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The White Headhunter: The Story of a 19th-Century Sailor Who Survived a South Seas Heart of Darkness Hardcover – July 17, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

First-time author Randell, a veteran British documentary filmmaker, demonstrates his skilled storytelling in this account of the life and times of Jack Renton, a teenage Scottish sailor who, in 1868, jumped ship near the Solomon Islands and was rescued by a tribe of headhunters from the Pacific island of Malaita. Combining a close reading of a biography of Renton published after he was found eight years later, oral histories from Malaitians and original research, Randell shows that Renton's story encompasses much more than the fact that "no white man had survived for such a length of time in a stone-age culture and no one had ever become so acculturated." He shows how the Malaitian culture was far more complex than the simple image of "headhunters" popularized after Renton's recovery, a society "where the relationship between the living and the dead was a life-long dialogue." Randell also shows that Renton airbrushed his own story to hide just how well he had adapted to his surroundings-killing and headhunting to survive and achieve acceptance among the Malaitians. The most fascinating and horrendous part of Randell's work, however, deals with "the onslaught of white civilization" into the Pacific after Renton's story, as well as that of Captain Cook, became popular-a "remorseless haemorrhaging of population" as thousands of Pacific islanders died from diseases brought by Christian missionaries and syphilis-wracked sailors.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

About the Author

Nigel Randell spent twenty-five years making documentary films in various parts of the world. This is his first book. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf (July 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786712562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786712564
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,994,372 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on September 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
OK...I admit it. The main reason I bought this book was that I was "hooked" by the gruesome aspects. After all, who can resist a classic tale of shipwreck, with the added frisson of headhunting and cannibalism? And while Mr. Randell (who, by the way, looks like a combination of Sting and Malcolm McDowell...and poses in the author photo with a skull, not his own, in hand) certainly delivers in the goosebumps department (describing in loving detail how humans, referred to as "long pig" by the cannibals, were wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted), he turns out to have bigger fish-to-fry. This is a very thoughtful book, which works on several levels. The "adventure tale" aspect is significant, but Mr. Randell also talks about the religious beliefs of the Solomon Islanders, the clash of cultures, the destruction of the islanders' way of life, etc. The author has spent much time in the Solomon Islands. It is obvious that he has studied, and respects, the native culture. The book can be enjoyed by those with an interest in anthropology, sociology, and addition to those who are looking for a "ripping-yarn." While the focus of the book is Jack Renton- the "white headhunter" of the title, who was forced into a situation not of his own making, and did what he had to in order to survive- Mr. Randell also makes sure we see things from the islanders' point of view. Renton is allowed to live not out of any altruistic feeling- it turns out that, previously, another white man named Doorey had been marooned on the same island and his extensive knowledge of carpentry had made him indispensable. The islanders' were also hoping for big things from Renton, and he delivered- with his abilities as a military strategist and warrior.Read more ›
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Joe Noble on August 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Absolutely awesome. This the 'Heart of Darkness' inside out. It is the story of a young shipwrecked sailor struggling to survive in a South Sea culture based on headhunting. It is told in the words of the Malaitan 'headhunters' themselves. It is a story filled with heroism, humanity and a good deal of humour.
Nigel Rendell is a very gifted author. He has the confidence to let the indigenous oral stories speak for themselves and also to breathe life into the dry 'western' accounts of the Malaita and the wider South Pacific written by missionaries and traders. These sources and others are skillfully blended to create a seamless narrative that carries the reader along as we follow Renton's journey into another culture and initiation into the rites of headhunting.
But this is not just a story of Renton struggling to understand his captors but a wonderful account of his captors trying to understand him. In their words this is the story of a young ignorant man who struggled to understand their society and in the end became not only one of their own but one of their favourite 'sons'.
But the story is also an account of the Malaitan's struggle to understand Renton's world. Rendell also manages to fix the microcosm of Renton's adventures against the macrocosm of colonialisation. This is perhaps one of the most magic and terrifying parts of the book as Renton tries to prepare his 'adopted' friends, family and tribe for the coming horrors of white civilisation. The entire tragedy of first contact and colonial rule is told in the relationship between Renton and his people. Rendell style of writing makes these characters, their friendships and rivalries come perfectly alive on the page. It is impossible not to care deeply about these people.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Josh on January 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Only half the book is dedicated to Jack Renton's account. Understandably, there isn't much accurate history to glean from when you write on a little known castaway in late 1800s, and the author manages to fill the first 148 pages from Renton's own writing, the orations from natives, and the author's own observations from visiting the location. The rest of the book focuses on the ills and evils of the arrival of the white race - specifically economic exploitation, missionaries and their destruction of native tradition, and sicknesses that kill the majority of the islanders. All of this is fascinating stuff, but not expected by the title or description!
The order of the book is a little difficult also. The author lays out a preliminary timeline of Renton, then weaves through the timeline with different accounts and helpful anecdotes that occur elsewhere. A little challenging for me, who is used to reading history chronologically.
That said, I would buy and read this book again. There isn't another book on the market that is as complete a narrative on Jack Renton's extraordinary experience. But if there was, I would've rated this book 3 stars!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Non-fiction can be so much stranger than the made-up stuff. Remember the cartoons 30 years ago-? Popeye in the gigantic
black pot..natives in full nosebone dancing around with forks and knives?
Mr. Randell's book about Jack Renton, the Scottish sailor rescued by headhunters in the Solomon Islands is a great
read and an interesting start point if you wish to understand the "settling" of the Pacific Islands.
The book reads like fiction and is full of interesting tid bits not the least of which is the fact that boiled or grilled human was known as "long pig" by the headhunters. Yeech.
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