by Herman Melville

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Chapter Two



I CAN never forget the eighteen or twenty days during which thelight trade-winds were silently sweeping us towards the islands. In pursuit of the sperm whale, we had been cruising on the linesome twenty degrees to the westward of the Gallipagos; and allthat we had to do, when our course was determined on, was tosquare in the yards and keep the vessel before the breeze, andthen the good ship and the steady gale did the rest between them. The man at the wheel never vexed the old lady with anysuperfluous steering, but comfortably adjusting his limbs at thetiller, would doze away by the hour. True to her work, the Dollyheaded to her course, and like one of those characters who alwaysdo best when let alone, she jogged on her way like a veteran oldsea-pacer as she was.

What a delightful, lazy, languid time we had whilst we were thusgliding along! There was nothing to be done; a circumstance thathappily suited our disinclination to do anything. We abandonedthe fore-peak altogether, and spreading an awning over theforecastle, slept, ate, and lounged under it the live-long day. Every one seemed to be under the influence of some narcotic. Even the officers aft, whose duty required them never to beseated while keeping a deck watch, vainly endeavoured to keep ontheir pins; and were obliged invariably to compromise the matterby leaning up against the bulwarks, and gazing abstractedly overthe side. Reading was out of the question; take a book in yourhand, and you were asleep in an instant.

Although I could not avoid yielding in a great measure to thegeneral languor, still at times I contrived to shake off thespell, and to appreciate the beauty of the scene around me. Thesky presented a clear expanse of the most delicate blue, exceptalong the skirts of the horizon, where you might see a thindrapery of pale clouds which never varied their form or colour. The long, measured, dirge-like well of the Pacific came rollingalong, with its surface broken by little tiny waves, sparkling inthe sunshine. Every now and then a shoal of flying fish, scaredfrom the water under the bows, would leap into the air, and fallthe next moment like a shower of silver into the sea. Then youwould see the superb albicore, with his glittering sides, sailingaloft, and often describing an arc in his descent, disappear onthe surface of the water. Far off, the lofty jet of the whalemight be seen, and nearer at hand the prowling shark, thatvillainous footpad of the seas, would come skulking along, and,at a wary distance, regard us with his evil eye. At times, someshapeless monster of the deep, floating on the surface, would, aswe approached, sink slowly into the blue waters, and fade awayfrom the sight. But the most impressive feature of the scene wasthe almost unbroken silence that reigned over sky and water. Scarcely a sound could be heard but the occasional breathing ofthe grampus, and the rippling at the cut-water.

As we drew nearer the land, I hailed with delight the appearanceof innumerable sea-fowl. Screaming and whirling in spiraltracks, they would accompany the vessel, and at times alight onour yards and stays. That piratical-looking fellow,appropriately named the man-of-war's-hawk, with his blood-redbill and raven plumage, would come sweeping round us in graduallydiminishing circles, till you could distinctly mark the strangeflashings of his eye; and then, as if satisfied with hisobservation, would sail up into the air and disappear from theview. Soon, other evidences of our vicinity to the land wereapparent, and it was not long before the glad announcement of itsbeing in sight was heard from aloft,--given with that peculiarprolongation of sound that a sailor loves--'Land ho!'

The captain, darting on deck from the cabin, bawled lustily forhis spy-glass; the mate in still louder accents hailed themasthead with a tremendous 'where-away?' The black cook thrusthis woolly head from the galley, and Boatswain, the dog, leapedup between the knight-heads, and barked most furiously. Land ho!Aye, there it was. A hardly perceptible blue irregular outline,indicating the bold contour of the lofty heights of Nukuheva.

This island, although generally called one of the Marquesas, isby some navigators considered as forming one of a distinctcluster, comprising the islands of Ruhooka, Ropo, and Nukuheva;upon which three the appellation of the Washington Group has beenbestowed. They form a triangle, and lie within the parallels of8 degrees 38" and 9 degrees 32" South latitude and 139 degrees20" and 140 degrees 10" West longitude from Greenwich. With howlittle propriety they are to be regarded as forming a separategroup will be at once apparent, when it is considered that theylie in the immediate vicinity of the other islands, that is tosay, less than a degree to the northwest of them; that theirinhabitants speak the Marquesan dialect, and that their laws,religion, and general customs are identical. The only reason whythey were ever thus arbitrarily distinguished may be attributedto the singular fact, that their existence was altogether unknownto the world until the year 1791, when they were discovered byCaptain Ingraham, of Boston, Massachusetts, nearly two centuriesafter the discovery of the adjacent islands by the agent of theSpanish Viceroy. Notwithstanding this, I shall follow theexample of most voyagers, and treat of them as forming part andparcel of Marquesas.

Nukuheva is the most important of these islands, being the onlyone at which ships are much in the habit of touching, and iscelebrated as being the place where the adventurous CaptainPorter refitted his ships during the late war between England andthe United States, and whence he sallied out upon the largewhaling fleet then sailing under the enemy's flag in thesurrounding seas. This island is about twenty miles in lengthand nearly as many in breadth. It has three good harbours on itscoast; the largest and best of which is called by the peopleliving in its vicinity 'Taiohae', and by Captain Porter wasdenominated Massachusetts Bay. Among the adverse tribes dwellingabout the shores of the other bays, and by all voyagers, it isgenerally known by the name bestowed upon the islanditself--Nukuheva. Its inhabitants have become somewhatcorrupted, owing to their recent commerce with Europeans, but sofar as regards their peculiar customs and general mode of life,they retain their original primitive character, remaining verynearly in the same state of nature in which they were firstbeheld by white men. The hostile clans, residing in the moreremote sections of the island, and very seldom holding anycommunication with foreigners, are in every respect unchangedfrom their earliest known condition.

In the bay of Nukuheva was the anchorage we desired to reach. Wehad perceived the loom of the mountains about sunset; so thatafter running all night with a very light breeze, we foundourselves close in with the island the next morning, but as thebay we sought lay on its farther side, we were obliged to sailsome distance along the shore, catching, as we proceeded, shortglimpses of blooming valleys, deep glens, waterfalls, and wavinggroves hidden here and there by projecting and rocky headlands,every moment opening to the view some new and startling scene ofbeauty.

Those who for the first time visit the South Sea, generally aresurprised at the appearance of the islands when beheld from thesea. From the vague accounts we sometimes have of their beauty,many people are apt to picture to themselves enamelled and softlyswelling plains, shaded over with delicious groves, and wateredby purling brooks, and the entire country but little elevatedabove the surrounding ocean. The reality is very different; boldrock-bound coasts, with the surf beating high against the loftycliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open tothe view thickly-wooded valleys, separated by the spurs ofmountains clothed with tufted grass, and sweeping down towardsthe sea from an elevated and furrowed interior, form theprincipal features of these islands.

Towards noon we drew abreast the entrance go the harbour, and atlast we slowly swept by the intervening promontory, and enteredthe bay of Nukuheva. No description can do justice to itsbeauty; but that beauty was lost to me then, and I saw nothingbut the tri-coloured flag of France trailing over the stern ofsix vessels, whose black hulls and bristling broadsidesproclaimed their warlike character. There they were, floating inthat lovely bay, the green eminences of the shore looking down sotranquilly upon them, as if rebuking the sternness of theiraspect. To my eye nothing could be more out of keeping than thepresence of these vessels; but we soon learnt what brought themthere. The whole group of islands had just been taken possessionof by Rear-Admiral Du Petit Thouars, in the name of theinvincible French nation.

This item of information was imparted to us by a mostextraordinary individual, a genuine South-Sea vagabond, who camealongside of us in a whale-boat as soon as we entered the bay,and, by the aid of some benevolent persons at the gangway, wasassisted on board, for our visitor was in that interesting stageof intoxication when a man is amiable and helpless. Although hewas utterly unable to stand erect or to navigate his body acrossthe deck, he still magnanimously proffered his services to pilotthe ship to a good and secure anchorage. Our captain, however,rather distrusted his ability in this respect, and refused torecognize his claim to the character he assumed; but ourgentleman was determined to play his part, for, by dint of muchscrambling, he succeeded in getting into the weather-quarterboat, where he steadied himself by holding on to a shroud, andthen commenced issuing his commands with amazing volubility andvery peculiar gestures. Of course no one obeyed his orders; butas it was impossible to quiet him, we swept by the ships of thesquadron with this strange fellow performing his antics in fullview of all the French officers.

We afterwards learned that our eccentric friend had been alieutenant in the English navy; but having disgraced his flag bysome criminal conduct in one of the principal ports on the main,he had deserted his ship, and spent many years wandering amongthe islands of the Pacific, until accidentally being at Nukuhevawhen the French took possession of the place, he had beenappointed pilot of the harbour by the newly constitutedauthorities.

As we slowly advanced up the bay, numerous canoes pushed off fromthe surrounding shores, and we were soon in the midst of quite aflotilla of them, their savage occupants struggling to get aboardof us, and jostling one another in their ineffectual attempts. Occasionally the projecting out-riggers of their slight shallopsrunning foul of one another, would become entangled beneath thewater, threatening to capsize the canoes, when a scene ofconfusion would ensue that baffles description. Such strangeoutcries and passionate gesticulations I never certainly heard orsaw before. You would have thought the islanders were on thepoint of flying at each other's throats, whereas they were onlyamicably engaged in disentangling their boats.

Scattered here and there among the canoes might be seen numbersof cocoanuts floating closely together in circular groups, andbobbing up and down with every wave. By some inexplicable meansthese cocoanuts were all steadily approaching towards the ship. As I leaned curiously over the side, endeavouring to solve theirmysterious movements, one mass far in advance of the restattracted my attention. In its centre was something I could takefor nothing else than a cocoanut, but which I certainlyconsidered one of the most extraordinary specimens of the fruit Ihad ever seen. It kept twirling and dancing about among the restin the most singular manner, and as it drew nearer I thought itbore a remarkable resemblance to the brown shaven skull of one ofthe savages. Presently it betrayed a pair of eyes, and soon Ibecame aware that what I had supposed to have been one of thefruit was nothing else than the head of an islander, who hadadopted this singular method of bringing his produce to market. The cocoanuts were all attached to one another by strips of thehusk, partly torn from the shell and rudely fastened together. Their proprietor inserting his head into the midst of them,impelled his necklace of cocoanuts through the water by strikingout beneath the surface with his feet.

I was somewhat astonished to perceive that among the number ofnatives that surrounded us, not a single female was to be seen. At that time I was ignorant of the fact that by the operation ofthe 'taboo' the use of canoes in all parts of the island isrigorously prohibited to the entire sex, for whom it is deatheven to be seen entering one when hauled on shore; consequently,whenever a Marquesan lady voyages by water, she puts inrequisition the paddles of her own fair body.

We had approached within a mile and a half perhaps of this footof the bay, when some of the islanders, who by this time hadmanaged to scramble aboard of us at the risk of swamping theircanoes, directed our attention to a singular commotion in thewater ahead of the vessel. At first I imagined it to be producedby a shoal of fish sporting on the surface, but our savagefriends assured us that it was caused by a shoal of 'whinhenies'(young girls), who in this manner were coming off from the shoreto welcome is. As they drew nearer, and I watched the rising andsinking of their forms, and beheld the uplifted right arm bearingabove the water the girdle of tappa, and their long dark hairtrailing beside them as they swam, I almost fancied they could benothing else than so many mermaids--and very like mermaids theybehaved too.

We were still some distance from the beach, and under slowheadway, when we sailed right into the midst of these swimmingnymphs, and they boarded us at every quarter; many seizing holdof the chain-plates and springing into the chains; others, at theperil of being run over by the vessel in her course, catching atthe bob-stays, and wreathing their slender forms about the ropes,hung suspended in the air. All of them at length succeeded ingetting up the ship's side, where they clung dripping with thebrine and glowing from the bath, their jet-black tressesstreaming over their shoulders, and half enveloping theirotherwise naked forms. There they hung, sparkling with savagevivacity, laughing gaily at one another, and chattering away withinfinite glee. Nor were they idle the while, for each oneperformed the simple offices of the toilette for the other. Their luxuriant locks, wound up and twisted into the smallestpossible compass, were freed from the briny element; the wholeperson carefully dried, and from a little round shell that passedfrom hand to hand, anointed with a fragrant oil: their adornmentswere completed by passing a few loose folds of white tappa, in amodest cincture, around the waist. Thus arrayed they no longerhesitated, but flung themselves lightly over the bulwarks, andwere quickly frolicking about the decks. Many of them wentforward, perching upon the headrails or running out upon thebowsprit, while others seated themselves upon the taffrail, orreclined at full length upon the boats. What a sight for usbachelor sailors! How avoid so dire a temptation? For who couldthink of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when theyhad swum miles to welcome us?

Their appearance perfectly amazed me; their extreme youth, thelight clear brown of their complexions, their delicate features,and inexpressibly graceful figures, their softly moulded limbs,and free unstudied action, seemed as strange as beautiful.

The Dolly was fairly captured; and never I will say was vesselcarried before by such a dashing and irresistible party ofboarders! The ship taken, we could not do otherwise than yieldourselves prisoners, and for the whole period that she remainedin the bay, the Dolly, as well as her crew, were completely inthe hands of the mermaids.

In the evening after we had come to an anchor the deck wasilluminated with lanterns, and this picturesque band of sylphs,tricked out with flowers, and dressed in robes of variegatedtappa, got up a ball in great style. These females arepassionately fond of dancing, and in the wild grace and spirit ofthe style excel everything I have ever seen. The varied dancesof the Marquesan girls are beautiful in the extreme, but there isan abandoned voluptuousness in their character which I dare notattempt to describe.

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