The White Headhunter

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 25 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

This book is not what its seems from its cover but still worth a read, its looks to be a biography but is really about the process of hiring/kidnapping/tricking Pacific Islanders into working in the cane fields. It also covers a little bit about  early exploration, the devastation of Western disease and arrival of missionaries. Basically not what I expected but still interesting.
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I was contacted directly by the publisher of this true biography with the offer of a free copy to review. Since it was also available through NetGalley I downloaded it from there, which meant it has been hanging over me for quite a while - I don’t read much non-fiction, and wasn’t interested enough to prioritise it over my other reviews, but did want to read it eventually, mainly because I work in Travel Medicine and we see quite a few people going to Melanesia, so I was interested to learn more about its history. Well, having curbed my tendency to request everything on offer, I’ve finally caught up, and made the time to read this. It did feel more like study than enjoyment, but I did find it interesting, as well as heart-breaking in places.

Ostensibly this is about Jack Renton, a young Scottish sailor who was shanghaied in San Francisco in 1870 and taken to the Western Pacific, where he jumped ship to escape the horrendous conditions aboard with three others. After weeks of near starvation at sea, they wash up in the Solomon Islands, where Jack is rescued by one tribe from the neighbours who go on to kill and eat his companions. 

Over the following eight years, he assimilates into the community, learns the language and becomes a highly trusted adoptive son to the chief, because of his natural skill as a tactician and warrior. After his rescue, his adventures were serialised by an Australian newspaper, but highly edited so as not to offend Victorian sensibilities. Randell has explored his story from the other side to provide a more realistic account of his experiences.

Renton’s story is actually less than half the book, the rest being about the impact that European exploration and exploitation had on the Islands, especially through the rampant practice of “blackbirding” - the recruitment of labourers for the sugarcane fields of Queensland and Fiji. This ranged from trickery and manipulation at best, to violent kidnapping at worst, and led to the decimation of populations through the introduction of guns, disease and European mores, including Christianity. The local chiefs took to the acquisition of guns with a fervour that would entrance the NRA, and soon negotiated a system of payment that provided two fire-arms for each worker sent - one for them on return, and one for the chief.

Written by a documentary film-maker who died in 2014, and originally published in 2003, this was very well researched, but very poorly organised. The narrative jumps all over the place as he digresses about the various events that influenced Renton’s experiences - the main reason the tribe take him in is their positive experience with another white castaway years before, and his (spoiler alert) terrible fate is indirectly caused by the folly, greed and incompetence of his fellow European mariners. My favourite parts were the oral histories handed down by the islanders themselves - including how Renton introduces the children to his passion - football. 

Possibly because I do read mostly fiction, I found the style very dry and could only read a few chapters at a time, interspersed with something lighter, as the later chapters make for extremely grim and rather depressing reading. The monstrous treatment of the recruits by first their employers and then the Australian government, but also of those who stayed home, foreshadows their behaviour towards immigrants and refugees now. I knew almost nothing about the headhunting and cannibalism history of the islands, and Randell does a good job of putting these in context as regards their belief and leadership systems. The effects of the introduction of diseases like measles, TB and syphilis are still being felt to this day.

Overall I’m glad I did read this, as I feel I’ve learned quite a lot, but even just having finished it, I would struggle to explain the series of events due to the back and forth nature of the narrative. I think the blurb is a bit misleading as this really isn’t a swashbuckling romantic adventure, neither do we actually get much about Renton’s perspective, but for anyone interested in the history of the Solomons during the 18th and 19th centuries, this would provide a new viewpoint.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the arc in exchange for an honest review and apologies for the delay in providing it. The White Headhunter is available now.
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The White Headhunter is both easy and difficult to read. Easy because it is incredible history, difficult because it is incredible description of that history. 
First, there are the accounts from crew members of trading ships that traveled the South Pacific during the mid to late 1800's.  Spoken and written records of the fascinating, communal, and barbaric habits and traditions of the islands in the area provide historical insights that are not commonly known.  Depictions of cannibalism and its accompanying brutality are informative and graphic.
Secondly, there are the accounts of the slave trade that begins several years after the discovery of the islands and the tribes who inhabit them. Again, depictions of the capture of what were referred to as recruits and the resulting tortures and mutinies are informative and graphic.
Running through both histories, the discovery of the islands and then the recruitment of the tribes for plantation labor, is the story of Jack Renton, a young Scotsman who spent eight years among the natives of one of the islands.  Other personal stories enhance the details of the accounts, making them all the more astonishing and all the more credible.
This was not an easy read for me, but I understand how it could be for others. I like history, and this is a fascinating historical document. However, I had to read it in increments because of the detailed accuracy of the events. The same may not be true for all readers. I am glad to have read it and would do so again.  
I am grateful to Netgalley and to the publisher for the opportunity to have read and reviewed The White Headhunter.
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A fantastic work of non fiction- the account of Jack Renton- a young Scottish lad, sailing the seas around Australia and beyond. A brutal account with grisly details- very different to what I normally read but I got swept (!) away on the sea folk tales
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I really tried with this one but could not get into it. I think that is more so my fault and not the author or the story. I typically prefer going back a bit farther in history, but thought I would at least give this one a try. I will still recommend it, however, because there are many who will find the era, location, and subject of great interest.
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Reading “The White Headhunter” was a complete change of genre for me and although I had a few reservations about the choice, I’m really pleased I decided to go with it.

This first book by Nigel Randell is a work of non-fiction. A teenage Scots sailor, Jack Renton, was rescued from captivity on the Pacific island of Malaita, home to a fearsome tribe of headhunters. In his memoir, Renton recounted his eight-year adventure: how he jumped ship and drifted two thousand miles in an open whaleboat to the Solomon Islands, came ashore at Malaita and was stripped of his identity. For all it’s detail and authenticity Renton’s chronicle glossed over many key events. This book is a more complete and grislier account of Renton’s experience. 

Very well presented and easy to read “The White Headhunter” contains some fascinating history of the late 19th century and the Pacific with some entertaining and enlightening information about the period. This true story was interesting, enjoyable and well worth the read.

[Thank you to #NetGalley, #ThistlePublishing and #NigelRandell, for a free ARC of #TheWhiteHeadhunter in exchange for an honest review.]
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A wonderful true story that is full of ethnographic and societal detail.  This book shines a light on a dim corner of the world that remained isolated into the last century.    An absolutely compelling story of a shipwrecked sailor and how he survived.
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This is clearly a well-researched look at one Pacific Islander culture and society. Buried in this long book is the story of a ship-wrecked sailor and how he survived in a world of head hunting and cannibalism. Slow at times, the story is well-written.
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I love the history lessons in this book and the story is quite a page turner!!! I would love to buy this book for my high school library!!! I think that most all of the students would enjoy this tale as well!!
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Enthralling and easy to read, this details the adventures of sailor Jack Renton in the 1870s. After being adopted by the Malaitans, a head-hunting tribe living on an island in the Solomon Islands, he effectively becomes one of them, rising to be a trusted advisor and member of the tribe. A true story, well presented and fascinating. Well worth the read.
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The author has spent a lot of time researching the life and times of John Renton who spent 7 years on the Solomon Island of Maliata.  The title and the front cover of the book purports the story is all about Renton and his life as a headhunter.  There is a bit of this but Renton did not leave a lot of records so his tale is brief.  Rather the book is much more about blackbirding, the process of hiring/kidnapping/tricking Pacific Islanders into working in the Queensland cane fields.  It also covers early exploration, the impact of Western disease and the change of cultures caused by the arrival of missionaries.  The chapter on Christianity and how the locals interpreted it's usefulness was a highlight of the book.
So the book is not as it seems from the cover.  It is also a bit disorganised which is a pity as there is plenty of interesting facts and events.
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The White Headhunter by Nigel Randell is a fascinating treatise on the tale of two men who were not only captured by headhunters in the South Pacific but lived to tell about it. These headhunters were not known for their hospitality, yet these men managed not only to acclimate into their new life quite well but rose to positions of prominence within the tribe.  It becomes apparent early in the book that Randell researched the historical records quite well and turned what might ordinarily be a rather dry subject into a retelling that should appeal to a wide variety of readers. I enjoyed this book quite a bit and give it 4/5 stars.

*A copy of this ebook was the only consideration received in exchange for this review.*
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I'm pretty conservative and demanding as a book reviewer and it's rare that I give 4 stars. This book rates it though. It's a very well written story about an unusual situation, where a Caucasian European gets marooned on an island in the South Pacific. He is taken in rather than eaten, by the local tribe and manages to assimilate even though he's an adult. The author needed to "imagine" quite a lot since no one was there to bear witness, but he uses history, accounts and common sense to do a very believable job. What could have been a thin, simple tale is enriched and broadened in a truly interesting manner. I highly recommend this book.
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Nigel Randell, in The White Headhunter, presents his reader with a deeply researched true story from the late 19th century in which a young Scots sailor [Jack Renton] , spends 8 years on a remote Pacific island living with primitive head-hunters and yet survived to tell the tale. The author really adds value by blending Jack's version of what he did in those eight years with what he discovered when he visited the island of Malaita for himself. The answers lay in the oral histories told him by today's islanders. And what extraordinary tales they told!  How initially Jack endured dreadful physical hardship but survived by using his wits both to introduce new carpentry skills in boat and house-building and also by teaching the tribal leaders new battle strategies which led to them great success in inter-island raids. He became the favoured "son" of the tribal leader and was key to protecting the islanders from falling prey to the false promises of the slave traders. As a result Malaita clung on to its traditional way of life for much longer than neighbouring islands. Indeed by keeping the white man at bay death, by white man's diseases, was also reduced, albeit it could not be avoided altogether. So Jack left a legacy to be proud of. 
After he was rescued he returned to his native Shetland for a short time but couldn't settle and returned to Australia where he acted as an inspector on vessels luring natives from the Pacific Islands to work on Australian plantations. Tragically he was murdered on the third of these inspection visits when his landing party was attacked by natives. All in all an extraordinary tale and a masterpiece of research. If I have one criticism it is in the flow of the story which does have a tendency to jump back and forwards over a period of some 40 years. But don't let this deter you from reading what is a true and genuinely ripping yarn!
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An interesting and fascinating read. This is obviously a very well researched book. The book has a lot of facts in it. I enjoyed reading this from an historical point of view.

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy.
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The White Headhunter by Nigel Randell is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late December.

A Scottish man, Jack Renton, is Shanghaied from San Francisco to go into the Pacific, then escapes capture with a few other sailors and goes adrift for 4 weeks, living off of harpooned sharks and rainwater before washing up on the South Pacific island of Malaita and living there for 8 years until being ‘rescued’ in 1875 at age 27. Within that 8 year timeframe, he learns the Malaitan's reliance on oral memory, is taught the language by local children, teaches them football/soccer, teaches English to another warrior, Kwaisulia, uses strings of shells as currency, and becomes a canoe maker and a headhunter warrior. Over time, Australian traders start to seek out native slaves within the South Pacific to work on sandalwood and sugar cane plantations and the Malaita tribe believe themselves to be kidnapped in order to be eaten by hungry sailors or that they want to reclaim Jack Renton.
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This was a fascinating true life adventure/nightmare, involving shanghai'd sailors over a century ago, shipwrecks, cannibals and head hunting natives in the South Seas, and a life that could hardly be imagined by a white European male of that era.  Jack Reston was still a teenager when his life ran amok, but survived to tell the tale, though it was abbreviated a bit to suit the tastes of the time.  How he survived and almost thrived is not for the delicate, and it made for truly interesting reading!
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Rating: 3.5/5.0

This is a non-fiction book but the story reads more like a fiction. The story is about sailor Jack Renton who is freed from captivity on the Pacific island of Malaita. After that, we follow his story and how he rises to serve the island’s tribal chief Kabou and eventually becomes his most trusted adviser. 

This story was really interesting and full of adventures, I can't imagine a normal person going through all this. The book has a big bibliography at the end that supports all these extraordinary events. It gives the reader better confidence that what he is reading is not something fictitious but real events and real people were involved. 

The White Headhunter is written beautifully and makes all the adventures very enjoyable. It might not be a material that will appeal to the wider audience there but if you are a fan of naval adventures or historical voyages then you will surely enjoy it and should not miss reading it.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Thistle Publishing for providing me a digital copy of this book and this is my honest unbiased review.
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Interesting! I did not know this story before reading this book. This is a great book for anyone interested in the history of the late 19th century and the Pacific. I found this to be very entertaining and enlightening about the period, if a bit gruesome at times with some of the descriptions. I received a copy from NetGalley and the publisher and this is my honest opinion.
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I found this book incredibly engaging and could not put it down. It’s well written and well researched and just a genuine pleasure to read. While I liked the whole book, there is one part that stood out the most:

‘Village history does not reside in the public domain but is owned by various individuals and families- a copyright legitimised by an ancestral connection to a major participant in the narrative.’ This is the line that fully gripped me and made me realise how much I was going to enjoy reading the book. It shows how much research went into writing it, since this is not something that could be easily understood. Randell clearly went to extraordinary lengths to write this book, and it shows. I loved his dedication to making sure the reader understands the culture of the island, and I think that’s what makes the book such a good read.

It appealed to my love of both history and anthropology and I recommend the book to anyone who likes either.
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