The Extraordinary Life of Orcadian Jack Renton.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change, that lives within the means available and works co-operatively against common threats.” ~ Charles Darwin

Headhunter antisyzygy by Martin Laird

When Jack Renton was ‘rescued’ by the Royal Naval schooner ‘Bobtail Nag’ in 1875 a survival tale unfolded which to this day amazes those who hear of it. This is his story.

Jack was born in 1848 in Stromness. His father was a successful tailor. The family prospered and Jack was soon joined by many siblings. Stromness was a very busy port with fishing fleets,  trading vessels, Hudson Bay company recruiters and whalers calling  in.

Stromness waterfront Image credit Martin Laird

At the age of 16 Jack left for Liverpool where he enlisted as a seafarer. He was physically very able having roamed about Stromness, climbing up masts of ships and swimming in the cold waters of Hamnavoe.

It was when he was in San Francisco, in 1868 having arrived there from Hong Kong,  ready to sign on to another ship, that he was drugged, captured and forced to work on the Renard. Conditions were dreadful as the Renard, a trader in guano, was not very seaworthy and several of the other seamen had also been shanghaied. Jack and three others escaped one night in one of the Renard’s small boats. It had been well planned and the men had stocked up with supplies, especially water.

For 2,000 miles the small boat drifted along.  The supplies, including the water, ran out or were lost during storms. During the ordeal, Jack would dive into the sea and swim alongside the boat, to keep cool, exercising muscles which were wasting away. By the time the boat washed ashore on the small island of  Maana’oba in the Solomon Islands, the men were like skeletons.

The South Sea islands had seen waves of infection and diseases brought ashore by the white traders, whalers and missionaries who visited their islands. Whole villages had been devastated by diseases which they had no immunity to like measles, flu and small pox. The survivors from the boat were put in a hut where food was left for them.

Jack Renton, was in far better physical shape than the other 3 men and was soon of interest as a commodity. He was traded to a neighbouring  ‘big man’ called Kabou who ruled over Sulufou, Malaita.

From being a captive on board a ship, to surviving an epic journey in an open boat, he was now a slave. This was a community which used stone age tools and where head hunting was part of the culture. If Jack Renton was to survive in Kabou’s world he would have to prove himself to be useful.

He learned the language, Lau, and all the skills he had picked up in his hometown of Stromness and his life at sea he utilised to keep in favour, his survival depended upon it. Mending nets, building canoes and importantly making a close friend in a man similar in age to himself, Kwaisulia.

Studying the experiences of captives we know through modern research more about the psychology that affects the behaviour of dependency and compliance in life or death situations. The captive has to cope and adapt to avoid the negative consequences of a failure to do so.

Jack Renton didn’t just adapt to survive. After the initial disorientation of moving from one world into another, he became part of that new world. At some point he was no longer considered a slave as he had proved himself not only useful but as a warrior. 

After his ‘rescue’ in 1875 he arrived in Australia and was a media sensation. The stories published in the Press, which it is thought he dictated for others to write, were edited to suit a white  Victorian audience. What Jack relates of his part in war parties was made palatable to the white reader. Victorian society had been shocked in 1854 when the Orcadian Arctic explorer John Rae discovered the fate of Franklin’s expedition in northern Canada and suggested that some of the men had tried to survive by resorting to cannibalism. It was the great taboo and yet for people of the South Sea islands including Suluvfou, head hunting and cannibalism were part of their rituals.

Sulufou has an oral tradition of preserving their history and Jack Renton’s prowess as a warrior is retold by islanders to this day. What was left out of the newspaper account of his life in the island was what he must have done to be so highly thought of as he assimilated the culture of his captor where Kabou now referred to him as his son.

Today we understand more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but late 19th century Orkney didn’t. When his ship docked in Kirkwall harbour in 1875, Jack’s father walked passed him several times on the deck, not recognising the son who had lived for 8 years on Sulufou as a valued member of Kabou’s community.  News of his homecoming had been well publicised with a gathering organised in Stromness to celebrate. Jack’s parents realised that this was not what their son needed and they avoided the community celebrations. Instead they took their son home where a small attic room had been made ready for him. He stayed in the room for 3 days.

Symptoms of PTSD can include: anxiety, fear, sleep disturbance, nightmares, moodiness and impaired relationships. There can be panic attacks and a feeling of detachment. Jack Renton would have been going through some, perhaps all of these. But he was a survivor and after a few days he would venture out with one of his young brothers, fishing and swimming. He could not settle.  

He got a job as a regulator in what was known at the time as the ‘blackbirding’ trade. To South Sea islanders it is the ‘South Sea Slave Trade’. Blackbirding gangs transported people from the islands of the south Pacific to work on the sugar cane plantations in Queensland, Australia. Men, women and children were often tricked or forcibly captured, taken on board ships and traded to plantation owners. Many died during the process. It was brutal. Technically the people were indentured for 3 years but the pay was so low that the plantation owners resorted to using forced labour as no local workers would tolerate the conditions.

The slave trade might have been abolished by Britain but people trafficking continued in parts of the Empire under the guise of ‘indentured’ labour. The reports coming back to Britain were shocking and some kind of limit was required. Jack Renton’s job as an official regulator was an attempt to ‘police’ what was happening and to prevent the abuse of the islanders.

Jack Renton had come to love the island community that once held him as a slave. He understood that ‘blackbirding’, the trade in guns  and other western consumables was destroying a way of life which had existed for centuries. As a regulator perhaps he thought he could limit the worst of the trade in people.

In 1878 he was killed on the island of Aoba when he went ashore as his job of regulator required. When news of his death reached Sulufou, Kabou was grief stricken. The whole island went into weeks of mourning for Jack. A shrine was built in his honour in the little hut where he had lived with his woman. Sadly it burnt down in 1963 but Jack Renton and his incredible exploits lives on in the oral history of the islanders. Jack Renton, The White Headhunter.

Fiona Grahame

This article was first published in iScot Magazine

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