Melville & the Cannibals

January 3: Onthis day in 1841 twenty-two-year-old Herman Melville set sail aboard the Acushnet, a New England whaler headingfor the South Seas. His experiences on this and several subsequent voyageswould provide the basis for a half-dozen sea novels written in a five-yearburst, 1846-51. In his lifetime, and much to his disgust, Melville’s reputationwas not made on the last of those, MobyDick, but on the first, Typee,and its sequel, Omoo.

As described in the earlier, British edition, Typee is the “Narrative of a FourMonths’ Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands.”Initially, the living is easy, commencing with the women who swim out to greetthe boat and are enthusiastically helped aboard: “What a sight for usbachelor sailors! How avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think oftumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they had swam miles to welcomeus?” But Melville’s narrator is a man of high principles and anon-participant in “every species of riot and debauchery” thatfollowed. As did Melville himself, the narrator soon jumps ship and heads forland, where he was almost immediately and somewhat willingly captured by theTypees, a generally friendly tribe but one with a taste for, as they put it,”long pig.” The narrator’s internal debate over his hospitablecaptivity—food, leisure, and the fetching Fayaway versus a worry over beingforcibly tattooed or otherwise made fit for Typee society—becomes a resolutionto escape upon his first glimpse of the cooking pot:

…I observed a curiously carved vessel of wood, ofconsiderable size, with a cover placed over it, of the same material, and whichresembled in shape a small canoe. It was surrounded by a low railing ofbamboos, the top of which was scarcely a foot from the ground. As the vesselhad been placed in its present position since my last visit, I at onceconcluded that it must have some connection with the recent festival, and,prompted by a curiosity I could not repress, in passing it I raised one end ofthe cover; at the same moment the chiefs, perceiving my design, loudlyejaculated, ‘Taboo! taboo!’

But the slight glimpse sufficed; my eyes fell upon thedisordered members of a human skeleton, the bones still fresh with moisture,and with particles of flesh clinging to them here and there!


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.