Malaita, the island of the white headhunter

Headhunting in the Solomon Islands region was a common practice long before the white man showed up. But there seems to have been only one European who took up the practice in a big way — and that man was the Englishman, Jack Renton.

When you look up ‘headhunting’ online you get returns like: Is headhunting a good career? Ahhh, well, not really unless they mean employment recruitment and the answer these days is still no.

But headhunting of old was practiced in many parts of the world and certainly deep into prehistory because heads, and the intimate bone therein, have so many uses — both as ritual objects and for candle holders, goblets and even as construction material. Now this article is exceptionally grizzly so make ready the barfbag. Proceed.

When Hernan’ Cortez invaded Mexico City in 1519, he encountered the biggest and most advanced city in the world at that time. There were perhaps a million people in the vicinity at a time when Paris had about 50,000. As Cortez and his army of less than 200 men rode into the city, they were a bit rattled by the open-air meat markets featuring human bodies but hey, when in Rome…(or in this case Tenochtitlan). But what really unzipped them were the towers of human skulls estimated to be the noggins of perhaps 300,000 folks.

Cortez and his men were also spooked by the human sacrifices of both enemy captives and the children of local royalty. These unlucky folks were ceremonially spilt open with obsidian knives and deprived of their hearts before being kicked down the steps of the pyramids and gobbled up by the taxpayers.

But when a local citizen was apprehended boosting a conquistador’s sword, Cortez had him burned at the stake; a method of dispatch the Aztecs found barbarous in extremis. This led to a rupture in the previous cordial relations. More on this in one of my favorite books Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy.

Skull collecting isn’t just the practice of crazy barbarians but also of crazy Italians. When my kids were little, I delighted in taking them (repeatedly) to the Capuchin Crypt in downtown Rome. I had found a photo of this haunting place when I was about ten and have had bad dreams ever since. The priests used the skulls of their parishioners as decoration (and not just the skulls but the whole body including the mummies of children literally nailed to the walls). Way better than the Teacup Ride at Disneyland. Dream on, my bambinos.

Of course some cultures who hunted heads were not interested in the skulls but preferred to skin the melon and shrink the skin. This is not hard to do nor does it take very long. Just a day or so.

Recipe for shrunken head:

  • Capture subject
  • Remove head and debone
  • Boil for two hours (don’t overcook)
  • Stitch up the openings except the neck
  • Fill with hot sand and repeat until the head shrinks to the size of your fist
  • Decorate to taste

I am something of an authority on shrunken heads. I could write a book. I might. There are five types of shrunken heads.

1. There is the highly prized Jivaro tribal heads from Equator and Peru. These are generally from the 19th century and are identified, catalogued and mostly in museums, like, say paintings by Matisse (or maybe Bruegel). These heads number in the low hundreds. They all have names (not the names of the original owners of course).

2. Then there is any old shrunken head but not a genuine Jivaro. These are still old and are collectables (though most countries prohibit their sale). Still you can get them, but not on Ebay…probably.

3. Then there is the shrunken monkey head. Fooled many a buyer this.

4. There is the goat. This involves using the skin and hair of a black goat and shrinking it over a crude form and punching holes to fake a head.

5. Then there is the plastic head—amazingly not sold a head shop but you can get this on Amazon thought ironically they don’t come from The Amazon but most likely from China

Years ago a guy I knew told he had a shrunken head which was abducted from South America by his grandfather before The War. I don’t recall which war. In any case he treasured it and thought it had great sentimental (and monetary) value. He wanted to know if it might be a rare Jivaro, or at worst, just any old human head. I told him that he shouldn’t show it to me because he might be disappointed. He said, no worries, he was willing to face the facts. So he brought me the head in its carefully crafted box and opened it revealing a velvet wrapped…goat skin.

He was not at all happy with my assessment. He actually tried to argue me out of my finding even though it needed lips, ears and a nose. I told him it could have been worse (but not much worse); it could have come from China.

So what happened to Jack Renton? Jack was a shipwrecked sailor who, after drifting for 2,000 miles, washed up on Malaita, an island speck in the Solomon archipelago in 1868. The Solomons were headhunter central and the locals could have fricasseed his head but instead the Big Man of the village made him a slave. Jack was a quick study and was eventually accepted as one of the tribe and, joining in the fun, went on several raiding trips to surrounding islands and brought back the goods.

Jack was rescued by a Royal Navy schooner called the Bobtailed Nag in 1875. The navy paid the islanders for his release with (according the ship’s log) “a dozen tomahawks, several yards of calico, a pan of ship’s biscuit and pipes with tobacco”—along with Jack’s vow to return with more supplies.

Jack did come back with the promised refreshments and thus became a hero to the islanders. He then became a ‘regulator’—an employment recruiter or another sort of headhunter. He was basically a labor broker for Melanesian islanders to come to work in Australia. He was also a South Sea Royal Navy policeman and his primary role was working to help prevent blackbirding, the local term for slave running. Having been a slave himself Jack was firmly in the anti camp.

Jack was lost at sea in 1878 and he was greatly mourned by his adopted tribe who sacrificed 300 pigs in his honor, which is lot of pigs. They built a shrine to Jack decorating it with skulls.

Jack is revered to this day on this little spot of somewhere.

Terrific video of skull towers

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4 Comments

  • I can only say

    “man you got a head of that story”

    Merry Christmas Be safe don’t lose your head over this

  • I perused your article while eating my supper this evening and after vomiting I remembered a great local band, the Shrunken Heads. They play a variety of covers, originals and blues. As a lad, I too was duped into buying a shrunken monkey head. Oh, and thank you for including that recipe.

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