THE WHITE HEADHUNTER by Nigel Randell
Kirkus Star

THE WHITE HEADHUNTER

KIRKUS REVIEW

Documentary filmmaker Randell debuts with the story of a young Scottish sailor’s eight-year stay on a South Pacific island.

Shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868, Jack Renton managed to jump ship and eventually washed up on Malaita in the eastern Solomons. European explorers and traders traditionally gave this island a wide berth due to its fierce reputation, gained when ships bent on labor trafficking met violent resistance. Surprisingly, Renton wasn’t killed, but was ushered into native society. It was not the seamless transition later depicted in his memoir, published in Australia shortly after he returned to white civilization; the author makes it his business to compare that memoir with the parallel narrative of Renton’s sojourn preserved in the islanders’ oral history, which Randell describes as “anecdotal, episodic, parochial, rich in detail.” The young sailor, we learn, was first kept as a slave and gradually moved through the Malaitan hierarchy, despite being a source of tension when rumors of his existence brought the unwelcome attention of Europeans. He rose thanks to his talents in boat-making and his capacity as a killer. “Renton was remarkably adept at covering his own tracks,” writes Randell: he made much of the Malaitans’ headhunting in his memoir, but didn’t mention his own participation; he glossed over a relationship with a native woman that would have offended Victorian sensibilities. Painstakingly re-creating Renton’s story from fragmentary material, Randell also chronicles regional European activities, which at the time consisted largely of gunrunning, spreading disease, and destroying local societies. It’s hardly surprising that after Renton became a government agent, charged with supervising the predatory recruitment of native workers for white-owned plantations, that he met his end in the New Hebrides, where his body was “disemboweled and beheaded, then thoroughly cleaned and filled with breadfruit, bananas, yams, and taro roots” prior to being cooked and eaten.

A fabulous ethnographic tale inside a larger tragedy of cultural genocide and retaliatory murders. (8 pp. b&w photos, maps, index)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7867-1256-2
Page count: 336pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2003