Herman Melville's Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

October 18, 2004   


Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7, 328 pages.

(Swans - October 18, 2004)   After the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the Melville family, the eighteen-year-old Herman was forced to fend for himself. After bouncing from teaching to surveying to civil engineering jobs, he finally signed up on the whaler Acushnet and sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on January 3, 1841. While spending the next four years at sea, first as a whaler and then as a sailor in the US Navy, Melville began to conceive of a new career for himself as a writer.

On June 23, 1842, Melville and a companion jumped ship from the Acushnet and made their way to the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. There they sought refuge with the reputedly hospitable Happaa peoples. After taking a wrong turn in a forest, they wound up in the midst of their rivals, the Typees, who had a reputation for ferocity and cannibalism. The four weeks spent among the Typees inspired Melville to write the eponymous Typee, a novel that defies 19th century conventions and which foreshadows many of the themes that would appear in subsequent works such as Moby Dick. It is a clarion call against racism and colonialism, as well as an inchoate search for an alternative to the inhuman economic system that had ruined his once patrician family as well as many other Americans of all races.

While Typee incorporates many fictional elements, there is no doubt that his description of life on the Acushnet (called the Dolly in the novel) is very close to the truth:
"The usage on board of her was tyrannical; the sick had been inhumanly neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance; and her cruises were unreasonably protracted. The captain was the author of the abuses; it was in vain to think that he would either remedy them, or alter his conduct, which was arbitrary and violent in the extreme. His prompt reply to all complaints and remonstrances was--the butt-end of a handspike, so convincingly administered as effectually to silence the aggrieved party."
After a long arduous trek through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, Tommo (a character based on Melville) and his companion Toby stumble across the Typees who live in a secluded valley. The two sailors are practically adopted by the villagers at once and treated as visiting dignitaries:
"All the inhabitants of the valley treated me with great kindness; but as to the household of Marheyo, with whom I was now permanently domiciled, nothing could surpass their efforts to minister to my comfort. To the gratification of my palate they paid the most unwearied attention. They continually invited me to partake of food, and when after eating heartily I declined the viands they continued to offer me, they seemed to think that my appetite stood in need of some piquant stimulant to excite its activity."
The contrast between the oppressive conditions of life in capitalist society, called "civilization," and the Stone Age affluence (as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it) enjoyed by the Typees is drawn throughout the novel. After watching a Typee man laboriously start a fire by rubbing two sticks, Melville observes:
"What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable cannibal education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who through the instrumentality of a lucifer performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wit's end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without troubling their parents, pluck from the branches of every tree around them."
After noticing that the Typees lacked a concept of personal property or crime and that they left valued spears and carvings about for the taking, Melville wondered aloud if civilization was really that much of an advance over savagery.
"Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength among many barbarous people. The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendship of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass anything of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe. If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: 'Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.' I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained. But alas! since then I have been one of the crew of a man-of-war, and the pent-up wickedness of five hundred men has nearly overturned all my previous theories."
Ultimately Melville casts doubt on the possibility that cannibalism was practiced by the Typee, despite the allegations of missionaries and sailors who had preceded him to the island and who were far more prejudiced against the "savages." This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the history of colonialism. During the early years of colonial expansion, subjugation of native peoples was considered appropriate if they were beyond redemption, especially if they were reported to be cannibals. Hence, such reports on such tendencies were accepted often at face value.

In The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist W. Arens debunks such testimonies and concludes -- with Melville -- that cannibalism is an extremely rare phenomenon in precapitalist society. Arens tells the story of a sailor named Hans Standen who spent 12 months in Brazil in the 1600s and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about cannibalism among the Tupinamba people. He is everything that Melville is not.

Standen's account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. And what accounts they are! He says that when they capture a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood "when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it." He also claimed that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism.

Whatever the truth about cannibalism among the Typees, they are mere slouches when it comes to the savagery of the invader. Some experts believe that Western colonialism is responsible for the reduction of the native Marquesan population from 100,000 at its height to only 4,865 in 1882. One such assailant of the native peoples was Captain David Porter of the US Navy who seized the islands shortly after the War of 1812. While at first acknowledging the generosity and pacific nature of the islanders, he soon found it necessary to bring them under his thumb as part of an overall scheme to exploit the Marquesas economically. When a chief of the Teii peoples expresses his defiance to the naval officer, Porter thrusts a musket into his face and demands an apology. His words are a virtual credo of the colonizer: "My aim was to render all the tribes subservient to my views, and I thought it necessary to check the manner of Mouina, lest it became contagious, and I should find a difficulty in keeping them in that subjugation by which only we could render ourselves secure." (Quoted in T. Walter Herbert Jr.'s Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization.)

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a "phonographist" from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa's discovery of the South Seas: "The thronging Indians opposed Balboa's passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. 'I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'"

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas. His reply:
"Why don't the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside -- splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?"
The final paragraphs are the phonographist's own words and it is too bad that we don't have Melville's. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:
"The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

"The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals."

Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7, 328 pages.

The book can be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
Simply enter your Zip code and click on "Go" to find all local independent bookstores near you (in the U.S.):

· · · · · ·


Book Reviews on Swans


Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.

Please, feel free to insert a link to this book review on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting a few paragraphs or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans. This material is copyrighted, © Louis Proyect 2004. All rights reserved.
· · · · · ·


This Week's Internal Links

2004 US Presidential Election: Recapitulation - by Gilles d'Aymery

God, The Ghost Of Richard Nixon, And The Demons Of Election 2004 - by Phil Rockstroh

Ralph Nader: A Vote For Sanity - by Gilles d'Aymery

Anyone But Bush? - Cartoon by Jan Baughman

Why Vote? - by Philip Greenspan

A Summary From The Hawaii Political Trenches: Letter To The Election Commission - by Milo Clark

Liberty's Century - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Never Buy a Cat in a Bag: Poland, a Country that Asked for Freedom...but Got "Democracy" - by Anna Kuros

Usus Fructus - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Blips #4 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor


Published October 18, 2004
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Main Page]