The White Headhunter: The Story of a 19th-Century Sailor Who Survived a South Seas Heart of Darkness

Nigel Randell

In 1876, sailor Jack Renton was rescued from the Pacific island home of the headhunting Malaitans, after spending eight years in their captivity. His best-selling memoir of how he went from the slave of their chief, Kabou, to his most trusted warrior and adviser remains the only authenticated account of a Westerner’s “heart of darkness” journey. But his sensational story turns out to have glossed over the key events of his transformation. Renton's story began with being shanghaied in San Francisco, escaping from the ship in an open whaleboat, and drifting for two thousand miles across the Pacific before washing up on Malaita. Through subsequent generations, the Malaitans’ oral history has passed down detailed stories presenting a different version. Documentary filmmaker Nigel Randell spent seven years talking to the Malaitans to piece together this different account. The White Headhunter tells the story of a man who not only adopted their customs but did his best to prepare a people he had grown to love for the onslaught of Western civilization. He lives on in the Malaitans’ memory, his hut and weapons preserved as a shrine still visited by the islanders today.

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