by Herman Melville

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Chapter Twenty-five



ALTHOUGH I had been unable during the late festival to obtaininformation on many interesting subjects which had much excitedmy curiosity, still that important event had not passed bywithout adding materially to my general knowledge of theislanders.

I was especially struck by the physical strength and beauty whichthey displayed, by their great superiority in these respects overthe inhabitants of the neighbouring bay of Nukuheva, and by thesingular contrasts they presented among themselves in theirvarious shades of complexion.

In beauty of form they surpassed anything I had ever seen. Not asingle instance of natural deformity was observable in all thethrong attending the revels. Occasionally I noticed among themen the scars of wounds they had received in battle; andsometimes, though very seldom, the loss of a finger, an eye, oran arm, attributable to the same cause. With these exceptions,every individual appeared free from those blemishes whichsometimes mar the effect of an otherwise perfect form. But theirphysical excellence did not merely consist in an exemption fromthese evils; nearly every individual of their number might havebeen taken for a sculptor's model.

When I remembered that these islanders derived no advantage fromdress, but appeared in all the naked simplicity of nature, Icould not avoid comparing them with the fine gentlemen anddandies who promenade such unexceptionable figures in ourfrequented thoroughfares. Stripped of the cunning artifices ofthe tailor, and standing forth in the garb of Eden--what a sorry,set of round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, crane-necked varletswould civilized men appear! Stuffed calves, padded breasts, andscientifically cut pantaloons would then avail them nothing, andthe effect would be truly deplorable.

Nothing in the appearance of the islanders struck me moreforcibly than the whiteness of their teeth. The novelist alwayscompares the masticators of his heroine to ivory; but I boldlypronounce the teeth of the Typee to be far more beautiful thanivory itself. The jaws of the oldest graybeards among them weremuch better garnished than those of most of the youths ofcivilized countries; while the teeth of the young andmiddle-aged, in their purity and whiteness, were actuallydazzling to the eye. Their marvellous whiteness of the teeth isto be ascribed to the pure vegetable diet of these people, andthe uninterrupted healthfulness of their natural mode of life.

The men, in almost every instance, are of lofty stature, scarcelyever less than six feet in height, while the other sex areuncommonly diminutive. The early period of life at which thehuman form arrives at maturity in this generous tropical climate,likewise deserves to be mentioned. A little creature, not morethan thirteen years of age, and who in other particulars might beregarded as a mere child, is often seen nursing her own baby,whilst lads who, under less ripening skies, would be still atschool, are here responsible fathers of families.

On first entering the Typee Valley, I had been struck with themarked contrast presented by its inhabitants with those of thebay I had previously left. In the latter place, I had not beenfavourably impressed with the personal appearance of the maleportion of the population; although with the females, exceptingin some truly melancholy instances, I had been wonderfullypleased. I had observed that even the little intercourseEuropeans had carried on with the Nukuheva natives had not failedto leave its traces amongst them. One of the most dreadfulcurses under which humanity labours had commenced its havocks,and betrayed, as it ever does among the South Sea islanders, themost aggravated symptoms. From this, as from all other foreigninflictions, the yet uncontaminated tenants of the Typee Valleywere wholly exempt; and long may they continue so. Better willit be for them for ever to remain the happy and innocent heathensand barbarians that they now are, than, like the wretchedinhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, to enjoy the mere name ofChristians without experiencing any of the vital operations oftrue religion, whilst, at the same time, they are made thevictims of the worst vices and evils of civilized life.

Apart, however, from these considerations, I am inclined tobelieve that there exists a radical difference between the twotribes, if indeed they are not distinct races of men. To thosewho have merely touched at Nukuheva Bay, without visiting otherportions of the island, it would hardly appear credible thediversities presented between the various small clans inhabitingso diminutive a spot. But the hereditary hostility which hasexisted between them for ages, fully accounts for this.

Not so easy, however, is it to assign an adequate cause for theendless variety of complexions to be seen in the Typee Valley. During the festival, I had noticed several young females whoseskins were almost as white as any Saxon damsel's; a slight dashof the mantling brown being all that marked the difference. Thiscomparative fairness of complexion, though in a great degreeperfectly natural, is partly the result of an artificial process,and of an entire exclusion from the sun. The juice of the 'papa'root found in great abundance at the head of the valley, is heldin great esteem as a cosmetic, with which many of the femalesdaily anoint their whole person. The habitual use of it whitensand beautifies the skin. Those of the young girls who resort tothis method of heightening their charms, never expose themselvesselves to the rays of the sun; an observance, however, thatproduces little or no inconvenience, since there are but few ofthe inhabited portions of the vale which are not shaded over witha spreading canopy of boughs, so that one may journey from houseto house, scarcely deviating from the direct course, and yetnever once see his shadow cast upon the ground.

The 'papa', when used, is suffered to remain upon the skin forseveral hours; being of a light green colour, it consequentlyimparts for the time a similar hue to the complexion. Nothing,therefore, can be imagined more singular than the appearance ofthese nearly naked damsels immediately after the application ofthe cosmetic. To look at one of them you would almost supposeshe was some vegetable in an unripe state; and that, instead ofliving in the shade for ever, she ought to be placed out in thesun to ripen.

All the islanders are more or less in the habit of anointingthemselves; the women preferring the 'aker' to 'papa', and themen using the oil of the cocoanut. Mehevi was remarkable fond ofmollifying his entire cuticle with this ointment. Sometimes hemight be seen, with his whole body fairly reeking with theperfumed oil of the nut, looking as if he had just emerged from asoap-boiler's vat, or had undergone the process of dipping in atallow-chandlery. To this cause perhaps, united to theirfrequent bathing and extreme cleanliness, is ascribable, in agreat measure, the marvellous purity and smoothness of skinexhibited by the natives in general.

The prevailing tint among the women of the valley was a lightolive, and of this style of complexion Fayaway afforded the mostbeautiful example. Others were still darker; while not a fewwere of a genuine golden colour, and some of a swarthy hue.

As agreeing with much previously mentioned in this narrative Imay here observe that Mendanna, their discoverer, in his accountof the Marquesas, described the natives as wondrously beautifulto behold, and as nearly resembling the people of southernEurope. The first of these islands seen by Mendanna was LaMadelena, which is not far distant from Nukuheva; and itsinhabitants in every respect resemble those dwelling on that andthe other islands of the group. Figueroa, the chronicler ofMendanna's voyage, says, that on the morning the land wasdescried, when the Spaniards drew near the shore, there salliedforth, in rude progression, about seventy canoes, and at the sametime many of the inhabitants (females I presume) made towards theships by swimming. He adds, that 'in complexion they were nearlywhite; of good stature, and finely formed; and on their faces andbodies were delineated representations of fishes and otherdevices'. The old Don then goes on to say, 'There came, amongothers, two lads paddling their canoe, whose eyes were fixed onthe ship; they had beautiful faces and the most promisinganimation of countenance; and were in all things so becoming,that the pilot-mayor Quiros affirmed, nothing in his life evercaused him so much regret as the leaving such fine creatures tobe lost in that country.'* More than two hundred years have goneby since the passage of which the above is a translation waswritten; and it appears to me now, as I read it, as fresh andtrue as if written but yesterday. The islanders are still thesame; and I have seen boys in the Typee Valley of whose'beautiful faces' and promising 'animation of countenance' no onewho has not beheld them can form any adequate idea. Cook, in theaccount of his voyage, pronounces the Marquesans as by far themost splendid islanders in the South Seas. Stewart, the chaplainof the U.S. ship Vincennes, in his 'Scenes in the South Seas',expresses, in more than one place, his amazement at thesurpassing loveliness of the women; and says that many of theNukuheva damsels reminded him forcibly of the most celebratedbeauties in his own land. Fanning, a Yankee mariner of somereputation, likewise records his lively impressions of thephysical appearance of these people; and Commodore David Porterof the U.S. frigate Essex, is said to have been vastly smittenby the beauty of the ladies. Their great superiority over allother Polynesians cannot fail to attract the notice of those whovisit the principal groups in the Pacific. The voluptuousTahitians are the only people who at all deserve to be comparedwith them; while the dark-haired Hawaiians and the woolly-headedFeejees are immeasurably inferior to them. The distinguishingcharacteristic of the Marquesan islanders, and that which at oncestrikes you, is the European cast of their features--apeculiarity seldom observable among other uncivilized people. Many of their faces present profiles classically beautiful, andin the valley of Typee I saw several who, like the strangerMarnoo, were in every respect models of beauty.

* This passage, which is cited as an almost literal translationfrom the original, I found in a small volume entitled'Circumnavigation of the Globe, in which volume are severalextracts from 'Dalrymple's Historical Collections'. Thelast-mentioned work I have never seen, but it is said to containa very correct English version of great part of the learnedDoctor Christoval Suaverde da Figueroa's History of Mendanna'sVoyage, published at Madrid, A.D. 1613.

Some of the natives present at the Feast of Calabashes haddisplayed a few articles of European dress; disposed however,about their persons after their own peculiar fashion. Amongthese I perceived two pieces of cotton-cloth which poor Toby andmyself had bestowed upon our youthful guides the afternoon weentered the valley. They were evidently reserved for gala days;and during those of the festival they rendered the youngislanders who wore them very distinguished characters. The smallnumber who were similarly adorned, and the great value theyappeared to place upon the most common and most trivial articles,furnished ample evidence of the very restricted intercourse theyheld with vessels touching at the island. A few cottonhandkerchiefs, of a gay pattern, tied about the neck, andsuffered to fall over the shoulder; strips of fanciful calico,swathed about the loins, were nearly all I saw.

Indeed, throughout the valley, there were few things of any kindto be seen of European origin. All I ever saw, besides thearticles just alluded to, were the six muskets preserved in theTi, and three or four similar implements of warfare hung up inother houses; some small canvas bags, partly filled with bulletsand powder, and half a dozen old hatchet-heads, with the edgesblunted and battered to such a degree as to render them utterlyworthless. These last seemed to be regarded as nearly worthlessby the natives; and several times they held up, one of thembefore me, and throwing it aside with a gesture of disgust,manifested their contempt for anything that could so soon becomeunserviceable.

But the muskets, the powder, and the bullets were held in mostextravagant esteem. The former, from their great age and thepeculiarities they exhibited, were well worthy a place in anyantiquarian's armoury. I remember in particular one that hung inthe Ti, and which Mehevi--supposing as a matter of course that Iwas able to repair it--had put into my hands for that purpose. It was one of those clumsy, old-fashioned, English pieces knowngenerally as Tower Hill muskets, and, for aught I know, mighthave been left on the island by Wallace, Carteret, Cook, orVancouver. The stock was half rotten and worm-eaten; the lockwas as rusty and about as well adapted to its ostensible purposeas an old door-hinge; the threading of the screws about thetrigger was completely worn away; while the barrel shook in thewood. Such was the weapon the chief desired me to restore to itsoriginal condition. As I did not possess the accomplishments ofa gunsmith, and was likewise destitute of the necessary tools, Iwas reluctantly obliged to signify my inability to perform thetask. At this unexpected communication Mehevi regarded me, for amoment, as if he half suspected I was some inferior sort of whiteman, who after all did not know much more than a Typee. However,after a most laboured explanation of the matter, I succeeded inmaking him understand the extreme difficulty of the task. Scarcely satisfied with my apologies, however, he marched offwith the superannuated musket in something of a huff, as if hewould no longer expose it to the indignity of being manipulatedby such unskilful fingers.

During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity ofmanner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to certain degree,the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general. No one appeared to assume any arrogant pretensions. There waslittle more than a slight difference in costume to distinguishthe chiefs from the other natives. All appeared to mix togetherfreely, and without any reserve; although I noticed that thewishes of a chief, even when delivered in the mildest tone,received the same immediate obedience which elsewhere would havebeen only accorded to a peremptory command. What may be theextent of the authority of the chiefs over the rest of the tribe,I will not venture to assert; but from all I saw during my stayin the valley, I was induced to believe that in mattersconcerning the general welfare it was very limited. The requireddegree of deference towards them, however, was willingly andcheerfully yielded; and as all authority is transmitted fromfather to son, I have no doubt that one of the effects here, aselsewhere, of high birth, is to induce respect and obedience.

The civil institutions of the Marquesas Islands appear to be inthis, as in other respects, directly the reverse of those of theTahitian and Hawiian groups, where the original power of the kingand chiefs was far more despotic than that of any tyrant incivilized countries. At Tahiti it used to be death for one ofthe inferior orders to approach, without permission, under theshadow, of the king's house; or to fail in paying the customaryreverence when food destined for the king was borne past them byhis messengers. At the Sandwich Islands, Kaahumanu, the giganticold dowager queen--a woman of nearly four hundred pounds weight,and who is said to be still living at Mowee--was accustomed, insome of her terrific gusts of temper, to snatch up an ordinarysized man who had offended her, and snap his spine across herknee. Incredible as this may seem, it is a fact. While atLahainaluna--the residence of this monstrous Jezebel--ahumpbacked wretch was pointed out to me, who, some twenty-fiveyears previously, had had the vertebrae of his backbone veryseriously discomposed by his gentle mistress.

The particular grades of rank existing among the chiefs of Typee,I could not in all cases determine. Previous to the Feast ofCalabashes I had been puzzled what particular station to assignto Mehevi. But the important part he took upon that occasionconvinced me that he had no superior among the inhabitants of thevalley. I had invariably noticed a certain degree of deferencepaid to him by all with whom I had ever seen him brought incontact; but when I remembered that my wanderings had beenconfined to a limited portion of the valley, and that towards thesea a number of distinguished chiefs resided, some of whom hadseparately visited me at Marheyo's house, and whom, until theFestival, I had never seen in the company of Mehevi, I feltdisposed to believe that his rank after all might not beparticularly elevated.

The revels, however, had brought together all the warriors whom Ihad seen individually and in groups at different times andplaces. Among them Mehevi moved with an easy air of superioritywhich was not to be mistaken; and he whom I had only looked at asthe hospitable host of the Ti, and one of the military leaders ofthe tribe, now assumed in my eyes the dignity of royal station. His striking costume, no less than his naturally commandingfigure, seemed indeed to give him pre-eminence over the rest. The towering helmet of feathers that he wore raised him in heightabove all who surrounded him; and though some others weresimilarly adorned, the length and luxuriance of their plumes wereinferior to his.

Mehevi was in fact the greatest of the chiefs--the head of hisclan--the sovereign of the valley; and the simplicity of thesocial institutions of the people could not have been morecompletely proved than by the fact, that after having beenseveral weeks in the valley, and almost in daily intercourse withMehevi, I should have remained until the time of the festivalignorant of his regal character. But a new light had now brokenin upon me. The Ti was the palace--and Mehevi the king. Boththe one and the other of a most simple and patriarchal nature: itmust be allowed, and wholly unattended by the ceremonious pompwhich usually surrounds the purple.

After having made this discovery I could not avoid congratulatingmyself that Mehevi had from the first taken me as it were underhis royal protection, and that he still continued to entertainfor me the warmest regard, as far at least as I was enabled tojudge from appearances. For the future I determined to pay mostassiduous court to him, hoping that eventually through hiskindness I might obtain my liberty.

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