The Essex was not going to founder immediately. That soon became clear to the men of the three whaleboats They had time to salvage more supplies. Rowing back to the hulk, they used their hatchets to chop away the rigging. Relieved of the weight of her masts, the Essex rolled about two-thirds the right way up again. The vessel was still a derelict, but now the crew could clamber back on her, hack through her deck, and get at her stores. By mid-afternoon they had succeeded in retrieving six hundred pounds of unspoiled ship's biscuit and as much fresh water as they dared carry in their light whaleboats. This was about sixty-five gallons for each boat. They also took a musket, a small canister of gunpowder, and some boat nails, a couple of files, and two rasps, in case they needed to make emergency repairs. They also retrieved the whaleman's traditional standby larder several live turtles which had been kept captive on the Essex to provide fresh meat. When the wind began to strengthen at the onset of darkness, the three boats hung off the lee of the wreck, strung out one behind the other on a long rope, like beads on a string.
During that dismal night Owen Chase had a chance to reflect on the circumstances of the sperm whale collision, and he concluded that the ramming was entirely deliberate. The sperm whale had come at them from the pod that was being hunted; the animal had the appearance of being extremely angry and resentful; and Owen Chase went so far as to surmise that the angle of the head-on charge had been calculated so that the combined collision speeds of the ship and whale had the maximum effect. As for shattering the ship's timbers, Chase had never heard of a whale head butting a ship before, but he had no doubt that the effect of the blow would be devastating. `The structure and strength of the whale's head is admirably designed for this mode of attack,' he observed, `the most prominent part of which is as hard and as tough as iron; indeed I can compare it to nothing else but the inside of a horse's hoof.'
At daybreak Captain Pollard was faced with making an excruciatingly difficult decision. It was clear that the three boats could not stay with the Essex. Sooner or later she would founder. The overloaded whaleboats had to try to make land, but which land? The Essex had been hit in one of the emptier stretches of ocean on the planet. The nearest known land lay 1,400 miles to the south-west, the remote Marquesas Islands. In the opposite direction the coast of South America was well over 2,000 miles away Astonishingly, Captain Pollard chose the longer journey. He had his reasons: the shipwrecked mariners' best chance, though it was a slim one, was that they would be spotted by another vessel, probably a cruising whaleship which, as a matter of good business, always kept a sharp lookout. There was also the possibility of chancing upon an unknown island. The Pacific was still poorly charted, and new islands were occasionally being put on the map. In addition, the prevailing wind was in favour of the South American option. But there was also a strong negative reason the islands of the Marquesas had a bloodcurdling reputation. Among sailors it was said that the islands were inhabited by merciless cannibals The crew of the Essex feared that if they ever reached the Marquesas alive and stepped ashore, they would be taken prisoner and eaten. In view of what subsequently happened, this was among the supreme ironies of maritime history.
The voyage of the three whaleboats was a nightmare. There were twenty men in total, spread as evenly as possible, seven men each in two boats, and six in the one commanded by Owen Chase, which was the oldest. It says much for the first-class seamanship of the whalemen, and the legendary sea kindliness of their whaleboats, that for thirty-one days the three boats stayed together in company and afloat, surviving a bad gale which forced them to run before the wind and heavy seas. Their constant worry, of course, was the dwindling supply of food and water. The officers had calculated that it would take sixty days to reach the mainland, so each man was allowed one ship's biscuit and half a pint of water each day. To eke out these rations the men scraped off and ate the barnacles that began growing on the hulls. They killed the captive turtles, ate the meat and drank the reptiles' blood. Several men tried drinking their own urine. On the thirty-first day they were overjoyed to see a pimple of land on the horizon, a tiny island which they took to be Ducie Island. It was not. It was actually an uninhabited and uncharted spot of land, later to be named Henderson Island, and too barren to sustain anything more than minimal life. They came ashore and stayed for a week, until they had eaten every shellfish, gull egg and wild bird they could catch. The only fresh water came from a tiny spring on the strand which was uncovered at low tide. On this desolate place they spent a wretched Christmas Day, and two days later, leaving behind three men, the maximum number the island's resources could provide for, the three boats set out again, now heading for remote Easter Island.
Amazingly, the three increasingly leaky boats still managed to keep together until, on the fifty-third day of their ordeal, a gale separated them. By that time one man on Owen Chase's boat had died and been buried at sea. A second man succumbed to exposure soon afterwards, and his corpse was also put overboard. But when crewman Isaac Cole went Into convulsions and died at four o'clock on the afternoon of the eighty-first day, the three survivors decided to eat what little flesh remained on the corpse. By then they had only three days' supply of ship's biscuit left. With primitive butchery they cut off the arms and legs so they could more easily separate the meat from these limbs. They opened the scrawny body and removed the heart. Then they sewed up the torso, and dropped it and the limb bones into the water. That day they ate the human heart first, and a little flesh. The rest of Isaac Cole's remains they cut into strips, and hung in the rigging to dry. But the meat quickly turned green. So they roasted it. Ten days later, Owen Chase and his two shipmates, barely alive, were picked up by a passing brig, the Indian of London.
The fate of Essex's other two whaleboats was even worse. One boat and her crew were never seen again. The remaining boat, under Captain Pollard, now with six men aboard, shared the same agonies of increasing hunger and thirst as Owen Chase's crew, with one difference: they resorted to murder as well as cannibalism. Two men died of exposure and malnutrition, and were eaten immediately. Then the four survivors drew lots to see whose flesh would feed the others. The cabin boy, Owen Coffin, drew the short straw. He was Captain Pollard's nephew. Another crew member volunteered to take his place. But Coffin insisted on being sacrificed. He was shot with the musket, and the meat from his body kept the others alive for ten days. Then one of them died, without the need for murder, and he too was eaten. It was on the ninety-sixth day after the loss of the Essex that the two survivors, Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell, who had actually pulled the trigger of the musket that killed Coffin, were picked up by another Nantucket whaleship, Dauphin. Her captain was Zimri Coffin and, such was the close-knit world of Nantucket whaling, Pollard and Ramsdell had eaten his kinsman, the cabin boy.
It was little wonder that Owen Chase's book, which so affected Melville, caused a sensation. Quite apart from the cannibalism, it was a tale of small-boat voyaging of epic proportions. Both Owen Chase and Captain Pollard had kept their whaleboats afloat for more than 4,500 miles and survived for a quarter of a year. But it was the gruesome business of cannibalism which really caught the public attention. There were shudders at the awful fate of the men who died naturally and were eaten, revulsion at the murder and consumption of the poor cabin boy.
The irony of it all was that if Captain Pollard had decided to make for the `cannibal Marquesas', instead of heading for South America, probably none of this man-eating would have happened. Anthropologists working on the Marquesas a century later failed to find incontrovertible evidence that the dreaded Marquesans were the anthropophagous devils which their popular reputation once suggested. The dead bodies of warriors killed in their incessant inter-tribal wars were sometimes eaten in order that their mana or spirit transferred to the victors, but chance castaways were not regarded as a source of mana, and if there was cannibalism, it was not on a massive scale. Generally, the idea of the ravening `cannibal Marquesans' was an overwrought myth. It was a myth which was still believed long after it had deceived the luckless sailors of the Essex, and the man who was most responsible for perpetuating that man-eating myth was Herman Melville. At the height of his writing career he was known, not for Moby Dick, but as `the man who had lived among cannibals'.
So two Melville myths the white whale and the cannibals took me to Nuku Hiva, chief island of the Marquesas. It was late September, and the flight from Tahiti, the only air link, had emphasised the remoteness of the archipelago. For three and a half hours the aircraft droned north-east over a seascape entirely devoid of shipping, a empty expanse of intense blue broken only once by a cluster of pale circles and crescents. They were the coral atolls of the Tuamotos, frail excrescences like the limecasts left by sea worms on the surface of pilings and hulks. From the air you could pick out the dark shadow where a navigable channel broke the circle of a reef, and provided access to the shelter of the aquamarine lagoon. There might be a dozen or so huts dotted along a sandy beach beside a line of palms. But these were fragile homes, never more than twelve feet above sea level and at the mercy of hurricanes and tidal waves.
The Marquesas were different. They rise boldly from the ocean floor, massive volcanic blocks without fringing reefs, their mountain peaks often shrouded in low cloud, dark, steep slopes slashed with ravines and clad with dense green vegetation. There are fifteen islands in all, though only six of them are inhabited, and they break the vast Pacific horizon a thousand miles from any place that might reasonably be called a neighbour. Living in such isolation the native peoples had called their archipelago `The Land of Men', scarcely acknowledging the existence of other humans elsewhere. They came there centuries earlier as seaborne Immigrants, arriving via the stepping stones of Melanesia, Tonga and Samoa It was from the remote Marquesas, too, that the great Polynesian re-emigration had taken place, when the Marquesas had been the dispersal point for the huge double canoes that had carried Polynesian populations as far as the `Land of the Long White Cloud', New Zealand But that outreach seemed to have faded in the Marquesan memory by the time Melville and the other whalemen set foot ashore. Then, the islands were isolated, introspective, and to the newcomers alarmingly barbaric.
A French tricolour was hoisted on the flagstaff by the airstrip when I arrived. A landing area had been levelled from rugged volcanic terrain at the north-west corner of Nuku Hiva. It was near the cliffs and exposed to the trade wind, so the flag of France rippled to a brisk breeze. After first discovery by the Polynesian navigators, the Marquesas had been re-named and then ignored by the Spanish, visited by Captain Cook and eyed covetously by the United States and England. A French expeditionary force had not yet finished claiming the archipelago for the Paris government when Melville arrived. And the Marquesas are still, very obviously, a French Overseas Territory. Four young bronzed French gendarmes looked as if they were on summer duty on the Côte d'Azur. Wearing short haircuts, short sleeves and kepis, they cursorily checked the documents of the dozen returning islanders and half a dozen tourists. Everyone was speaking French. I heard not a word of Marquesan. The half-dozen vehicles parked at the small airport building were all made in France and, apart from the police vehicle, rather decrepit. It was clear that as soon as the plane had discharged its passengers, taken on its new manifest, and flown away, everyone on the ground would climb into their vehicles and depart The airport would be abandoned until the next flight arrived in three days' time. I took the only taxi available, a rusty pick-up truck with tyres lacking much tread. The French tourists had a hotel driver waiting for them, so I was the sole passenger.
The road across the island was abominable. Badly rutted and tortuous, it climbed across the eroded hillsides of Terre desert, the Empty Land, unfit for human occupation. Small plantations of pine trees had been draped across the contours in an attempt to prevent the barren soil from being gouged into even deeper gullies and ravines The pick up truck jolted along at no more than fifteen miles an hour, partly because the road was so rough, but also because it was obvious that no one recently arriving on Nuku Hiva needed to be in a hurry. If you had an appointment, the person you were looking for would not be going away, and frankly there was not very much for any visitor to do, nor many surprises to be had. Nuku Hiva was effectively the capital of the Marquesas, but it was still a backwater. It was best to slow down and enjoy the view.
The taxi brought me on to the high central plateau of the island, more empty land, unexpectedly alpine with its pastures and rambling wire fences carried on wooden fence posts, dark brown cattle, and occasional patches of woodland. Again there were no houses, and the horizon was rimmed by dark, forbidding mountain walls, so it was clear that we were crossing the broad crater of an extinct volcano. At the far edge, I was suddenly on the caldera's rim and looking down a mountainside which fell away precipitously to a magnificent bay, far below. Here the sea had invaded a second volcanic crater, a mile wide, taking a massive bite from the edge of the island. The encircling headlands end in two sentinel rocks and on the horizon, framed in the gap, is the outline of a smaller, neighbouring island, Ua Pou. From that height it was obvious that Taiohae Bay makes a superb anchorage, and half a dozen small yachts were at anchor In its shelter to prove it. Three out of every four people on Nuku Hiva live on the inner edge of the bay, and Taiohae town curls around the shoreline In a display of colonial civic planning. Reading from the left, there was the supply jetty and fuel dump, next to them the hospital and the police barracks. In the centre another flag pole marked where the tricolour was hoisted in front of the municipal offices and bank. Then came an irregular ribbon of shops and guesthouses fronting the beach, until the settlement eventually petered out in a cluster of villas and the neatly regimented bungalows of a small tourist development.
Melville had described that same beach in 1842. Then a native village of palm-thatched huts stood on the same spot, and was already the largest settlement on the island. His best-selling book Typee is the romantic tale of how he arrives in Taiohae Bay as a wide-eyed and restless sailor aboard an American whaleship A swarm of dusky South Sea maidens swim out to the approaching vessel, and offer fresh coconuts and themselves to the sailors. Melville decides to jump ship and run away, to explore the delights of island life. He is joined in his escapade by a young deckhand, Toby Picking the right moment, Melville and Toby slip away from a shore party, and dash off into the woods behind the beach. They must put as much distance as possible between themselves and any pursuit, so there is a punishing journey as the two runaways struggle up into the rugged mountains. They climb precipices, slide down cliffs, huddle in bushes, negotiate ravines, and barely survive the long ordeal. They are heading for a valley of a friendly tribe called the Happars, and they dread that they will stumble into the valley of the Typees, a bloodthirsty tribe who will kill and eat them. The story purports to be a truthful account of what happened to Melville while he was on Nuku Hiva, and he claims that nearly a week is spent on this gruelling escape, until the two hungry and footsore runaways come to human habitation.
To their horror, they discover that they have blundered into the territory of the dreaded Typees. But instead of being eaten, they are treated with great hospitality. The tribal chief greets them courteously, and they are given food and shelter and shown around the village. Melville, who is lamed by a bad leg, is carried piggy-back by a faithful servitor. After a couple of weeks, Toby leaves the valley to go back down to the coast, promising he will find help and send someone to fetch Melville. Left on his own, Melville's idyll becomes even more agreeable. He wins the affectionate attention of Fayaway, a beautiful Typee maiden; they go boating on a small lake; he is honoured by the tribe. For chapter after chapter Melville describes the customs of the natives, their physical beauty, their dress, their diet, their taboos, rituals and festivals, how they build their houses and how they practise the art of tattoo. In short, he puts himself forward as an eyewitness authority on their culture. Then Melville detects sinister overtones. He is banned from a tribal gathering, he finds human bones, and he realises that his kindly hosts are really cannibals. Aghast and determined to escape, he contrives to get down to the coast, and scrambles aboard a ship's longboat that is conveniently at hand, searching for castaways But the Typee warriors have chased barn They swim out, try to pull him bodily from the longboat. Melville turns and strikes the leading warrior with a boat hook, hitting him in the throat. The man sinks, and when he rises again Melville relates how `never shall I forget the ferocious expression of his countenance'.
I knew it would be fruitless to check Melville's personal account of the Typees against the native way of life on Nuku Hiva today When Melville arrived, the peoples of the archipelago were already being overwhelmed by the culture shock which the Australian writer Alan Moorehead called `The Fatal Impact'. In the 1840s the native population of the Marquesas was approximately 20,000. Eighty years later it had plummeted to just over 2,000. The culprits were the usual ones disease introduced by foreigners, starvation, emigration, demoralisation, loss of hope. After the 1930s the population began to rebuild slowly, partly as a result of improved medical facilities and partly due to the influx of a handful of European settlers. But Marquesan culture in terms of music, dance, art and social customs was virtually extinct. Today there is a brave movement to try to revive Marquesan culture, but many of the old ways exist only as hazy memory. It is difficult to know what to rebuild. Paradoxically, the main sources available to the enthusiasts wanting to find out what that old culture was like are the travelogues and descriptions written by the early foreign visitors, the vanguard of the destruction.
The sole remnant of Melville's world I expected to find was the geography of Nuku Hiva. The contorted surface of the island had played a crucial role in the adventures he claimed to have had there. He wrote long descriptions of valleys and cliffs, the anchorage and the landing place, the glens and waterfalls. If I could compare these word pictures with the reality of the landscape, then I might begin to understand how Melville's mind transmuted facts into prose, and by what process he could have dreamed up or known Moby Dick. And there was always a slim chance that, somewhere on Nuku Hiva, I would pick up the trail of the white whale.
The taxi began the winding descent to the settlement. Now at least the road was metalled, and halfway down, beside three apparently loose horses grazing on the roadside shrubs, we stopped to replace a flat tyre that had succumbed to the early rough going. As we were changing the bald tyre for one which was even more slick, a cyclist laboured uphill towards us. He was the first human we had seen in two hours. A fit middle-aged man on a mountain bike, he waved cheerfully, called a greeting, and standing on the pedals swayed his way around the next corner and was gone. `The Mayor,' grunted the taxi driver, `his horses.' On Nuku Hiva everyone knew everyone else.
The first item Melville noted when the Acushnet dropped anchor in Taiohae Bay had also been the tricolour of France. It `trailed over the stern of six vessels, whose black hulls, and bristling broadsides proclaimed their warlike character'. They were the ships of the French flotilla which, in July 1842, were anchored in the bay to impress the local chieftains with the prestige and power of Louis Philippe, the `citizen king' whose government was adding their islands to his colonial domain.
And immediately Melville stumbles.
He says he arrived on the island fifteen months after he had set sail from New Bedford, and claims he spent the next four months on Nuku Hiva living with cannibal natives. The dates do not match the known movements of his ship, nor the sworn deposition of her captain giving the date when Herman Melville deserted. The records show that the Acushnet left New Bedford on 3 January 1841. She cruised south through the Atlantic and around Cape Horn, and after calling at the coast of Peru, made her way via the Galapagos islands (presumably taking on a few of the famous tortoises which, like their cousins the sea turtles, were regarded as a source of food) to make a leisurely sweep across the Pacific, looking for whales. When his ship began to run out of supplies, Captain Valentine Pease diverted to the Marquesas. If the French fleet was in the bay when he arrived, then this was seventeen, not fifteen months after the Acushnet left New Bedford. The two-month gap is significant because we also know the approximate date when Melville left Nuku Hiva. The Lucy Ann, the ship which picked him up, departed Nuku Hiva at about the end of the first week in August. In other words Melville could not possibly have spent four months on the island, as he claims. At the most he could have been on Nuku Hiva for eight weeks, and the most likely length of time of his stay was, almost exactly, four weeks.
Like his boast to his publishers that he had spent `two years and more' as a harpooner on whaleships, Melville's concept of time was elastic when it suited him. The title of the London edition of his book, Narrative of a Four Months Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesan Islands, was a deception.
Excerpted from In Search of Moby Dick by Tim Severin. Copyright © 2000 by Tim Severin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.