Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



OWING to the absence of anything like regular discipline, the vessel was in a state of the greatest uproar. The captain, having for some time past been more or less confined to the cabin from sickness, was seldom seen. The mate, however, was as hearty as a young lion, and ran about the decks making himself heard at all hours. Bembo, the New Zealand harpooner, held little intercourse with anybody but the mate, who could talk to him freely in his own lingo. Part of his time he spent out on the bowsprit, fishing for albicores with a bone hook; and occasionally he waked all hands up of a dark night dancing some cannibal fandango all by himself on the forecastle. But, upon the whole, he was remarkably quiet, though something in his eye showed he was far from being harmless.

Doctor Long Ghost, having sent in a written resignation as the ship's doctor, gave himself out as a passenger for Sydney, and took the world quite easy. As for the crew, those who were sick seemed marvellously contented for men in their condition; and the rest, not displeased with the general licence, gave themselves little thought of the morrow.

The Julia's provisions were very poor. When opened, the barrels of pork looked as if preserved in iron rust, and diffused an odour like a stale ragout. The beef was worse yet; a mahogany-coloured fibrous substance, so tough and tasteless, that I almost believed the cook's story of a horse's hoof with the shoe on having been fished up out of the pickle of one of the casks. Nor was the biscuit much better; nearly all of it was broken into hard, little gunflints, honeycombed through and through, as if the worms usually infesting this article in long tropical voyages had, in boring after nutriment, come out at the antipodes without finding anything.

Of what sailors call "small stores," we had but little. "Tea," however, we had in abundance; though, I dare say, the Hong merchants never had the shipping of it. Beside this, every other day we had what English seamen call "shot soup"—great round peas, polishing themselves like pebbles by rolling about in tepid water.

It was afterward told me, that all our provisions had been purchased by the owners at an auction sale of condemned navy stores in Sydney.

But notwithstanding the wateriness of the first course of soup, and the saline flavour of the beef and pork, a sailor might have made a satisfactory meal aboard of the Julia had there been any side dishes—a potato or two, a yam, or a plantain. But there was nothing of the kind. Still, there was something else, which, in the estimation of the men, made up for all deficiencies; and that was the regular allowance of Pisco.

It may seem strange that in such a state of affairs the captain should be willing to keep the sea with his ship. But the truth was, that by lying in harbour, he ran the risk of losing the remainder of his men by desertion; and as it was, he still feared that, in some outlandish bay or other, he might one day find his anchor down, and no crew to weigh it.

With judicious officers the most unruly seamen can at sea be kept in some sort of subjection; but once get them within a cable's length of the land, and it is hard restraining them. It is for this reason that many South Sea whalemen do not come to anchor for eighteen or twenty months on a stretch. When fresh provisions are needed, they run for the nearest land—heave to eight or ten miles off, and send a boat ashore to trade. The crews manning vessels like these are for the most part villains of all nations and dyes; picked up in the lawless ports of the Spanish Main, and among the savages of the islands. Like galley-slaves, they are only to be governed by scourges and chains. Their officers go among them with dirk and pistol—concealed, but ready at a grasp.

Not a few of our own crew were men of this stamp; but, riotous at times as they were, the bluff drunken energies of Jennin were just the thing to hold them in some sort of noisy subjection. Upon an emergency, he flew in among them, showering his kicks and cuffs right and left, and "creating a sensation" in every direction. And as hinted before, they bore this knock-down authority with great good-humour. A sober, discreet, dignified officer could have done nothing with them; such a set would have thrown him and his dignity overboard.

Matters being thus, there was nothing for the ship but to keep the sea. Nor was the captain without hope that the invalid portion of his crew, as well as himself, would soon recover; and then there was no telling what luck in the fishery might yet be in store for us. At any rate, at the time of my coming aboard, the report was, that Captain Guy was resolved upon retrieving the past and filling the vessel with oil in the shortest space possible.

With this intention, we were now shaping our course for Hytyhoo, a village on the island of St. Christina—one of the Marquesas, and so named by Mendanna—for the purpose of obtaining eight seamen, who, some weeks before, had stepped ashore there from the Julia. It was supposed that, by this time, they must have recreated themselves sufficiently, and would be glad to return to their duty.

So to Hytyhoo, with all our canvas spread, and coquetting with the warm, breezy Trades, we bowled along; gliding up and down the long, slow swells, the bonettas and albicores frolicking round us.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.