Striding across cultures

Cannibal Jack is an offshoot of an earlier work by Trevor Bentley, Pakeha Maori (1999).

The life and times of Jacky Marmon, a Pakeha-Maori

Trevor Bentley
Penguin, pbk, $40

Reviewed by Gavin McLean.

Together with his 2004 book, Captured by Maori, this new volume and other works in the Penguin Original series cast welcome fresh light on our pre-1840 history.

Modern historians would call John "Jacky" Marmon a culture-crosser. Nineteenth-century settlers called him a traitor and a devil, an embarrassing reminder of pre-colonial frontier days.

Marmon did not exactly help himself.

He served time in New South Wales, jumped ship, fought in the Musket Wars, was a polygamist, tasted human flesh and encouraged Ngapuhi to resist the Treaty of Waitangi.

On top of that, he loved to spin yarns, often exaggerating his importance in events.

Little wonder that general and regional histories, sometimes apply the word "liar" to him.

So what is the truth?

Even today that is hard to determine, but drawing on an increasing body of work on culture-crossing Europeans and on two lengthy but sometimes contradictory serialised book-length memoirs that appeared in The New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Star in the 1880s, Bentley tries to re-examine the story while compensating for the biases of the respective compilers.

Bentley accepts Roger Wrigglesworth's view that Frederick Maning, the opinionated author of Old New Zealand, and an enemy of Marmon, may have written or influenced the Star's version to emphasise the gulf between respectable Pakeha-Maori such as himself, people who later re-integrated themselves into Western society, and those such as Marmon, who remained assimilated into Maori society, albeit while living among settlers in his old age.

Later antiquarians, still remembering the bitterness of the New Zealand Wars, even invented fictitious Maori informants rather than acknowledge Marmon as the source they were plagiarising for their books.

In Cannibal Jack, Bentley juxtaposes the Herald and the Star accounts, trying to reconcile differences and to strip away the more egregious errors and late-Victorian sensationalism.

It is a book full of lengthy extracts.

The result is a more nuanced portrait of this complicated individual.

Yes, Marmon did most of what he claimed, but he should now be seen less as a traitor to his own race and more as a man who immersed himself fully in Maori society and who retained his loyalties to his iwi and to its leaders.

In other words, as Bentley says, he was fully bicultural.

Dr McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.


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