Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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IN Partoowye is to be seen one of the best-constructed and handsomest chapels in the South Seas. Like the buildings of the palace, it stands upon an artificial pier, presenting a semicircular sweep to the bay. The chapel is built of hewn blocks of coral; a substance which, although extremely friable, is said to harden by exposure to the atmosphere. To a stranger, these blocks look extremely curious. Their surface is covered with strange fossil-like impressions, the seal of which must have been set before the flood. Very nearly white when hewn from the reefs, the coral darkens with age; so that several churches in Polynesia now look almost as sooty and venerable as famed St. Paul's.

In shape, the chapel is an octagon, with galleries all round. It will seat, perhaps, four hundred people. Everything within is stained a tawny red; and there being but few windows, or rather embrasures, the dusky benches and galleries, and the tall spectre of a pulpit look anything but cheerful.

On Sundays we always went to worship here. Going in the family suite of Po-Po, we, of course, maintained a most decorous exterior; and hence, by all the elderly people of the village, were doubtless regarded as pattern young men.

Po-Po's seat was in a snug corner; and it being particularly snug, in the immediate vicinity of one of the Palm pillars supporting the gallery, I invariably leaned against it: Po-Po and his lady on one side, the doctor and the dandy on the other, and the children and poor relations seated behind.

As for Loo, instead of sitting (as she ought to have done) by her good father and mother, she must needs run up into the gallery, and sit with a parcel of giddy creatures of her own age; who, all through the sermon, did nothing but look down on the congregation; pointing out, and giggling at the queer-looking old ladies in dowdy bonnets and scant tunics. But Loo, herself, was never guilty of these improprieties.

Occasionally during the week they have afternoon service in the chapel, when the natives themselves have something to say; although their auditors are but few. An introductory prayer being offered by the missionary, and a hymn sung, communicants rise in their places, and exhort in pure Tahitian, and with wonderful tone and gesture. And among them all, Deacon Po-Po, though he talked most, was the one whom you would have liked best to hear. Much would I have given to have understood some of his impassioned bursts; when he tossed his arms overhead, stamped, scowled, and glared, till he looked like the very Angel of Vengeance.

"Deluded man!" sighed the doctor, on one of these occasions, "I fear he takes the fanatical view of the subject." One thing was certain: when Po-Po spoke, all listened; a great deal more than could be said for the rest; for under the discipline of two or three I could mention, some of the audience napped; others fidgeted; a few yawned; and one irritable old gentleman, in a nightcap of cocoa-nut leaves, used to clutch his long staff in a state of excessive nervousness, and stride out of the church, making all the noise he could, to emphasize his disgust.

Right adjoining the chapel is an immense, rickety building, with windows and shutters, and a half-decayed board flooring laid upon trunks of palm-trees. They called it a school-house; but as such we never saw it occupied. It was often used as a court-room, however; and here we attended several trials; among others, that of a decayed naval officer, and a young girl of fourteen; the latter charged with having been very naughty on a particular occasion set forth in the pleadings; and the former with having aided and abetted her in her naughtiness, and with other misdemeanours.

The foreigner was a tall, military-looking fellow, with a dark cheek and black whiskers. According to his own account, he had lost a colonial armed brig on the coast of New Zealand; and since then, had been leading the life of a man about town among the islands of the Pacific.

The doctor wanted to know why he did not go home and report the loss of his brig; but Captain Crash, as they called him, had some incomprehensible reasons for not doing so, about which he could talk by the hour, and no one be any the wiser. Probably he was a discreet man, and thought it best to waive an interview with the lords of the admiralty.

For some time past, this extremely suspicious character had been carrying on the illicit trade in French wines and brandies, smuggled over from the men-of-war lately touching at Tahiti. In a grove near the anchorage he had a rustic shanty and arbour, where, in quiet times, when no ships were in Taloo, a stray native once in a while got boozy, and staggered home, catching at the cocoa-nut trees as he went. The captain himself lounged under a tree during the warm afternoons, pipe in mouth; thinking, perhaps, over old times, and occasionally feeling his shoulders for his lost epaulets.

But, sail ho! a ship is descried coming into the bay. Soon she drops her anchor in its waters; and the next day Captain Crash entertains the sailors in his grove. And rare times they have of it:—drinking and quarrelling together as sociably as you please.

Upon one of these occasions, the crew of the Leviathan made so prodigious a tumult that the natives, indignant at the insult offered their laws, plucked up a heart, and made a dash at the rioters, one hundred strong. The sailors fought like tigers; but were at last overcome, and carried before a native tribunal; which, after a mighty clamour, dismissed everybody but Captain Crash, who was asserted to be the author of the disorders.

Upon this charge, then, he had been placed in confinement against the coming on of the assizes; the judge being expected to lounge along in the course of the afternoon. While waiting his Honour's arrival, numerous additional offences were preferred against the culprit (mostly by the old women); among others was the bit of a slip in which he stood implicated along with the young lady. Thus, in Polynesia as elsewhere;—charge a man with one misdemeanour, and all his peccadilloes are raked up and assorted before him.

Going to the school-house for the purpose of witnessing the trial, the din of it assailed our ears a long way off; and upon entering the building, we were almost stunned. About five hundred natives were present; each apparently having something to say and determined to say it. His Honour—a handsome, benevolent-looking old man—sat cross-legged on a little platform, seemingly resigned, with all Christian submission, to the uproar. He was an hereditary chief in this quarter of the island, and judge for life in the district of Partoowye.

There were several cases coming on; but the captain and girl were first tried together. They were mixing freely with the crowd; and as it afterwards turned out that everyone—no matter who—had a right to address the court, for aught we knew they might have been arguing their own case. At what precise moment the trial began it would be hard to say. There was no swearing of witnesses, and no regular jury. Now and then somebody leaped up and shouted out something which might have been evidence; the rest, meanwhile, keeping up an incessant jabbering. Presently the old judge himself began to get excited; and springing to his feet, ran in among the crowd, wagging his tongue as hard as anybody.

The tumult lasted about twenty minutes; and toward the end of it, Captain Crash might have been seen, tranquilly regarding, from his Honour's platform, the judicial uproar, in which his fate was about being decided.

The result of all this was that both he and the girl were found guilty. The latter was adjudged to make six mats for the queen; and the former, in consideration of his manifold offences, being deemed incorrigible, was sentenced to eternal banishment from the island. Both these decrees seemed to originate in the general hubbub. His Honour, however, appeared to have considerable authority, and it was quite plain that the decision received his approval.

The above penalties were by no means indiscriminately inflicted. The missionaries have prepared a sort of penal tariff to facilitate judicial proceedings. It costs so many days' labour on the Broom Road to indulge in the pleasures of the calabash; so many fathoms of stone wall to steal a musket; and so on to the end of the catalogue. The judge being provided with a book in which all these matters are cunningly arranged, the thing is vastly convenient. For instance: a crime is proved,—say bigamy; turn to letter B—and there you have it. Bigamy:—forty days on the Broom Road, and twenty mats for the queen. Read the passage aloud, and sentence is pronounced.

After taking part in the first trial, the other delinquents present were put upon their own; in which, also, the convicted culprits seemed to have quite as much to say as the rest. A rather strange proceeding; but strictly in accordance with the glorious English principle, that every man should be tried by his peers. They were all found guilty.

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.