Saturday, 15 August 2015

Solomon Islands - Blackbirders, beachcombers and the story of Jack Renton

I'd highly recommend Nigel Randell's book The White Headhunter: The story of a 19th century sailor who survived a South Seas' heart of darkness (2003). It's incredibly well-researched, informative and I found it very easy to read. 

The sailor in question was Jack Renton, a young man from the Orkney Islands who was press-ganged into working on a ship bound for the Pacific Ocean. Finding himself in hellish conditions extracting guano on a remote island in (what is now) Kiribati, he and several other men escaped and spent weeks drifting across the Pacific until they finally made landfall in Malaita, in the Solomon Islands. 

Randell's The White Headhunter (2003)
Jack Renton was the only survivor of the journey and went to live with a tribe in Sulufou, one of the artificial islands on Malaita's east coast. He remained on Malaita for eight years, during the 1870's, before being 'rescued' by fellow Europeans and brought to Australia, where his sensational story was published in the Brisbane Courier

Perhaps the most sensational parts of Renton's story (his involvement in war parties, headhunting and his marriage to a local Malaitan woman) were glossed over, being considered subjects that were too sensitive for his 19th century audience.

People were much more interested in hearing about how savage the tribes were in Malaita, which already had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in the world.  

Randell's theory is that it wasn't a black and white case of 'civilised white man forced to live with savages' but, rather, that Renton experienced a lot of kindness from the native people of Sulufou; he learnt their language and came to understand a culture steeped in centuries of tradition.

In fact, after a visit home to his native Orkney Islands, Renton missed the Pacific so much that he returned to Australia to take up a post inspecting ships that were sourcing Pacific labourers for work in Queensland's sugar cane plantations. 

The press-ganging of native Pacific Islanders to work in Queensland, known as blackbirding, was quite common in the mid-19th century. Ruthless blackbirders took advantage of the Pacific Islanders' desire to trade and they tricked men and women to come on-board their ships, so they could remove them from their native islands and transport them to a life of hard labour in Queensland. 

Pacific Islanders being freed from a blackbirding ship
State Library of Victoria, file on Wikipedia
Blackbirding caused a lot of problems, culturally, to the extent that white Europeans were no longer welcomed, as the Pacific Islanders feared kidnapping and death as a result of contact with the white Europeans on the blackbirding ships. 

Some blackbirders even masqueraded as Missionaries, because they knew that Missionaries had a relatively good reputation in places like the New Hebrides (modern-day Vanuatu), until it got to the point that the Pacific Islanders felt they could trust no-one and there were several cases where bona fide Missionaries were murdered, because the Islanders thought they were blackbirders. 

By the time Renton was rescued from Malaita, the recruitment of labour from the Pacific Islands had settled down somewhat into, more-or-less, acceptable three-year contracts. Once the Islanders understood that they would be able to earn some money and return home after their contracts expired, there was a lot more interest in travelling to Queensland for work.

What I loved about the way Randell did his research was that he used parallel narratives, i.e. both European sources, such as the many 19th century Beachcomber memoirs and the oral traditions of the Islanders themselves. It's interesting to note how the Islanders' oral accounts of Renton's time on Malaita, differ somewhat from the more official European version of his time on that island. 

Footprint in the sand, from my own photos
I'm also fascinated by the role that Beachcombers played in the politics of the 19th century Pacific region. According to Randell there were an estimated 1,500 Beachcombers of European origin living on various Pacific Islands in the 1830's. Most beachcombers lived on the friendlier Polynesian Islands rather than places like the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu. 

Some of them ended up in the Pacific as a result of shipwreck, others chose to live on Pacific Islands, in order to escape enforced labour or imprisonment in the new British penal colony of New South Wales. They played an interesting inter-cultural role, as contact between Europeans and the Pacific Islanders developed and I couldn't help but think again of the flip side of Solomon, i.e. the Queen of Sheba and the birth of international diplomacy. 

Randell also writes a lot about the establishment of Missionary stations in the Pacific and the power and influence that Missionaries eventually gained. Renton's friend, Kwaisulia, who eventually became the 'big man' in Sulufou, was dismissive of Christianity, but there was something inevitable about the advent of European traditions in the Pacific.

Nowadays 92% of people in the Solomon Islands profess Christianity as their religion, with only 5% of people following traditional animist beliefs (funnily enough, most of these are on Malaita!)

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Solomon Islands - Swimming in the Pacific

As part of my research into the Solomon Islands, I read Solomon Time (2002), Will Randall's account of the time he spent in New Georgia, where he attempted to run a sustainable chicken farm with a local community in Rendova. 

Although Randall's book wasn't packed with facts or interesting insights into the culture of New Georgia, it was an amusing read and a rare 'western' view of one of the world's most forgotten corners. 

Something I learned from his book, that I hadn't been aware of before, is the fact that the modern 'front crawl' in competitive swimming can trace its origins back to the style of swimming practised in the Roviana lagoon.

The Solomons Crawl

Freestyle by Michael Knight
Also known as the 'Australian crawl', this swimming technique was fully developed by the famous Cavill brothers, who had observed a young Solomon Islander who was living in Sydney, called Alick Wickham, using this swimming style. They refined the style and made it into a modern competitive sport. 

Interestingly, although versions of the front crawl have been around since ancient times, competitive swimmers in Britain, where the sport was first regulated in the 19th century, mostly used the breaststroke, which involves bobbing your head in and out of the water to get air. 

The first time people in Britain saw a competitive version of the front crawl was during a swimming race held in London in 1844, where native Canadian swimmers, from the Anishinaabe nation of Ontario, demonstrated this technique.

Styles of swimming

Butterfly by Michael Knight
There are three major swimming strokes that are recognised by FINA (La Fédération Internationale de Natation), the body that regulates competitive swimming for the Olympics, but these don't include the front crawl, which usually features during freestyle events. 

Competitive swimming events have taken place during the Summer Olympic Games since the modern games were founded in 1896. The first four games had swimming in outdoor bodies of water.  Freestyle swimming featured in the first modern Olympic games (Athens 1896) and eventually the three FINA-regulated styles were introduced, as separate competitions for backstroke (Paris 1900), breaststroke (St Louis 1904) and butterfly (Melbourne 1956). 

The butterfly (or dolphin) stroke was also developed by an Australian, Sydney Cavill, who was from the same family as the brothers who developed the front crawl.

Olympic champions

Freestyle swimmer by Michael Knight
I was surprised to learn that a Hungarian, Alfréd Hajós, became the world's first (male) Olympic champion. Hungary still ranks fourth in the world, in terms of winning Olympic medals in swimming - curious for a country that is landlocked, although I suppose they do have a fantastic lake in the middle of the country!

I also learned that women weren't allowed to compete in the first modern Summer Olympic games in Athens in 1896.  Women first competed at the Summer Olympics in Paris in 1900, but didn't compete in swimming events until the Stockholm Olympics of 1912.  

Solomon Islands first participated in the Olympics as a new nation in Los Angeles in 1984. They haven't yet won any medals and they haven't competed in swimming events, concentrating more on Athletics and Weightlifting.

Swimming in the Pacific

 FINA World Championships in Kazan
The Oceania Swimming Association (OSA) is the governing body for swimming competitions in the Pacific region. I don't think Solomon Islands participates in OCA events, which seems a shame considering the legacy of the front crawl swimmers from Roviana lagoon. 

FINA also runs its own world championships and, by coincidence, the 16th FINA World Championship is concluding today in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. There are 190 nations taking part in the 16th FINA championship but, unfortunately, Solomon Islands isn't one of them. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand dominate Oceanic swimming events, however, Papua New Guinea has a strong swimmer, Ryan Pini, the first Papuan swimmer ever to reach an Olympic final. Fiji and Samoa have hosted international swimming events, but neither of these nations have ever won a medal at the Summer Olympics.

Bizarrely, Fiji also competes in the Winter Olympics and has sent skiing competitors to the Winter Olympics in Calgary (1988), Lillehammer (1994) and Salt Lake City (2002).

Image credits:

For this blog post, I've used images by US-based photographer and Flickr member, Michael Knight. Thanks Michael for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  You can see more of Michael's photos on his website.