Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1407
Rescued from the island of Typee by the crew of a British whaler, Herman Melville agrees to stay on the ship as a deckhand until it reaches the next port, where he is to be placed ashore. The Julia , however, is not a well-managed vessel. Soon after Melville joins...
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Rescued from the island of Typee by the crew of a British whaler, Herman Melville agrees to stay on the ship as a deckhand until it reaches the next port, where he is to be placed ashore. The Julia, however, is not a well-managed vessel. Soon after Melville joins it, several of the men make an attempt to desert. These unfortunates are recovered quickly, however, by the timely aid of the islanders and the crew of a French man-of-war.
In the weeks of cruising that followed this adventure, Melville, relieved from duty because of a lameness in his leg, spends his time playing chess with the ship’s doctor and reading the doctor’s books. These are not, however, weeks of pleasure. During this time, two of the men in the forecastle die, and the entire crew lives under the most abominable conditions. The rat-infested, rotten old ship should have been condemned years before. Finally, when the captain himself falls ill, the ship changes its course to Tahiti, the nearest island.
The crew convince themselves that when the captain leaves the ship, they will no longer be bound by the agreements they had signed. They intend to leave the ship when it arrives in the harbor at Papeetee. The captain attempts to prevent their desertion by keeping the ship under way just outside the harbor while he goes ashore in a small boat. Only Doctor Long Ghost’s influence prevents the men from disregarding orders and taking the vessel into the harbor to anchor it. The crew does, however, protest their treatment in a letter sent to the British consul ashore by means of the black cook. The acting consul in Papeetee and the captain of the Julia are old acquaintances, and the official’s only action is to inform the men they will have to stay with the ship and cruise for three months under the command of the first mate. The captain himself will remain in Tahiti. After a Mauri harpooner attempts to wreck the ship, the drunken mate decides to take the whaler into the harbor, regardless of the consequences.
In Papeetee, the acting consul has the men, including Melville and Doctor Long Ghost, imprisoned on a French frigate. After five days aboard the French ship, they are removed and are once more given an opportunity to return to their ship. When they refuse, the mutineers are taken into custody by a Tahitian native called Captain Bob, who takes them to an oval-shaped thatched house, which is to be their jail.
There they are confined in stocks, two timbers about twenty feet long, serving to secure all the prisoners. Each morning, the jailer comes to free the men and supervise their baths in a neighboring stream. The islanders, in return for hard ship’s biscuit from the Julia, feed the men baked breadfruit and Indian turnips. Sometimes the kindly jailer leads the men to his orange grove, where they gather fruit for their meals. This fruit diet is precisely what they need to regain the health they had lost while eating sea rations of salt pork and biscuit.
The prisoners in the thatched hut are in sight of Broom Road, the island’s chief thoroughfare. Since the prisoners are easily accessible, the idle, inquisitive Tahitians are constantly visiting, and the prisoners do not lack for company. Within a few days, their jailer frees the sailors from the stocks during the daytime, except when white men are in the vicinity. Once this leniency is granted, the men roam the neighborhood to take advantage of the local hospitality. Doctor Long Ghost always carries salt with him, in case he finds some food to flavor.
When the consul sends a doctor to look at the prisoners, all the sailors pretend to be sick. Shortly after the doctor has made his examinations and departs, a native boy appears with a basket of medicines. The sailors discard the powders and pills, but eagerly drink the contents of all the bottles which smell the least bit alcoholic.
British missionaries on the island take no notice of the sailors from the Julia other than sending them a handful of tracts. Three French priests, however, come to see the men. The natives, it seems, look upon the priests as magicians, and so they have been able to make only a few converts among the islanders. The priests are popular with the sailors because they give freshly baked wheat bread and liquor to the prisoners. Three weeks after arriving in the port of Papeetee, the captain of the Julia sails away with a new crew recruited from beachcombers idling about the island. After his departure, the mutineers are no longer confined to their jail but continue to live there because the building is as convenient as any other thatched dwelling in the neighborhood. They exist by foraging the surrounding country and by smuggling provisions from visiting ships with the aid of the sailors aboard.
Melville finds this life not unpleasant at first, but after a time, he grows bored. He even goes to a native church to hear the missionary preach. The theme of the sermon is that all white men except the British are bad and so are the natives, unless they begin to contribute more baskets of food to the missionary’s larder. Melville does not go to the missionary church again.
Several weeks after the Julia had sailed, Melville meets two white men who inform him that a plantation on a neighboring island is in need of laborers. Melville and Doctor Long Ghost, introduced to the planters as Peter and Paul, are immediately hired. One moonlit night, the pair boards the boat belonging to their employers. They leave their former shipmates without ceremony, lest the authorities prevent their departure.
The planters live by themselves in an inland valley on the mosquito-infested island of Imeeo. The prospect of plying a hoe in the heat of the day amid swarms of insects does not appeal to the two sailors, and so at noon of the first day in the fields, Doctor Long Ghost pretends illness. He and Melville agree to do as little work as possible. After a few days, they give up farming for good and leave on foot to Tamai, an inland village unspoiled by missionaries or other white men. There they see a dance by native girls, a rite that has been banned as pagan by the missionaries on the island. A day or two later, while the two white men are considering settling permanently at Tamai, the natives force them to flee, for a reason they were never able to discover.
The next adventure they contemplate is an audience with the queen of Tahiti. Traveling by easy stages from one village to the next on foot or by canoe, they make their way to Partoowye, where the island queen has her residence. They meet a runaway ship’s carpenter who has settled there and who keeps busy building boxes and cabinets for the natives. From him, they learn that a whaler is in the local harbor. When they talk to the crew of the vessel, however, they are told that it is not a good ship on which to sail, and they give up all thought of shipping away from the islands aboard the whaler.
After five weeks in the village, Doctor Long Ghost and Melville finally obtain admittance to the queen through the good offices of a Marquesan attendant at her court. When they come into the queen’s presence, she is eating, and she waves them out of her palace in high-handed fashion, at the same time reprimanding their guide. Disappointed by their reception at court, the two travelers again decide to go to sea. They make friends with the third mate of the whaler, which is still in the harbor. The mate reassures them concerning conditions aboard the ship. The other sailors, knowing the ship cannot sail away from the pleasant islands without more men in the crew, had deliberately lied.
Having confidence in the mate, Doctor Long Ghost and Melville then approach the captain and ask to sign on as members of the crew. The captain, however, will not accept Doctor Long Ghost as a deckhand or as the ship’s doctor. Reluctantly, Melville ships out alone on the voyage that will take him to the coast of Japan and, he hopes, eventually home.