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...
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