Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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EXHAUSTED by the day's wassail, most of the men went below at an early hour, leaving the deck to the steward and two of the men remaining on duty; the mate, with Baltimore and the Dane, engaging to relieve them at midnight. At that hour, the ship—now standing off shore, under short sail—was to be tacked.

It was not long after midnight, when we were wakened in the forecastle by the lion roar of Jermin's voice, ordering a pull at the jib-halyards; and soon afterwards, a handspike struck the scuttle, and all hands were called to take the ship into port.

This was wholly unexpected; but we learned directly that the mate, no longer relying upon the consul, and renouncing all thought of inducing the men to change their minds, had suddenly made up his own. He was going to beat up to the entrance of the harbour, so as to show a signal for a pilot before sunrise.

Notwithstanding this, the sailors absolutely refused to assist in working the ship under any circumstances whatever: to all mine and the doctor's entreaties lending a deaf ear. Sink or strike, they swore they would have nothing more to do with her. This perverse-ness was to be attributed, in a great measure, to the effects of their late debauch.

With a strong breeze, all sail set, and the ship in the hands of four or five men, exhausted by two nights' watching, our situation was bad enough; especially as the mate seemed more reckless than ever, and we were now to tack ship several times close under the land.

Well knowing that if anything untoward happened to the vessel before morning, it would be imputed to the conduct of the crew, and so lead to serious results, should they ever be brought to trial; I called together those on deck to witness my declaration;—that now that the Julia was destined for the harbour (the only object for which I, at least, had been struggling), I was willing to do what I could toward carrying her in safely. In this step I was followed by the doctor.

The hours passed anxiously until morning; when, being well to windward of the mouth of the harbour, we bore up for it, with the union-jack at the fore. No sign, however, of boat or pilot was seen; and after running close in several times, the ensign was set at the mizzen-peak, union down in distress. But it was of no avail.

Attributing to Wilson this unaccountable remissness on the part of those ashore, Jermin, quite enraged, now determined to stand boldly in upon his own responsibility; trusting solely to what he remembered of the harbour on a visit there many years previous.

This resolution was characteristic. Even with a competent pilot, Papeetee Bay, is considered a ticklish, one to enter. Formed by a bold sweep of the shore, it is protected seaward by the coral reef, upon which the rollers break with great violence. After stretching across the bay, the barrier extends on toward Point Venus, in the district of Matavia, eight or nine miles distant. Here there is an opening, by which ships enter, and glide down the smooth, deep canal, between the reef and the shore, to the harbour. But, by seamen generally, the leeward entrance is preferred, as the wind is extremely variable inside the reef. This latter entrance is a break in the barrier directly facing the bay and village of Papeetee. It is very narrow; and from the baffling winds, currents, and sunken rocks, ships now and then grate their keels against the coral.

But the mate was not to be daunted; so, stationing what men he had at the braces, he sprang upon the bulwarks, and, bidding everybody keep wide awake, ordered the helm up. In a few moments, we were running in. Being toward noon, the wind was fast leaving us, and, by the time the breakers were roaring on either hand, little more than steerage-way was left. But on we glided—smoothly and deftly; avoiding the green, darkling objects here and there strewn in our path; Jermin occasionally looking down in the water, and then about him, with the utmost calmness, and not a word spoken. Just fanned along thus, it was not many minutes ere we were past all danger, and floated into the placid basin within. This was the cleverest specimen of his seamanship that he ever gave us.

As we held on toward the frigate and shipping, a canoe, coming out from among them, approached. In it were a boy and an old man—both islanders; the former nearly naked, and the latter dressed in an old naval frock-coat. Both were paddling with might and main; the old man, once in a while, tearing his paddle out of the water; and, after rapping his companion over the head, both fell to with fresh vigour. As they came within hail, the old fellow, springing to his feet and flourishing his paddle, cut some of the queerest capers; all the while jabbering something which at first we could not understand.

Presently we made out the following:—"Ah! you pemi, ah!—you come!—What for you come?—You be fine for come no pilot.—I say, you hear?—I say, you ita maitui (no good).—You hear?—You no pilot.—Yes, you d—— me, you no pilot 't all; I d—— you; you hear?"

This tirade, which showed plainly that, whatever the profane old rascal was at, he was in right good earnest, produced peals of laughter from the ship. Upon which, he seemed to get beside himself; and the boy, who, with suspended paddle, was staring about him, received a sound box over the head, which set him to work in a twinkling, and brought the canoe quite near. The orator now opening afresh, it turned out that his vehement rhetoric was all addressed to the mate, still standing conspicuously on the bulwarks.

But Jermin was in no humour for nonsense; so, with a sailor's blessing, he ordered him off. The old fellow then flew into a regular frenzy, cursing and swearing worse than any civilized being I ever heard.

"You sabbee me?" he shouted. "You know me, ah? Well; me Jim, me pilot—been pilot now long time."

"Ay," cried Jermin, quite surprised, as indeed we all were, "you are the pilot, then, you old pagan. Why didn't you come off before this?"

"Ah! me scibbee,—me know—you piratee (pirate)—see you long time, but no me come—I sabbee you—you ita maitai nuee (superlatively bad)."

"Paddle away with ye," roared Jermin, in a rage; "be off! or I'll dart a harpoon at ye!"

But, instead of obeying the order, Jim, seizing his paddle, darted the canoe right up to the gangway, and, in two bounds, stood on deck.

Pulling a greasy silk handkerchief still lower over his brow, and improving the sit of his frock-coat with a vigorous jerk, he then strode up to the mate; and, in a more flowery style than ever, gave him to understand that the redoubtable "Jim," himself, was before him; that the ship was his until the anchor was down; and he should like to hear what anyone had to say to it.

As there now seemed little doubt that he was all he claimed to be, the Julia was at last surrendered.

Our gentleman now proceeded to bring us to an anchor, jumping up between the knight-heads, and bawling out "Luff! luff! keepy off! leeepy off!" and insisting upon each time being respectfully responded to by the man at the helm. At this time our steerage-way was almost gone; and yet, in giving his orders, the passionate old man made as much fuss as a white squall aboard the Flying Dutchman.

Jim turned out to be the regular pilot of the harbour; a post, be it known, of no small profit; and, in his eyes, at least, invested with immense importance. Our unceremonious entrance, therefore, was regarded as highly insulting, and tending to depreciate both the dignity and lucrativeness of his office.

The old man is something of a wizard. Having an understanding with the elements, certain phenomena of theirs are exhibited for his particular benefit. Unusually clear weather, with a fine steady breeze, is a certain sign that a merchantman is at hand; whale-spouts seen from the harbour are tokens of a whaling vessel's approach; and thunder and lightning, happening so seldom as they do, are proof positive that a man-of-war is drawing near.

In short, Jim, the pilot, is quite a character in his way; and no one visits Tahiti without hearing some curious story about him.

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.