Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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THE night we left Hannamanoo was bright and starry, and so warm that, when the watches were relieved, most of the men, instead of going below, flung themselves around the foremast.

Toward morning, finding the heat of the forecastle unpleasant, I ascended to the deck where everything was noiseless. The Trades were blowing with a mild, steady strain upon the canvas, and the ship heading right out into the immense blank of the Western Pacific. The watch were asleep. With one foot resting on the rudder, even the man at the helm nodded, and the mate himself, with arms folded, was leaning against the capstan.

On such a night, and all alone, reverie was inevitable. I leaned over the side, and could not help thinking of the strange objects we might be sailing over.

But my meditations were soon interrupted by a gray, spectral shadow cast over the heaving billows. It was the dawn, soon followed by the first rays of the morning. They flashed into view at one end of the arched night, like—to compare great things with small—the gleamings of Guy Fawkes's lantern in the vaults of the Parliament House. Before long, what seemed a live ember rested for a moment on the rim of the ocean, and at last the blood-red sun stood full and round in the level East, and the long sea-day began.

Breakfast over, the first thing attended to was the formal baptism of Wymontoo, who, after thinking over his affairs during the night, looked dismal enough.

There were various opinions as to a suitable appellation. Some maintained that we ought to call him "Sunday," that being the day we caught him; others, "Eighteen Forty-two," the then year of our Lord; while Doctor Long Ghost remarked that he ought, by all means, to retain his original name,—Wymontoo-Hee, meaning (as he maintained), in the figurative language of the island, something analogous to one who had got himself into a scrape. The mate put an end to the discussion by sousing the poor fellow with a bucket of salt water, and bestowing upon him the nautical appellation of "Luff."

Though a certain mirthfulness succeeded his first pangs at leaving home, Wymontoo—we will call him thus—gradually relapsed into his former mood, and became very melancholy. Often I noticed him crouching apart in the forecastle, his strange eyes gleaming restlessly, and watching the slightest movement of the men. Many a time he must have been thinking of his bamboo hut, when they were talking of Sydney and its dance-houses.

We were now fairly at sea, though to what particular cruising-ground we were going, no one knew; and, to all appearances, few cared. The men, after a fashion of their own, began to settle down into the routine of sea-life, as if everything was going on prosperously. Blown along over a smooth sea, there was nothing to do but steer the ship, and relieve the "look-outs" at the mast-heads. As for the sick, they had two or three more added to their number—the air of the island having disagreed with the constitutions of several of the runaways. To crown all, the captain again relapsed, and became quite ill.

The men fit for duty were divided into two small watches, headed respectively by the mate and the Mowree; the latter by virtue of his being a harpooner, succeeding to the place of the second mate, who had absconded.

In this state of things whaling was out of the question; but in the face of everything, Jermin maintained that the invalids would soon be well. However that might be, with the same pale Hue sky overhead, we kept running steadily to the westward. Forever advancing, we seemed always in the same place, and every day was the former lived over again. We saw no ships, expected to see none. No sign of life was perceptible but the porpoises and other fish sporting under the bows like pups ashore. But, at intervals, the gray albatross, peculiar to these seas, came flapping his immense wings over us, and then skimmed away silently as if from a plague-ship. Or flights of the tropic bird, known among seamen as the "boatswain," wheeled round and round us, whistling shrilly as they flew.

The uncertainty hanging over our destination at this time, and the fact that we were abroad upon waters comparatively little traversed, lent an interest to this portion of the cruise which I shall never forget.

From obvious prudential considerations the Pacific has been principally sailed over in known tracts, and this is the reason why new islands are still occasionally discovered by exploring ships and adventurous whalers notwithstanding the great number of vessels of all kinds of late navigating this vast ocean. Indeed, considerable portions still remain wholly unexplored; and there is doubt as to the actual existence of certain shoals, and reefs, and small clusters of islands vaguely laid down in the charts. The mere circumstance, therefore, of a ship like ours penetrating into these regions, was sufficient to cause any reflecting mind to feel at least a little uneasy. For my own part, the many stories I had heard of ships striking at midnight upon unknown rocks, with all sail set, and a slumbering crew, often recurred to me, especially, as from the absence of discipline, and our being so shorthanded, the watches at night were careless in the extreme.

But no thoughts like these were entertained by my reckless shipmates; and along we went, the sun every evening setting right ahead of our jib boom.

For what reason the mate was so reserved with regard to our precise destination was never made known. The stories he told us, I, for one, did not believe; deeming them all a mere device to lull the crew.

He said we were bound to a fine cruising ground, scarcely known to other whalemen, which he had himself discovered when commanding a small brig upon a former voyage. Here, the sea was alive with large whales, so tame that all you had to do was to go up and kill them: they were too frightened to resist. A little to leeward of this was a small cluster of islands, where we were going to refit, abounding with delicious fruits, and peopled by a race almost wholly unsophisticated by intercourse with strangers.

In order, perhaps, to guard against the possibility of anyone finding out the precise latitude and longitude of the spot we were going to, Jermin never revealed to us the ship's place at noon, though such is the custom aboard of most vessels.

Meanwhile, he was very assiduous in his attention to the invalids. Doctor Long Ghost having given up the keys of the medicine-chest, they were handed over to him; and, as physician, he discharged his duties to the satisfaction of all. Pills and powders, in most cases, were thrown to the fish, and in place thereof, the contents of a mysterious little quarter cask were produced, diluted with water from the "butt." His draughts were mixed on the capstan, in cocoa-nut shells marked with the patients' names. Like shore doctors, he did not eschew his own medicines, for his professional calls in the forecastle were sometimes made when he was comfortably tipsy: nor did he omit keeping his invalids in good-humour, spinning his yarns to them, by the hour, whenever he went to see them.

Owing to my lameness, from which I soon began to recover, I did no active duty, except standing an occasional "trick" at the helm. It was in the forecastle chiefly, that I spent my time, in company with the Long Doctor, who was at great pains to make himself agreeable. His books, though sadly torn and tattered, were an invaluable resource. I read them through again and again, including a learned treatise on the yellow fever. In addition to these, he had an old file of Sydney papers, and I soon became intimately acquainted with the localities of all the advertising tradesmen there. In particular, the rhetorical flourishes of Stubbs, the real-estate auctioneer, diverted me exceedingly, and I set him down as no other than a pupil of Robins the Londoner.

Aside from the pleasure of his society, my intimacy with Long Ghost was of great service to me in other respects. His disgrace in the cabin only confirmed the good-will of the democracy in the forecastle; and they not only treated him in the most friendly manner, but looked up to him with the utmost deference, besides laughing heartily at all his jokes. As his chosen associate, this feeling for him extended to me, and gradually we came to be regarded in the light of distinguished guests. At meal-times we were always first served, and otherwise were treated with much respect.

Among other devices to kill time, during the frequent calms, Long Ghost hit upon the game of chess. With a jack-knife, we carved the pieces quite tastefully out of bits of wood, and our board was the middle of a chest-lid, chalked into squares, which, in playing, we straddled at either end. Having no other suitable way of distinguishing the sets, I marked mine by tying round them little scarfs of black silk, torn from an old neck-handkerchief. Putting them in mourning this way, the doctor said, was quite appropriate, seeing that they had reason to feel sad three games out of four. Of chess, the men never could make head nor tail; indeed, their wonder rose to such a pitch that they at last regarded the mysterious movements of the game with something more than perplexity; and after puzzling over them through several long engagements, they came to the conclusion that we must be a couple of necromancers.

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.