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