Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



BEFORE we proceed further, a word or two concerning these wild cattle, and the way they came on the island.

Some fifty years ago, Vancouver left several bullocks, sheep and goats, at various places in the Society group. He instructed the natives to look after the animals carefully; and by no means to slaughter any until a considerable stock had accumulated.

The sheep must have died off: for I never saw a solitary fleece in any part of Polynesia. The pair left were an ill-assorted couple, perhaps; separated in disgust, and died without issue.

As for the goats, occasionally you come across a black, misanthropic ram, nibbling the scant herbage of some height inaccessible to man, in preference to the sweet grasses of the valley below. The goats are not very numerous.

The bullocks, coming of a prolific ancestry, are a hearty set, racing over the island of Imeeo in considerable numbers, though in Tahiti but few of them are seen. At the former place, the original pair must have scampered off to the interior since it is now so thickly populated by their wild progeny. The herds are the private property of Queen Pomaree; from whom the planters had obtained permission to shoot for their own use as many as they pleased.

The natives stand in great awe of these cattle; and for this reason are excessively timid in crossing the island, preferring rather to sail round to an opposite village in their canoes.

Tonoi abounded in bullock stories; most of which, by the bye, had a spice of the marvellous. The following is one of these.

Once upon a time, he was going over the hills with a brother—now no more—when a great bull came bellowing out of a wood, and both took to their heels. The old chief sprang into a tree; his companion, flying in an opposite direction, was pursued, and, in the very act of reaching up to a bough, trampled underfoot. The unhappy man was then gored—tossed in the air—and finally run away with on the bull's horns. More dead than alive, Tonoi waited till all was over, and then made the best of his way home. The neighbours, armed with two or three muskets, at once started to recover, if possible, his unfortunate brother's remains. At nightfall, they returned without discovering any trace of him; but the next morning, Tonoi himself caught a glimpse of the bullock, marching across the mountain's brow, with a long dark object borne aloft on his horns.

Having referred to Vancouver's attempts to colonize the islands with useful quadrupeds, we may as well say something concerning his success upon Hawaii, one of the largest islands in the whole Polynesian Archipelago; and which gives the native name to the well-known cluster named by Cook in honour of Lord Sandwich.

Hawaii is some one hundred leagues in circuit, and covers an area of over four thousand miles. Until within a few years past, its interior was almost unknown, even to the inhabitants themselves, who, for ages, had been prevented from wandering thither by certain strange superstitions. Pelee, the terrific goddess of the volcanoes Mount Eoa and Mount Kea, was supposed to guard all the passes to the extensive valleys lying round their base. There are legends of her having chased with streams of fire several impious adventurers. Near Hilo, a jet-black cliff is shown, with the vitreous torrent apparently pouring over into the sea: just as it cooled after one of these supernatural eruptions.

To these inland valleys, and the adjoining hillsides, which are clothed in the most luxuriant vegetation, Vancouver's bullocks soon wandered; and unmolested for a long period, multiplied in vast herds.

Some twelve or fifteen years ago, the natives lost sight of their superstitions, and learning the value of the hides in commerce, began hunting the creatures that wore them; but being very fearful and awkward in a business so novel, their success was small; and it was not until the arrival of a party of Spanish hunters, men regularly trained to their calling upon the plains of California, that the work of slaughter was fairly begun.

The Spaniards were showy fellows, tricked out in gay blankets, leggings worked with porcupine quills, and jingling spurs. Mounted upon trained Indian mares, these heroes pursued their prey up to the very base of the burning mountains; making the profoundest solitudes ring with their shouts, and flinging the lasso under the very nose of the vixen goddess Pelee. Hilo, a village upon the coast, was their place of resort; and thither flocked roving whites from all the islands of the group. As pupils of the dashing Spaniards, many of these dissipated fellows, quaffing too freely of the stirrup-cup, and riding headlong after the herds, when they reeled in the saddle, were unhorsed and killed.

This was about the year 1835, when the present king, Tammahamaha III., was a lad. With royal impudence laying claim to the sole property of the cattle, he was delighted with the idea of receiving one of every two silver dollars paid down for their hides; so, with no thought for the future, the work of extermination went madly on. In three years' time, eighteen thousand bullocks were slain, almost entirely upon the single island of Hawaii.

The herds being thus nearly destroyed, the sagacious young prince imposed a rigorous "taboo" upon the few surviving cattle, which was to remain in force for ten years. During this period—not yet expired—all hunting is forbidden, unless directly authorized by the king.

The massacre of the cattle extended to the hapless goats. In one year, three thousand of their skins were sold to the merchants of Honolulu, fetching a quartila, or a shilling sterling apiece.

After this digression, it is time to run on after Tonoi and the Yankee.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson