by Herman Melville

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Chapter One



Six months at sea!  Yes, reader, as I live, six months out ofsight of land; cruising after the sperm-whale beneath thescorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of thewide-rolling Pacific--the sky above, the sea around, and nothingelse!  Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were allexhausted.  There is not a sweet potato left; not a single yam.  Those glorious bunches of bananas, which once decorated our sternand quarter-deck, have, alas, disappeared!  and the deliciousoranges which hung suspended from our tops and stays--they, too,are gone!  Yes, they are all departed, and there is nothing leftus but salt-horse and sea-biscuit.  Oh!  ye state-room sailors,who make so much ado about a fourteen-days' passage across theAtlantic; who so pathetically relate the privations and hardshipsof the sea, where, after a day of breakfasting, lunching, diningoff five courses, chatting, playing whist, and drinkingchampagne-punch, it was your hard lot to be shut up in littlecabinets of mahogany and maple, and sleep for ten hours, withnothing to disturb you but 'those good-for-nothing tars, shoutingand tramping overhead',--what would ye say to our six months outof sight of land?

Oh!  for a refreshing glimpse of one blade of grass--for a snuffat the fragrance of a handful of the loamy earth!  Is therenothing fresh around us?  Is there no green thing to be seen?  Yes, the inside of our bulwarks is painted green; but what a vileand sickly hue it is, as if nothing bearing even the semblance ofverdure could flourish this weary way from land.  Even the barkthat once clung to the wood we use for fuel has been gnawed offand devoured by the captain's pig; and so long ago, too, that thepig himself has in turn been devoured.

There is but one solitary tenant in the chicken-coop, once a gayand dapper young cock, bearing him so bravely among the coy hens.

But look at him now; there he stands, moping all the day long onthat everlasting one leg of his.  He turns with disgust from themouldy corn before him, and the brackish water in his littletrough.  He mourns no doubt his lost companions, literallysnatched from him one by one, and never seen again.  But his daysof mourning will be few for Mungo, our black cook, told meyesterday that the word had at last gone forth, and poor Pedro'sfate was sealed.  His attenuated body will be laid out upon thecaptain's table next Sunday, and long before night will be buriedwith all the usual ceremonies beneath that worthy individual'svest.  Who would believe that there could be any one so cruel asto long for the decapitation of the luckless Pedro; yet thesailors pray every minute, selfish fellows, that the miserablefowl may be brought to his end.  They say the captain will neverpoint the ship for the land so long as he has in anticipation amess of fresh meat.  This unhappy bird can alone furnish it; andwhen he is once devoured, the captain will come to his senses.  Iwish thee no harm, Pedro; but as thou art doomed, sooner orlater, to meet the fate of all thy race; and if putting a periodto thy existence is to be the signal for our deliverance,why--truth to speak--I wish thy throat cut this very moment; for,oh!  how I wish to see the living earth again!  The old shipherself longs to look out upon the land from her hawse-holes oncemore, and Jack Lewis said right the other day when the captainfound fault with his steering.

'Why d'ye see, Captain Vangs,' says bold Jack, 'I'm as good ahelmsman as ever put hand to spoke; but none of us can steer theold lady now.  We can't keep her full and bye, sir; watch herever so close, she will fall off and then, sir, when I put thehelm down so gently, and try like to coax her to the work, shewon't take it kindly, but will fall round off again; and it's allbecause she knows the land is under the lee, sir, and she won'tgo any more to windward.'  Aye, and why should she, Jack?  didn'tevery one of her stout timbers grow on shore, and hasn't shesensibilities; as well as we?

Poor old ship!  Her very looks denote her desires!  howdeplorably she appears!  The paint on her sides, burnt up by thescorching sun, is puffed out and cracked.  See the weeds shetrails along with her, and what an unsightly bunch of thosehorrid barnacles has formed about her stern-piece; and every timeshe rises on a sea, she shows her copper torn away, or hanging injagged strips.

Poor old ship!  I say again: for six months she has been rollingand pitching about, never for one moment at rest.  But courage,old lass, I hope to see thee soon within a biscuit's toss of themerry land, riding snugly at anchor in some green cove, andsheltered from the boisterous winds.

.  .  .  .  .  .  

'Hurra, my lads!  It's a settled thing; next week we shape ourcourse to the Marquesas!'  The Marquesas!  What strange visionsof outlandish things does the very name spirit up!  Nakedhouris--cannibal banquets--groves of cocoanut--coralreefs--tattooed chiefs--and bamboo temples; sunny valleys plantedwith bread-fruit-trees--carved canoes dancing on the flashingblue waters--savage woodlands guarded by horribleidols--HEATHENISH RITES AND HUMAN SACRIFICES.

Such were the strangely jumbled anticipations that haunted meduring our passage from the cruising ground.  I felt anirresistible curiosity to see those islands which the oldenvoyagers had so glowingly described.

The group for which we were now steering (although among theearliest of European discoveries in the South Seas, having beenfirst visited in the year 1595) still continues to be tenanted bybeings as strange and barbarous as ever.  The missionaries senton a heavenly errand, had sailed by their lovely shores, and hadabandoned them to their idols of wood and stone.  How interestingthe circumstances under which they were discovered!  In thewatery path of Mendanna, cruising in quest of some region ofgold, these isles had sprung up like a scene of enchantment, andfor a moment the Spaniard believed his bright dream was realized.

In honour of the Marquess de Mendoza, then viceroy of Peru--underwhose auspices the navigator sailed--he bestowed upon them thename which denoted the rank of his patron, and gave to the worldon his return a vague and magnificent account of their beauty.  But these islands, undisturbed for years, relapsed into theirprevious obscurity; and it is only recently that anything hasbeen known concerning them.  Once in the course of a halfcentury, to be sure, some adventurous rover would break in upontheir peaceful repose.  and astonished at the unusual scene,would be almost tempted to claim the merit of a new discovery.

Of this interesting group, but little account has ever beengiven, if we except the slight mention made of them in thesketches of South-Sea voyages.  Cook, in his repeatedcircumnavigations of the globe, barely touched at their shores;and all that we know about them is from a few general narratives.

Among these, there are two that claim particular notice.  Porter's 'Journal of the Cruise of the U.S.  frigate Essex, inthe Pacific, during the late War', is said to contain someinteresting particulars concerning the islanders.  This is awork, however, which I have never happened to meet with; andStewart, the chaplain of the American sloop of war Vincennes, haslikewise devoted a portion of his book, entitled 'A Visit to theSouth Seas', to the same subject.

Within the last few, years American and English vessels engagedin the extensive whale fisheries of the Pacific haveoccasionally, when short of provisions, put into the commodiousharbour which there is in one of the islands; but a fear of thenatives, founded on the recollection of the dreadful fate whichmany white men have received at their hands, has deterred theircrews from intermixing with the population sufficiently to gainany insight into their peculiar customs and manners.

The Protestant Missions appear to have despaired of reclaimingthese islands from heathenism.  The usage they have in every casereceived from the natives has been such as to intimidate theboldest of their number.  Ellis, in his 'Polynesian Researches',gives some interesting accounts of the abortive attempts made bythe ''Tahiti Mission'' to establish a branch Mission upon certainislands of the group.  A short time before my visit to theMarquesas, a somewhat amusing incident took place in connectionwith these efforts, which I cannot avoid relating.

An intrepid missionary, undaunted by the ill-success that hadattended all previous endeavours to conciliate the savages, andbelieving much in the efficacy of female influence, introducedamong them his young and beautiful wife, the first white womanwho had ever visited their shores.  The islanders at first gazedin mute admiration at so unusual a prodigy, and seemed inclinedto regard it as some new divinity.  But after a short time,becoming familiar with its charming aspect, and jealous of thefolds which encircled its form, they sought to pierce the sacredveil of calico in which it was enshrined, and in thegratification of their curiosity so far overstepped the limits ofgood breeding, as deeply to offend the lady's sense of decorum.  Her sex once ascertained, their idolatry was changed intocontempt and there was no end to the contumely showered upon herby the savages, who were exasperated at the deception which theyconceived had been practised upon them.  To the horror of heraffectionate spouse, she was stripped of her garments, and givento understand that she could no longer carry on her deceits withimpunity.  The gentle dame was not sufficiently evangelical toendure this, and, fearful of further improprieties, she forcedher husband to relinquish his undertaking, and together theyreturned to Tahiti.

Not thus shy of exhibiting her charms was the Island Queenherself, the beauteous wife of Movianna, the king of Nukuheva.  Between two and three years after the adventures recorded in thisvolume, I chanced, while aboard of a man-of-war to touch at theseislands.  The French had then held possession of the Marquesassome time, and already prided themselves upon the beneficialeffects of their jurisdiction, as discernible in the deportmentof the natives.  To be sure, in one of their efforts at reformthey had slaughtered about a hundred and fifty of them atWhitihoo--but let that pass.  At the time I mention, the Frenchsquadron was rendezvousing in the bay of Nukuheva, and during aninterview between one of their captains and our worthy Commodore,it was suggested by the former, that we, as the flag-ship of theAmerican squadron, should receive, in state, a visit from theroyal pair.  The French officer likewise represented, withevident satisfaction, that under their tuition the king and queenhad imbibed proper notions of their elevated station, and on allceremonious occasions conducted themselves with suitable dignity. Accordingly, preparations were made to give their majesties areception on board in a style corresponding with their rank.

One bright afternoon, a gig, gaily bedizened with streamers, wasobserved to shove off from the side of one of the Frenchfrigates, and pull directly for our gangway.  In the stem sheetsreclined Mowanna and his consort.  As they approached, we paidthem all the honours clue to royalty;--manning our yards, firinga salute, and making a prodigious hubbub.

They ascended the accommodation ladder, were greeted by theCommodore, hat in hand, and passing along the quarter-deck, themarine guard presented arms, while the band struck up 'The Kingof the Cannibal Islands'.  So far all went well.  The Frenchofficers grimaced and smiled in exceedingly high spirits,wonderfully pleased with the discreet manner in which thesedistinguished personages behaved themselves.

Their appearance was certainly calculated to produce an effect.  His majesty was arrayed in a magnificent military uniform, stiffwith gold lace and embroidery, while his shaven crown wasconcealed by a huge chapeau bras, waving with ostrich plumes.  There was one slight blemish, however, in his appearance.  Abroad patch of tattooing stretched completely across his face, ina line with his eyes, making him look as if he wore a huge pairof goggles; and royalty in goggles suggested some ludicrousideas.  But it was in the adornment of the fair person of hisdark-complexioned spouse that the tailors of the fleet hadevinced the gaiety of their national taste.  She was habited in agaudy tissue of scarlet cloth, trimmed with yellow silk, which,descending a little below the knees, exposed to view her barelegs, embellished with spiral tattooing, and somewhat resemblingtwo miniature Trajan's columns.  Upon her head was a fancifulturban of purple velvet, figured with silver sprigs, andsurmounted by a tuft of variegated feathers.

The ship's company, crowding into the gangway to view the sight,soon arrested her majesty's attention.  She singled out fromtheir number an old salt, whose bare arms and feet, and exposedbreast, were covered with as many inscriptions in India ink asthe lid of an Egyptian sarcophagus.  Notwithstanding all the slyhints and remonstrances of the French officers, she immediatelyapproached the man, and pulling further open the bosom of hisduck frock, and rolling up the leg of his wide trousers, shegazed with admiration at the bright blue and vermilion prickingthus disclosed to view.  She hung over the fellow, caressing him,and expressing her delight in a variety of wild exclamations andgestures.  The embarrassment of the polite Gauls at such anunlooked-for occurrence may be easily imagined, but picture theirconsternation, when all at once the royal lady, eager to displaythe hieroglyphics on her own sweet form, bent forward for amoment, and turning sharply round, threw up the skirt of hermantle and revealed a sight from which the aghast Frenchmenretreated precipitately, and tumbling into their boats, fled thescene of so shocking a catastrophe.


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