Book review: Cannibal Jack by Trevor Bentley

By Jim Eagles

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Cannibal Jack: The Life and Times of Jacky Marmon, a Pakeha-Maori by Trevor Bentley. Photo / Supplied
Cannibal Jack: The Life and Times of Jacky Marmon, a Pakeha-Maori by Trevor Bentley. Photo / Supplied

When I visited the little village of Horeke last year one of the locals drew my attention to a small cluster of pine trees on a hill on the other side of the Hokianga Harbour.

"Cannibal Jack's grave is in those trees," he said. "When they felled the pine trees on that land no one was willing to cut down the pines around where he was buried. He's been dead for over 100 years but they're still afraid of his spirit."

And so the legend of Jacky Marmon - described in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography as "sailor, convict, Pakeha-Maori, interpreter, shopkeeper, sawyer, carpenter [he helped build Horeke Tavern which still stands], soldier" - survives, 130 years after his death.

Marmon was one of many Europeans who jumped ship to live with Maori in the early days of contact. Valued primarily for their ability to facilitate the trade for guns, these Pakeha-Maori were given wives, provided with food and shelter, and generally given high status so long as they served the interests of their chiefly sponsors.

But Marmon was unique in the extent to which he embraced things Maori, becoming a powerful tohunga in his own right, fighting alongside the great Hongi Hika in his musket wars, joining in the ritual eating of slain enemies, remaining loyal to his Maori side even when power transferred to the settlers, and leaving behind a remarkably frank account of his adventures, devoid of the self-serving distortions of some contemporaries.

This story of his life has its failings. It is often disjointed, at times repetitious and could have done with a lot more editing. But for all that it provides a fascinating insight into the life of a turbulent man living through dangerously interesting times.

Part of what makes it special is the fact that Marmon was actually involved as a participant in most of the significant events in the Europeanisation of Aotearoa between when he first went to live with Maori in the Bay of Islands in 1817 and his death in 1880. He met most of the significant characters of the early days, from Hongi Hika, Hone Heke and Tamati Waka Nene to Samuel Marsden, James Busby and William Hobson. He actually fought in Hongi's great attacks on Ngati Whatua, Ngati Maru and Ngati Paoa pa in the Hauraki Gulf in 1821 and also joined Waka Nene in the so-called loyalist forces during the Flagstaff War of 1845-46.

But even more remarkable is the way Trevor Bentley has been able to tell much of the story in Marmon's own words - or at least as near as is possible to get to his actual reminiscences through the tinkerings of various editors of the year - with other records used mainly to establish accuracy, fill in gaps and provide perspective.

Perhaps having his story told will allow Marmon's unquiet spirit to lie peacefully at last. But given his rambunctious nature, that seems unlikely.

* Cannibal Jack: The Life and Times of Jacky Marmon, a Pakeha-Maori by Trevor Bentley (Penguin $40).

- NZ Herald

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