The long and the short of it, Jock Phillips

A Peculiar Gentleman: George Rusden – A Life 
John O’Leary
Australian Scholarly, $50.00,
ISBN 9781925333404

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: The Life and Opinions of Samuel Marsden in England and the Antipodes, 1765-1838
Andrew Sharp
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869408121

There are many similarities between these two books. Both are biographies, both are well-written, intelligent works, and both treat subjects with unusual ideas about race relations. More significantly, both books concern men, Samuel Marsden, missionary, and George Rusden, historian, who were English-born, but spent much of their lives near Sydney (before Rusden moved to Melbourne), and then achieved their greatest fame and influence through an involvement with New Zealand.

There is one major difference – their scale. John O’Leary’s biography of George Rusden is slight, some 60,000 words; and, as O’Leary admits, for much of his life Rusden was of no great significance – the son of a Sussex clergyman, he came to Australia as a young teenager, became a stockman, a minor poet of romantic verse with Aboriginal subjects, an unimportant civil servant and, briefly, a failed merchant in China. He became a romantic historian of Australia and New Zealand and his works would have disappeared into the obscurity they deserved except for one event. In his history of New Zealand, Rusden claimed that John Bryce, the native minister responsible for the invasion of Parihaka in 1881, had, during the campaign against Tītokowaru in 1868, been involved in an attack on unarmed women and children and had “gleefully and with ease” cut them down, earning Bryce the title of “Kohuru” (murderer). Rusden also described Bryce as originally “of the inferior order of cow-boy”. Bryce, outraged, began a libel case for damages which was eventually heard in London in 1885. The case, widely reported, pitted those who considered New Zealand government’s treatment of Māori as cruel and inhumane against those who considered their treatment was just. Supporters and detractors emerged on both sides. The trial was dramatic and eventually, with little evidence for Rusden’s claims, Bryce was awarded damages of £5000. The story of the trial is well worth telling. The question is whether a biography of Rusden was the way to do it. Since the rest of his life was comparatively unimportant, would it not have been more riveting to have focused on the trial and built this up through richer pen-portraits of the characters involved – Rusden and Bryce, but also Walter Mantell (Rusden’s friend and lukewarm supporter), Governor Arthur Gordon who had given Bryce the initial information, Bishop Hadfield who also supplied material, and Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) whom Rusden said (incorrectly) had been dismissed by Bryce for criticising his behaviour? It is significant that in the book we get seven short chapters, averaging nine pages a chapter, telling of Rusden’s life before he became involved in history-writing. Then we get two huge chapters totalling 91 pages describing his history and the trial. What a pity that the trial did not become the subject, rather than Rusden.

If O’Leary’s book is briefer than it might have been, the opposite is true of Andrew Sharp’s biography of Samuel Marsden, which weighs in by my estimate at 450,000 words or 777 pages of small type, plus 100 pages of notes. Length brings a cost. It makes the book expensive, heavy and hard to hold. The number of words makes it likely there will be editing and proofing errors as indeed there are (although this is also true of O’Leary’s short publication). And the sheer bulk will undoubtedly put off readers.

The question is whether the length is necessary to present an original and significant argument? There is much to admire about Sharp’s approach. As John Stenhouse has argued for some time, New Zealand historians have been loathe to take religion seriously. Sharp takes the reader into the head of an evangelical for whom matters of Christian morality and faith were central to identity. Eternal salvation or damnation in the fires of hell were very real options for Marsden. Satan was not a metaphor but an all-too living presence. It is also refreshing in a historiography which too often emphasises New Zealanders’ pragmatism to have a historian take ideas seriously. Sharp even suggests that he has not so much written a full biography as explained Marsden’s ideas. Does Marsden deserve such an approach? He was not, in fact, a profound thinker, largely rehearsing concepts learned from his teachers. There is a fundamental haziness and contradiction at the core of his beliefs – he accepts predestination, yet continually preaches as if individuals have the possibility of salvation through redemption by Christ. They have a choice; yet their fate, whether saved or damned, is determined by God. Implicitly, Sharp recognises this flabbiness by subtitling his book “the life and opinions” (not “ideas”) of Marsden. The focus on Marsden the opinion-maker means we never get a deeper exploration of the man’s character, as Sharp himself concedes. At one stage, he quotes William James on the psychology of religious experience; but this is never brought to bear on Marsden himself. We fail to understand what turned the son of a Yorkshire agricultural labourer who had worked as a blacksmith into an evangelical crusader for the Lord. His development is described very well, but not explained.

A second reason for the length of this book is Sharp’s desire to defend Marsden’s reputation. It is an occupational hazard of biographers that in spending so long in the company of your subject, you grow to like the person and see the world from their perspective. O’Leary mercifully avoids that problem and is forthright in criticising Rusden’s faults. Sharp is perhaps less so. In a refreshingly succinct overview of historiography about Marsden in the appendix, he explains that, for over a century after his death in 1838, Marsden was portrayed as a heroic missionary and pioneer of English civilisation in the wilderness. But, from the 1960s, he received a more negative press as a hater of Irish Catholics and flogger of convicts, a hypocrite who pursued worldly ambitions of power and land-ownership, a man whose missionary interests were driven by commercial, as much as Christian, ambitions. Sharp is keen to provide a less jaundiced view. Since nearly all the later allegations were based on disputes at the time, he goes into those disputes in great detail to vindicate Marsden. The detail is designed to show that, in most cases, Marsden was being unfairly attacked and, in general, Sharp’s evaluation of the evidence is fair; but, at times he protests too much. In order to defend Marsden against his accusers, we find ourselves following the details of the accuser’s conflicts with others, such as Macquarie’s fight with Judge Ellis Bent. What comes through to me is that Marsden was a highly disputatious person, loathe to forgive and forget, and quick to see his dignity under attack. He launches in without a hint of humour to defend his public reputation. But Sharp explains this response as a reflection, not of Marsden’s character, but of the culture – people at that time sought to preserve their “amour-propre”, their self-esteem and dignity in the eyes of the world. Certainly, in the rough frontier world of convict Sydney or missionary New Zealand, where clerical and civil hierarchies were fluid, battles over status were likely to be common. But this cannot wholly account for the amazing number of disputes that Marsden pursued. Marsden was an unapologetic believer in class and gender hierarchies, an unforgiving moralist towards the convicts, quite happy to use corporal punishment including the lash, and with an unshaken belief in the superiority of British Protestant culture.

There is another implicit justification for the length of the biography. Sharp believes that Marsden’s importance has been under-estimated. He notes that at the two hundredth anniversary of Marsden’s sermon at Te Hōhi in December 2014, the only attendees were churchmen, descendants, and a few local whanau. His life was of little interest to others. I agree with Sharp here. His biography convincingly points up the implications of Marsden’s life for wider historical issues.

Three points are apparent. First, for historians of early European settlement in Australia, Marsden’s conflicts and career in early Sydney suggest the extraordinarily challenging character of that society where, amid thousands of convicts sent out against their will, it was a struggle to maintain social order, provide for economic self-sufficiency, and establish a semblance of family normality. We did not need every nuance of all the disputes, but you do learn fascinating detail about that strange time and place.

Second, for historians of New Zealand, Marsden’s pioneering efforts to introduce Christianity among Māori is an important story. Through his hospitality to Māori visiting Sydney from the early 19th century, Marsden developed a warm regard for the people which contrasts strikingly with his despair about the Aborigines. He developed a huge admiration for Māori’s quickness to learn. Sharp’s analysis of his efforts to support the mission in the Bay of Islands and deal with both their trading in arms and their internal conflicts provides a valuable perspective and overview. He explains excellently how Marsden became convinced by experience to abandon his earlier view that civilising Māori should precede Christian conversion.

Third, there is a fascinating discussion about Marsden’s ideas on political structures in New Zealand. He never favoured large European settlements, hoping rather for small trading enclaves within a system of a united Māori government. Always worried about the corrosive effects of a largely male European population of traders and whalers, he also came to favour a limited form of law to police them. Such views were important in those missionary pressures that eventually led to the Treaty of Waitangi.

In these respects, Sharp’s biography with its exhaustive research and clear exposition does inform wider histories and is valuable. Whether the words devoted to long quotations and explaining Marsden’s disputes are justified is a more open question. As these books suggest, the length of a book is not an insignificant matter. Appropriate scale is of the essence. If you want readers to spend time in your company, every word should count.

Jock Phillips’s latest publication is To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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