by a permanent memorial at the place where it all began, the place where missionary met Maori to spread love, literacy and the light of civilization?

If that was the question the answer – according to author Richard Quinn – would be: “Yeah, right”

Unfortunately for Marsden, Quinn doesn’t stop there. From his opening chapter he launches a series of broadsides at the man and his times that sinks the ship of memory on its launch pad.

They start on the first page and continue without break for some 170 pages of a well researched, fully referenced, closely indexed, tightly written and – if you accept Quinn’s premiss – long overdue exposure of a psychopathic hypocrite.

The Saint of Kerikeri, well before he ever stepped on these shores, was known among the Australian convict settlement at Sydney as the flogging parson. In an age of flogging Marsden was notorious for his excesses, once giving a 20-year-old Irish convict 300 lashes – for suspicion of conspiracy. When the unfortunate lad’s back was in shreds he ordered the lashing to move to the buttocks, when these were a bloody mess he ordered the lash to the legs. Little wonder he was twice removed from the Bench for dodgy work.

This paragon of virtue was also busy elsewhere, says Quinn, ramping up building costs and creaming off his share in the construction of convict accommodation – particularly the hated female factory. He then topped this up by selling marriage certificates at three guineas each to anyone who wanted to take a woman convict out of the factory (the assumption is that she didn’t have much choice).

He went on to set himself up as a lover of Maori – having made clear his hatred of Aborigines – and established the first mission to Rangihoua, operating this at a profit by using the missionary society’s ship, the Active, to deal arms on the side. Profit later boomed at Kerikeri where Quinn estimates that more than 1,200 muskets eventually reached Hongi Hika, resulting in the deaths of 20,000 Maori and cultural disruption which continues to this day.

Probing further, Quinn goes on to detail other Marsden sidelines including use of convicts as slave labour, suspect land deals, perjury to remove one of Sydney’s early governors who was on to Marsden’s dirty deals, and eternal scheming to manipulate the missionaries to his bidding; a full life’s work indeed.

This very busy clergyman profited immensely by it all, dying a billionaire in today’s terms and leaving a legacy of selfless toil that – we are told – may one day blossom in a memorial at Rangihoua to the tune of several million dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Laced with caustic black humour, punchy puns and plenty of detail Quinn’s book effectively shreds this view. A must read, particularly for Marsden supporters who will find much to wince at but more to ponder. Altar Ego – even the title is a biting pun.

And a third opinion…

Aussie Review


  1. Richard Quinn, 12. April 2009, 18:53

    Only Professor Richard Faull, who will be getting my brain and spine (both in mint condition), when I shuffle off. For his ongoing research into Parkinson’s Disease, which I don’t have.

    Kiwis need to be better at donating organs for transplant and research.

    Good luck with your search, Fiona.

  2. Keri Hulme, 25. April 2009, 20:34

    Richard quinn, afrer reading through all your extraordinary posts – and marvelling at Jeremy Rose’s paitience, tolerance. & lovely courtesy- what on earth do you think you’re trying to achieve? Is it the morphine?
    Playing at being other posters just doesnt work. Most readers can pick up a writer’s quirks *very* quickly, and find this kind of self-congratulatory posturing – squee. Sicko.
    I am interested in Samuel Marsden – because I think he was an early Victorian sociopath – but you’ve really put me off reading your book.

    I would, however, totally agree with your comment “Kiwis need to be better at donating organs for transplant and research.”


  3. Richard Quinn, 26. April 2009, 21:14


    What was I trying to achieve, you ask. Answer: To try and stay in touch with a world increasingly difficult to be part of because of pain.

    Never played at ‘being other posters’ and don’t know what you mean. Used my own name.

    Self-congratulatory posturing? What a shallow, uninsightful analysis! I find it tremendously difficult to keep my nose to the grindstone, from sheer fatigue. It is so overwhelming as to be impossible to describe. By posting what I was trying to do and where I was at, I was setting myself a public challenge, in the hope that it it might help me achieve the goal. Silly? Maybe – but you have to try what you think might work.

    I also took the chance to reply to Fiona’s query above as an opportunity to spread the word about the need for organ and research donors.

    If you can give me the title of the right book to read on how to try and do what I’m trying to do, but differently, in the context of terminal illness and constant severe pain, I’ll read it from cover to cover : promise. Maybe you could write it.

    Otherwise, ‘sicko’ or not, I just have to keep trying to do things that I feel might help. I might be wrong, but I AM trying. You tell me how it should be done, okay? Me, I’m just learning.

  4. Richard Quinn, 26. April 2009, 21:45


    I recently thanked you for your kindness to me; it was not something I was either unaware of or ungrateful for. Ever. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Scoop book reviews, ‘etc’ and found it a brilliant way of keeping in touch with another world. I don’t get out much, as I just get too bloody tired to be bothered – or able.

    In my own way, I’ve tried to contribute, and wasn’t aware that for some reason I would be taken for some kind of monstrous imposter for doing so. I never meant to be one, for sure. My last two posts (pre my reply to KH) were both about Anzac Day; but possibly different aspects of it than are usually to the fore at this time of the year. The themes were alienation, loss and private grief. If they didn’t stand on their own merits, I’m frankly buggered as to why you posted them. There was no special pleading from me to you, as you well know.

    So yes, you have been kind: and again, my thanks for that. I tried to respond to your kindness by making genuine contributions that might hopefully have some merit., for whatever reason

    Thank you, Jeremy.

  5. Richard Quinn, 27. April 2009, 16:38


    I only ever spoke positively about tbp (see my post 26 Feb).

    You made your comments some time since I last wrote about Marsden. Why waiti until I’m writing about other things to kick me in the balls?

    If my comments about loving writing, etc, are ‘self-congratulatory posturing,’ what are comments about how many copies tbp has sold ?

    Likewise for how many languages it has been published in?

    Marsden wasn’t an early Victorian sociopath: he was dead and buried before Victoria was crowned. Get your facts straight.

    You have not not read Altar Ego, but have very strong views on Marsden’s psyche. As no other writer EVER did the depth of work I did on SM, could you give me your reading list you used to reach that view? I’d love to see it. Otherwise, your opinion is just that of another uninformed person big-noting on a subject they really know nothing about at all. That’s a bit sad, eh?

    Re me being a ‘sicko’ as you so delicately put it. Any online dictionary will tell you that a sicko is a mentally il person. That’s what it means. What gives you the right to first diagnose me as mentally ill, then mock me for it?


    Your comment about not reading my book, yet having the gall to comment on it reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quip: “I never read a book before reviewing it. It prejudices one so.”

    Haven’t you got anything better to do with your time than pick on someone as little and as unimportant as me? Try macrame, maybe.

  6. Keri Hulme, 27. April 2009, 18:46

    I can respond to the organ transplant part, Richard (and truly empathise with the pain & necessary morphine intake associated with cancer – one of my younger sisters died of widespread cancer in 2007: I certainly do not wish, in any way, to belittle or trash what you’ve already achieved – your book is out there eh?)

    Organ transplants: one of my family is alive, and mainly thriving, because of a donor organ from another of my family. We ‘re of part Maori-ancestry, and the number of Maori who donate organs is even more dismayingly low than the figures for the population at large. I have spoken about this at several of my tribe’s hui, in a low-key way.
    Dead – as in your most honourable donation apropos Parkinson’s- or alive, we need more donors…

    Right book to read? I know of none. I am very much a book person, but when things get very sad, bad, physically tough, I know I go listen – music, birds, sea,rain, wind, longdead voices. And I light fires, and walk beaches, when I can. Kia ora mai na.

  7. Richard Quinn, 27. April 2009, 21:11


    You are right about Maori: their record is even worse than Pakeha – which is abysmal anyway. I can no longer be a donor because of cancer (except maybe my corneas), but I am going to be used for research. Last chance to be useful. I’m grateful for that.

    I hate cancer and what it does to people. I’ve spoken to men’s groups – been photographed with Buck Shelford for a newspaper, even! – and take every chance I get – like now – to spread the word: guys, have a PSA (prostate screening antigen) test. IT MIGHT JUST SAVE YOUR LIFE, EH? Am also in an international drug trial which might help blokes ‘down the line.’ There were a thousand of us round the world at the outset, but we are a rapidly shrinking band of brothers now. I try and help other people who are sick. People need to know this: Sometimes, the ‘it always happens to someone else’ effect is bound to hit YOU OR YOUR FAMILY; as you know, Keri.

    There are no real ‘self-help books. We’re all too different. And all the real experts are dead. But – and we all respond in different ways to this need – you have to try and do the best you can. I’m not even sure why this is, but it’s very real. Do your best; keep on going; front the demons and fight. Not fight the cancer as much as fight your own fears.

    Ah, sheesh: I know so bloody little. But I do keep on trying.

    And Keri, if you ever ache in every bone of your body, and want music, try a Godfearing atheist’s choice: Luciano Pavarotti and Ave Maria. How ironic is that? But it helps.

    And guys: a PSA test only requires a tiny blood sample from your arm. So bloody easy: and so important.

    Kia ora to you, too.

  8. Richard Quinn, 28. April 2009, 3:47

    As for me, I shall go back to my macrame knitting too, for I can hear the hollow sound of a tumbril approaching. I have a book to finish.

    Think what you will of me. I am simply doing my best.

    Yours, with a sickly (sicko?) smile …

  9. Keri Hulme, 28. April 2009, 19:24

    Richard quinn* – I’m an atheist fullstop. I do ache in quite a lot of bones (I have osteoarthritis) but hey, music is an intensely personal choice & I tend to go for everything from Mozart to bits of Schubert to Richard Nunns & Hirini Melboune to Fatcat & Fishface. Life goes on – until it stops. Kia ora tatou-

    *it is a quirk of this particular keyboard that it will not produce capital qqq

  10. Farrell, 12. May 2009, 23:06

    Salutations Richard Quinn for your passionately eloquent book on Marsden.

    The CMS have had an easy ride in New Zealand… so many of the books about the missionaries have been by family members and, as you point out, the professional historians, like Binney, have worn kid gloves when dealing with missionary involvement in the musket trade. I came across a book about the English missionaries in Tahiti (written by an American–sorry, I’ve forgotten both title and author) which did for them what you now do for Marsden. At the time I lamented the lack of a similar work on the activities of the missionaries in NZ. And now you have given us one.
    Nga mihi ki a koe!

    I was particularly impressed by the evidence you point to indicating the depth of the CMS involvement in the supply of muskets, and in particular for the pointer that Hongi Hika actually brought his muskets from England, and did not get them in Sydney as historians usually accept. The suggestion that it was actually De Thierry who supplied him with guns is made but not really nailed. Do you think Hongi may have got most of the guns from De Thierry?

    No wonder Marsden and his underlings made no converts. Their creed clearly had little to do with the Beatitudes. I was reminded of the waiata published in the Penguin Book of NZ Verse (1985):

    E, it te tekau maa whaa ka uu te whakapono ei
    Ki runga o Ooihi, ki te iwi Maaori ei!
    (In 1814 the faith landed at Oihi, reached the Maori people)
    Ka tuu Te Maatenga, ko te kupu teenei ei.
    (Marsden stood there, and this is what he said: )
    ‘Kei te rangi te Atau, me titiro whakarunga ei’
    (“God is in the sky; you should look up.”)
    Ka huri te Maaori, ka titiro whakararo ei
    Ki te papa oneone i Aotearoa ei,
    Ka taiapatia mai ki te paaraharaha ei,
    Ki te paatiti ki te paraikete whero ei,
    Ki te rooria rino naau, e Kaawana!
    (The Maori turned; they looked down at the ground of Aotearoa,
    fenced off with ropes, with axes, with red blankets,
    and with your Jew’s harps, Governor!)
    Kua riro te whenua, e tere ra i te moana ei!
    (The land has been taken; it is drifting out there on the ocean!)

    [My translation.]

    We have all known that missionaries and guns were essential components of European imperialism. You have shown us just how intertwined those two factors were in the colonisation of Aotearoa.

    You go at Marsden barefisted and I cannot imagine anyone who reads the primary sources you marshal who would think your anger unjustified.
    You should not be surprised that professional historians sniff at your passion. They are taught to maintain an icy veneer of apparent objectivity, and will be unable to appreciate your style, but you will get plenty of acknowledgement from the Martin Edmonds of this world who do not fit so easily into academic boxes.

    I look forward to your next book,


    (not a Catholic although, if I was in Belfast, I might have to be labelled a “cultural Catholic”)

  11. Richard Quinn, 31. July 2009, 1:41


    Thanks for your well-expressed regard for Altar Ego. You are right about the academics: they were never going to like either me or my work, so in the end I just thought ‘to hell with them’ and steered for the sound of the guns. It does greatly disturb me though when someone like Mark Derby, the Scoop reviewer, makes many blatant and provable mistakes, but won’t amend them when they are pointed out to him. At that point, the agenda becomes too clear for any words from me.

    As to where the bulk of Hongi Hika’s armoury came from, yes, I think De Thierry was right in the middle of it, along with Kendall. De Thierry was a CMS protege at the time.

    My next book will be a close-run thing if I can make it. I am very tired.

  12. Edwin Knight, 13. September 2009, 3:04

    Richard Quinn Passed away yesterday peacefully.

    He will be missed by many. He was a very great intelligent and passionate man.

  13. dave bedggood, 16. September 2009, 19:03

    Well done Richard!
    Now the emails have stopped I will have to read the book.