Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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IT WAS just in the middle of the merry, mellow afternoon that they ushered us to dinner, underneath a green shelter of palm boughs; open all round, and so low at the eaves that we stooped to enter.

Within, the ground was strewn over with aromatic ferns—called "nahee"—freshly gathered; which, stirred underfoot, diffused the sweetest odour. On one side was a row of yellow mats, inwrought with fibres of bark stained a bright red. Here, seated after the fashion of the Turk, we looked out, over a verdant bank, upon the mild, blue, endless Pacific. So far round had we skirted the island that the view of Tahiti was now intercepted.

Upon the ferns before us were laid several layers of broad, thick "pooroo" leaves; lapping over, one upon the other. And upon these were placed, side by side, newly-plucked banana leaves, at least two yards in length, and very wide; the stalks were withdrawn so as to make them lie flat. This green cloth was set out and garnished in the manner following:—

First, a number of "pooroo" leaves, by way of plates, were ranged along on one side; and by each was a rustic nut-bowl, half-filled with sea-water, and a Tahitian roll, or small bread-fruit, roasted brown. An immense flat calabash, placed in the centre, was heaped up with numberless small packages of moist, steaming leaves: in each was a small fish, baked in the earth, and done to a turn. This pyramid of a dish was flanked on either side by an ornamental calabash. One was brimming with the golden-hued "poee," or pudding, made from the red plantain of the mountains: the other was stacked up with cakes of the Indian turnip, previously macerated in a mortar, kneaded with the milk of the cocoa-nut, and then baked. In the spaces between the three dishes were piled young cocoa-nuts, stripped of their husks. Their eyes had been opened and enlarged; so that each was a ready-charged goblet.

There was a sort of side-cloth in one corner, upon which, in bright, buff jackets, lay the fattest of bananas; "avees," red-ripe: guavas with the shadows of their crimson pulp flushing through a transparent skin, and almost coming and going there like blushes; oranges, tinged, here and there, berry-brown; and great, jolly melons, which rolled about in very portliness. Such a heap! All ruddy, ripe, and round—bursting with the good cheer of the tropical soil from which they sprang!

"A land of orchards!" cried the doctor, in a rapture; and he snatched a morsel from a sort of fruit of which gentlemen of the sanguine temperament are remarkably fond; namely, the ripe cherry lips of Misa Day-Born, who stood looking on.

Marharvai allotted seats to his guests; and the meal began. Thinking that his hospitality needed some acknowledgment, I rose, and pledged him in the vegetable wine of the cocoa-nut; merely repeating the ordinary salutation, "Yar onor boyoee." Sensible that some compliment, after the fashion of white men, was paid him, with a smile, and a courteous flourish of the hand, he bade me be seated. No people, however refined, are more easy and graceful in their manners than the Imeeose.

The doctor, sitting next our host, now came under his special protection. Laying before his guest one of the packages of fish, Marharvai opened it; and commended its contents to his particular regards. But my comrade was one of those who, on convivial occasions, can always take care of themselves. He ate an indefinite number of "Pee-hee Lee Lees" (small fish), his own and next neighbour's bread-fruit; and helped himself, to right and left, with all the ease of an accomplished diner-out.

"Paul," said he, at last, "you don't seem to be getting along; why don't you try the pepper sauce?" and, by way of example, he steeped a morsel of food into his nutful of sea-water. On following suit, I found it quite piquant, though rather bitter; but, on the whole, a capital substitute for salt. The Imeeose invariably use sea-water in this way, deeming it quite a treat; and considering that their country is surrounded by an ocean of catsup, the luxury cannot be deemed an expensive one.

The fish were delicious; the manner of cooking them in the ground preserving all the juices, and rendering them exceedingly sweet and tender. The plantain pudding was almost cloying; the cakes of Indian turnip, quite palatable; and the roasted bread-fruit, crisp as toast.

During the meal, a native lad walked round and round the party, carrying a long staff of bamboo. This he occasionally tapped upon the cloth, before each guest; when a white clotted substance dropped forth, with a savour not unlike that of a curd. This proved to be "Lownee," an excellent relish, prepared from the grated meat of ripe cocoa-nuts, moistened with cocoa-nut milk and salt water, and kept perfectly tight until a little past the saccharine stage of fermentation.

Throughout the repast there was much lively chatting among the islanders, in which their conversational powers quite exceeded ours. The young ladies, too, showed themselves very expert in the use of their tongues, and contributed much to the gaiety which prevailed.

Nor did these lively nymphs suffer the meal to languish; for upon the doctor's throwing himself back, with an air of much satisfaction, they sprang to their feet, and pelted him with oranges and guavas. This, at last, put an end to the entertainment.

By a hundred whimsical oddities, my long friend became a great favourite with these people; and they bestowed upon him a long, comical title, expressive of his lank figure and Koora combined. The latter, by the bye, never failed to excite the remark of everybody we encountered.

The giving of nicknames is quite a passion with the people of Tahiti and Imeeo. No one with any peculiarity, whether of person or temper, is exempt; not even strangers.

A pompous captain of a man-of-war, visiting Tahiti for the second time, discovered that, among the natives, he went by the dignified title of "Atee Poee"—literally, Poee Head, or Pudding Head. Nor is the highest rank among themselves any protection. The first husband of the present queen was commonly known in the court circles as "Pot Belly." He carried the greater part of his person before him, to be sure; and so did the gentlemanly George IV.—but what a title for a king consort!

Even "Pomaree" itself, the royal patronymic, was, originally, a mere nickname; and literally signifies, one talking through his nose. The first monarch of that name, being on a war party, and sleeping overnight among the mountains, awoke one morning with a cold in his head; and some wag of a courtier had no more manners than to vulgarize him thus.

How different from the volatile Polynesian in this, as in all other respects, is our grave and decorous North American Indian. While the former bestows a name in accordance with some humorous or ignoble trait, the latter seizes upon what is deemed the most exalted or warlike: and hence, among the red tribes, we have the truly patrician appellations of "White Eagles," "Young Oaks," "Fiery Eyes," and "Bended Bows."

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.