By Nigel Rendell
They say truth is stranger than fiction. It is also more depressing. Nigel Rendell tells the tale of castaway James Renton and how white civilization more-or-less steamrollered the native cultures of the Pacific. His research unites written accounts of sailors and officials with oral traditions from remote islands as well as some startling forensic evidence of headhunting.
James Renton was a young sailor from Scotland. In 1868 he and a several companions deserted the vessel they were sailing on. Desertion from sailing vessels was not uncommon in those days. Doing it in the middle of the Pacific was. Renton and his companions endured a hellish open-boat voyage of over a month. Near death they eventually made landfall on Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands. It was the one that was regarded as the least friendly to white sailors.
Renton was “adopted” into a local tribe, though his father Kabou had actually bought him as an investment. It seems the last time white men had come ashore the locals had massacred them all, but spared one who turned out to be a highly skilled carpenter. They were hoping for big things from the new one. The islanders got them. Through a series of misunderstandings Renton was hailed as a fire-eating killer. Having little choice, he played to the role. Renton formed an alliance with a warrior called Kwaisulia. He was a sort of local Achilles, a hired gun who took the lead in battle. Together the castaway and the Stone Age samurai so improved tactics that soon Kabou’s clan achieved a dominating role on Malaita.
This dominance was challenged by Renton’s “rescue” by a recruiting ship. Australia needed cheap labor and it was looking to the islands. The “blackbirders” often filled this need by kidnapping the natives, though efforts were made to regulate recruiting. In exchange for three years labor, the recruiters paid in axes, calicos, beads, tobacco, and above all in guns. The labor market was literally an arms race. Kwaisulia used his time in Australia to develop a program that turned him from a tribal warrior to a leading politician who dominated Malaita and neighboring islands by force of his strategic alliances and well-stocked arsenal.
Rendell paints a vivid picture of the Pacific in the era of contact and acculturation to colonialism. The story is tremendously complex, encompassing the creation of artificial islets on the coast of Malaita, the role of cannibalism, and the role of slavery. Rendell had been shanghaied, literally kidnapped and enslaved aboard the vessel he sailed on. In escaping, he nearly became a cannibal. He owed his survival to finding people who were regarded as cannibals (though the Malaitans were not, plenty of islanders were cannibals). The Malaitans didn’t eat him, but they did enslave him. The recruiters who Renton and Kwasulia were so involved with encompassed a large number of slavers, who in turn were believed to be cannibals (they took people from the islands, what else for but to eat?).
Rendell and Kwaisulia went their separate ways, the one to a career attempting to regulate the recruiting business, the other to exploit it to maintain his people’s (and his own) traditions and power. In both cases the attempt was doomed. Diseases from the white population devastated the islands on an apocalyptic scale. Missionaries worked hard to polish off native culture (and incidentally facilitated the spread of epidemics).
If I have one quibble with The White Headhunter it is with Rendall’s grammar. I often found myself losing track of what his pronouns referred to. Well, I often get similar complaints, so let it pass.
Grammatical issues aside, I heartily recommend The White Headhunter. It is a vivid depiction of the passing of the Pacific Islanders independence. Filled with colorful detail and vivid characters, it gives the Pacific frontier dimensions of tragedy and nobility. The story of those days is as wild and wooly as the settling of the American West.