Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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THE mirthfulness which at times reigned among us was in strange and shocking contrast with the situation of some of the invalids. Thus at least did it seem to me, though not to others.

But an event occurred about this period, which, in removing by far the most pitiable cases of suffering, tended to make less grating to my feelings the subsequent conduct of the crew.

We had been at sea about twenty days, when two of the sick who had rapidly grown worse, died one night within an hour of each other.

One occupied a bunk right next to mine, and for several days had not risen from it. During this period he was often delirious, starting up and glaring around him, and sometimes wildly tossing his arms.

On the night of his decease, I retired shortly after the middle watch began, and waking from a vague dream of horrors, felt something clammy resting on me. It was the sick man's hand. Two or three times during the evening previous, he had thrust it into my bunk, and I had quietly removed it; but now I started and flung it from me. The arm fell stark and stiff, and I knew that he was dead.

Waking the men, the corpse was immediately rolled up in the strips of blanketing upon which it lay, and carried on deck. The mate was then called, and preparations made for an instantaneous' burial. Laying the body out on the forehatch, it was stitched up in one of the hammocks, some "kentledge" being placed at the feet instead of shot. This done, it was borne to the gangway, and placed on a plank laid across the bulwarks. Two men supported the inside end. By way of solemnity, the ship's headway was then stopped by hauling aback the main-top-sail.

The mate, who was far from being sober, then staggered up, and holding on to a shroud, gave the word. As the plank tipped, the body slid off slowly, and fell with a splash into the sea. A bubble or two, and nothing more was seen.

"Brace forward!" The main-yard swung round to its place, and the ship glided on, whilst the corpse, perhaps, was still sinking.

We had tossed a shipmate to the sharks, but no one would have thought it, to have gone among the crew immediately after. The dead man had been a churlish, unsocial fellow, while alive, and no favourite; and now that he was no more, little thought was bestowed upon him. All that was said was concerning the disposal of his chest, which, having been always kept locked, was supposed to contain money. Someone volunteered to break it open, and distribute its contents, clothing and all, before the captain should demand it.

While myself and others were endeavouring to dissuade them from this, all started at a cry from the forecastle. There could be no one there but two of the sick, unable to crawl on deck. We went below, and found one of them dying on a chest. He had fallen out of his hammock in a fit, and was insensible. The eyes were open and fixed, and his breath coming and going convulsively. The men shrunk from him; but the doctor, taking his hand, held it a few moments in his, and suddenly letting it fall, exclaimed, "He's gone!" The body was instantly borne up the ladder.

Another hammock was soon prepared, and the dead sailor stitched up as before. Some additional ceremony, however, was now insisted upon, and a Bible was called for. But none was to be had, not even a Prayer Book. When this was made known, Antone, a Portuguese, from the Cape-de-Verd Islands, stepped up, muttering something over the corpse of his countryman, and, with his finger, described upon the back of the hammock the figure of a large cross; whereupon it received the death-launch.

These two men both perished from the proverbial indiscretions of seamen, heightened by circumstances apparent; but had either of them been ashore under proper treatment, he would, in all human probability, have recovered.

Behold here the fate of a sailor! They give him the last toss, and no one asks whose child he was.

For the rest of that night there was no more sleep. Many stayed on deck until broad morning, relating to each other those marvellous tales of the sea which the occasion was calculated to call forth. Little as I believed in such things, I could not listen to some of these stories unaffected. Above all was I struck by one of the carpenter's.

On a voyage to India, they had a fever aboard, which carried off nearly half the crew in the space of a few days. After this the men never went aloft in the night-time, except in couples. When topsails were to be reefed, phantoms were seen at the yard-arm ends; and in tacking ship, voices called aloud from the tops. The carpenter himself, going with another man to furl the main-top-gallant-sail in a squall, was nearly pushed from the rigging by an unseen hand; and his shipmate swore that a wet hammock was flirted in his face.

Stories like these were related as gospel truths, by those who declared themselves eye-witnesses.

It is a circumstance not generally known, perhaps, that among ignorant seamen, Philanders, or Finns, as they are more commonly called, are regarded with peculiar superstition. For some reason or other, which I never could get at, they are supposed to possess the gift of second sight, and the power to wreak supernatural vengeance upon those who offend them. On this account they have great influence among sailors, and two or three with whom I have sailed at different times were persons well calculated to produce this sort of impression, at least upon minds disposed to believe in such things.

Now, we had one of these sea-prophets aboard; an old, yellow-haired fellow, who always wore a rude seal-skin cap of his own make, and carried his tobacco in a large pouch made of the same stuff. Van, as we called him, was a quiet, inoffensive man, to look at, and, among such a set, his occasional peculiarities had hitherto passed for nothing. At this time, however, he came out with a prediction, which was none the less remarkable from its absolute fulfilment, though not exactly in the spirit in which it was given out.

The night of the burial he laid his hand on the old horseshoe nailed as a charm to the foremast, and solemnly told us that, in less than three weeks, not one quarter of our number would remain aboard the ship—by that time they would have left her for ever.

Some laughed; Flash Jack called him an old fool; but among the men generally it produced a marked effect. For several days a degree of quiet reigned among us, and allusions of such a kind were made to recent events, as could be attributed to no other cause than the Finn's omen.

For my own part, what had lately come to pass was not without its influence. It forcibly brought to mind our really critical condition. Doctor Long Ghost, too, frequently revealed his apprehensions, and once assured me that he would give much to be safely landed upon any island around us.

Where we were, exactly, no one but the mate seemed to know, nor whither we were going. The captain—a mere cipher—was an invalid in his cabin; to say nothing more of so many of his men languishing in the forecastle.

Our keeping the sea under these circumstances, a matter strange enough at first, now seemed wholly unwarranted; and added to all was the thought that our fate was absolutely in the hand of the reckless Jermin. Were anything to happen to him, we would be left without a navigator, for, according to Jermin himself, he had, from the commencement of the voyage, always kept the ship's reckoning, the captain's nautical knowledge being insufficient.

But considerations like these, strange as it may seem, seldom or never occurred to the crew. They were alive only to superstitious fears; and when, in apparent contradiction to the Finn's prophecy, the sick men rallied a little, they began to recover their former spirits, and the recollection of what had occurred insensibly faded from their minds. In a week's time, the unworthiness of Little Jule as a sea vessel, always a subject of jest, now became more so than ever. In the forecastle, Flash Jack, with his knife, often dug into the dank, rotten planks ribbed between us and death, and flung away the splinters with some sea joke.

As to the remaining invalids, they were hardly ill enough to occasion any serious apprehension, at least for the present, in the breasts of such thoughtless beings as themselves. And even those who suffered the most, studiously refrained from any expression of pain.

The truth is, that among sailors as a class, sickness at sea is so heartily detested, and the sick so little cared for, that the greatest invalid generally strives to mask his sufferings. He has given no sympathy to others, and he expects none in return. Their conduct, in this respect, so opposed to their generous-hearted behaviour ashore, painfully affects the landsman on his first intercourse with them as a sailor.

Sometimes, but seldom, our invalids inveighed against their being kept at sea, where they could be of no service, when they ought to be ashore and in the way of recovery. But—"Oh! cheer up—cheer up, my hearties!"—the mate would say. And after this fashion he put a stop to their murmurings.

But there was one circumstance, to which heretofore I have but barely alluded, that tended more than anything else to reconcile many to their situation. This was the receiving regularly, twice every day, a certain portion of Pisco, which was served out at the capstan, by the steward, in little tin measures called "tots."

The lively affection seamen have for strong drink is well known; but in the South Seas, where it is so seldom to be had, a thoroughbred sailor deems scarcely any price too dear which will purchase his darling "tot." Nowadays, American whalemen in the Pacific never think of carrying spirits as a ration; and aboard of most of them, it is never served out even in times of the greatest hardships. All Sydney whalemen, however, still cling to the old custom, and carry it as a part of the regular supplies for the voyage.

In port, the allowance of Pisco was suspended; with a view, undoubtedly, of heightening the attractions of being out of sight of land.

Now, owing to the absence of proper discipline, our sick, in addition to what they took medicinally, often came in for their respective "tots" convivially; and, added to all this, the evening of the last day of the week was always celebrated by what is styled on board of English vessels "The Saturday-night bottles." Two of these were sent down into the forecastle, just after dark; one for the starboard watch, and the other for the larboard.

By prescription, the oldest seaman in each claims the treat as his, and, accordingly, pours out the good cheer and passes it round like a lord doing the honours of his table. But the Saturday-night bottles were not all. The carpenter and cooper, in sea parlance, Chips and Bungs, who were the "Cods," or leaders of the forecastle, in some way or other, managed to obtain an extra supply, which perpetually kept them in fine after-dinner spirits, and, moreover, disposed them to look favourably upon a state of affairs like the present.

But where were the sperm whales all this time? In good sooth, it made little matter where they were, since we were in no condition to capture them. About this time, indeed, the men came down from the mast-heads, where, until now, they had kept up the form of relieving each other every two hours. They swore they would go there no more. Upon this, the mate carelessly observed that they would soon be where look-outs were entirely unnecessary, the whales he had in his eye (though Flash Jack said they were all in his) being so tame that they made a practice of coming round ships, and scratching their backs against them.

Thus went the world of waters with us, some four weeks or more after leaving Hannamanoo.

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.