Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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UPON starting, at last, I flung away my sandals—by this time quite worn out—with the view of keeping company with the doctor, now forced to go barefooted. Recovering his spirits in good time, he protested that boots were a bore after all, and going without them decidedly manly.

This was said, be it observed, while strolling along over a soft carpet of grass; a little moist, even at midday, from the shade of the wood through which we were passing.

Emerging from this we entered upon a blank, sandy tract, upon which the sun's rays fairly flashed; making the loose gravel under foot well nigh as hot as the floor of an oven. Such yelling and leaping as there was in getting over this ground would be hard to surpass. We could not have crossed at all—until toward sunset—had it not been for a few small, wiry bushes growing here and there, into which we every now and then thrust our feet to cool. There was no little judgment necessary in selecting your bush; for if not chosen judiciously, the chances were that, on springing forward again, and finding the next bush so far off that an intermediate cooling was indispensable, you would have to run hack to your old place again.

Safely passing the Sahara, or Fiery Desert, we soothed our half-blistered feet by a pleasant walk through a meadow of long grass, which soon brought us in sight of a few straggling houses, sheltered by a grove on the outskirts of the village of Partoowye.

My comrade was for entering the first one we came to; but, on drawing near, they had so much of an air of pretension, at least for native dwellings, that I hesitated; thinking they might be the residences of the higher chiefs, from whom no very extravagant welcome was to be anticipated.

While standing irresolute, a voice from the nearest house hailed us: "Aramai! aramai, karhowree!" (Come in! come in, strangers!)

We at once entered, and were warmly greeted. The master of the house was an aristocratic-looking islander, dressed in loose linen drawers, a fine white shirt, and a sash of red silk tied about the waist, after the fashion of the Spaniards in Chili. He came up to us with a free, frank air, and, striking his chest with his hand, introduced himself as Ereemear Po-Po; or, to render the Christian name back again into English—Jeremiah Po-Po.

These curious combinations of names among the people of the Society Islands originate in the following way. When a native is baptized, his patronymic often gives offence to the missionaries, and they insist upon changing to something else whatever is objectionable therein. So, when Jeremiah came to the font, and gave his name as Narmo-Nana Po-Po (something equivalent to The-Darer-of-Devils-by-Night), the reverend gentleman officiating told him that such a heathenish appellation would never do, and a substitute must be had; at least for the devil part of it. Some highly respectable Christian appellations were then submitted, from which the candidate for admission into the church was at liberty to choose. There was Adamo (Adam), Nooar (Noah), Daveedar (David), Earcobar (James), Eorna (John), Patoora (Peter), Ereemear (Jeremiah), etc. And thus did he come to be named Jeremiah Po-Po; or, Jeremiah-in-the-Dark—which he certainly was, I fancy, as to the ridiculousness of his new cognomen.

We gave our names in return; upon which he bade us be seated; and, sitting down himself, asked us a great many questions, in mixed English and Tahitian. After giving some directions to an old man to prepare food, our host's wife, a large, benevolent-looking woman, upwards of forty, also sat down by us. In our soiled and travel-stained appearance, the good lady seemed to find abundant matter for commiseration; and all the while kept looking at us piteously, and making mournful exclamations.

But Jeremiah and his spouse were not the only inmates of the mansion.

In one corner, upon a large native couch, elevated upon posts, reclined a nymph; who, half-veiled in her own long hair, had yet to make her toilet for the day. She was the daughter of Po-Po; and a very beautiful little daughter she was; not more than fourteen; with the most delightful shape—like a bud just blown; and large hazel eyes. They called her Loo; a name rather pretty and genteel, and therefore quite appropriate; for a more genteel and lady-like little damsel there was not in all Imeeo.

She was a cold and haughty young beauty though, this same little Loo, and never deigned to notice us; further than now and then to let her eyes float over our persons, with an expression of indolent indifference. With the tears of the Loohooloo girls hardly dry from their sobbing upon our shoulders, this contemptuous treatment stung us not a little.

When we first entered, Po-Po was raking smooth the carpet of dried ferns which had that morning been newly laid; and now that our meal was ready, it was spread on a banana leaf, right upon this fragrant floor. Here we lounged at our ease, eating baked pig and breadfruit off earthen plates, and using, for the first time in many a long month, real knives and forks.

These, as well as other symptoms of refinement, somewhat abated our surprise at the reserve of the little Loo; her parents, doubtless, were magnates in Partoowye, and she herself was an heiress.

After being informed of our stay in the vale of Martair, they were very curious to know on what errand we came to Taloo. We merely hinted that the ship lying in the harbour was the reason of our coming.

Arfretee, Po-Po's wife, was a right motherly body. The meal over, she recommended a nap; and upon our waking much refreshed, she led us to the doorway, and pointed down among the trees; through which we saw the gleam of water. Taking the hint, we repaired thither; and finding a deep shaded pool, bathed, and returned to the house. Our hostess now sat down by us; and after looking with great interest at the doctor's cloak, felt of my own soiled and tattered garments for the hundredth time, and exclaimed plaintively—"Ah nuee nuee olee manee! olee manee!" (Alas! they are very, very old! very old!)

When Arfretee, good soul, thus addressed us, she thought she was talking very respectable English. The word "nuee" is so familiar to foreigners throughout Polynesia, and is so often used by them in their intercourse with the natives, that the latter suppose it to be common to all mankind. "Olee manee" is the native pronunciation of "old man," which, by Society Islanders talking Saxon, is applied indiscriminately to all aged things and persons whatsoever.

Going to a chest filled with various European articles, she took out two suits of new sailor frocks and trousers; and presenting them with a gracious smile, pushed us behind a calico screen, and left us. Without any fastidious scruples, we donned the garments; and what with the meal, the nap, and the bath, we now came forth like a couple of bridegrooms.

Evening drawing on, lamps were lighted. They were very simple; the half of a green melon, about one third full of cocoa-nut oil, and a wick of twisted tappa floating on the surface. As a night lamp, this contrivance cannot be excelled; a soft dreamy light being shed through the transparent rind.

As the evening advanced, other members of the household, whom as yet we had not seen, began to drop in. There was a slender young dandy in a gay striped shirt, and whole fathoms of bright figured calico tucked about his waist, and falling to the ground. He wore a new straw hat also with three distinct ribbons tied about the crown; one black, one green, and one pink. Shoes or stockings, however, he had none.

There were a couple of delicate, olive-cheeked little girls—twins—with mild eyes and beautiful hair, who ran about the house, half-naked, like a couple of gazelles. They had a brother, somewhat younger—a fine dark boy, with an eye like a woman's. All these were the children of Po-Po, begotten in lawful wedlock.

Then there were two or three queer-looking old ladies, who wore shabby mantles of soiled sheeting, which fitted so badly, and withal had such a second-hand look that I at once put their wearers down as domestic paupers—poor relations, supported by the bounty of My Lady Arfretee. They were sad, meek old bodies; said little and ate less; and either kept their eyes on the ground, or lifted them up deferentially. The semi-civilization of the island must have had something to do with making them what they were.

I had almost forgotten Monee, the grinning old man who prepared our meal. His head was a shining, bald globe. He had a round little paunch, and legs like a cat. He was Po-Po's factotum—cook, butler, and climber of the bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees; and, added to all else, a mighty favourite with his mistress; with whom he would sit smoking and gossiping by the hour.

Often you saw the indefatigable Monee working away at a great rate; then dropping his employment all at once—never mind what—run off to a little distance, and after rolling himself away in a corner and taking a nap, jump up again, and fall to with fresh vigour.

From a certain something in the behaviour of Po-Po and his household, I was led to believe that he was a pillar of the church; though, from what I had seen in Tahiti, I could hardly reconcile such a supposition with his frank, cordial, unembarrassed air. But I was not wrong in my conjecture: Po-Po turned out to be a sort of elder, or deacon; he was also accounted a man of wealth, and was nearly related to a high chief.

Before retiring, the entire household gathered upon the floor; and in their midst, he read aloud a chapter from a Tahitian Bible. Then kneeling with the rest of us, he offered up a prayer. Upon its conclusion, all separated without speaking. These devotions took place regularly, every night and morning. Grace too was invariably said, by this family, both before and after eating.

After becoming familiarized with the almost utter destitution of anything like practical piety upon these islands, what I observed in. our host's house astonished me much. But whatever others might have been, Po-Po was, in truth, a Christian: the only one, Arfretee excepted, whom I personally knew to be such, among all the natives of Polynesia.

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