Melville & the Cannibals

January 3: On this day in 1841 twenty-two-year-old Herman Melville set sail aboard the Acushnet, a New England whaler heading for the South Seas. His experiences on this and several subsequent voyages would provide the basis for a half-dozen sea novels written in a five-year burst, 1846-51. In his lifetime, and much to his disgust, Melville's reputation was not made on the last of those, Moby Dick, but on the first, Typee, and its sequel, Omoo.

 

As described in the earlier, British edition, Typee is the "Narrative of a Four Months' Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands." Initially, the living is easy, commencing with the women who swim out to greet the boat and are enthusiastically helped aboard: "What a sight for us bachelor sailors! How avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they had swam miles to welcome us?" But Melville's narrator is a man of high principles and a non-participant in "every species of riot and debauchery" that followed. As did Melville himself, the narrator soon jumps ship and heads for land, where he was almost immediately and somewhat willingly captured by the Typees, a generally friendly tribe but one with a taste for, as they put it, "long pig." The narrator's internal debate over his hospitable captivity—food, leisure, and the fetching Fayaway versus a worry over being forcibly tattooed or otherwise made fit for Typee society—becomes a resolution to escape upon his first glimpse of the cooking pot:

…I observed a curiously carved vessel of wood, of considerable size, with a cover placed over it, of the same material, and which resembled in shape a small canoe. It was surrounded by a low railing of bamboos, the top of which was scarcely a foot from the ground. As the vessel had been placed in its present position since my last visit, I at once concluded that it must have some connection with the recent festival, and, prompted by a curiosity I could not repress, in passing it I raised one end of the cover; at the same moment the chiefs, perceiving my design, loudly ejaculated, 'Taboo! taboo!'

But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon the disordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture, and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there!


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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