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Chapter Thirty



IN one of my strolls with Kory-Kory, in passing along the border
of a thick growth of bushes, my attention was arrested by a
singular noise.  On entering the thicket I witnessed for the
first time the operation of tattooing as performed by these

I beheld a man extended flat upon his back on the ground, and,
despite the forced composure of his countenance, it was evident
that he was suffering agony.  His tormentor bent over him,
working away for all the world like a stone-cutter with mallet
and chisel.  In one hand he held a short slender stick, pointed
with a shark's tooth, on the upright end of which he tapped with
a small hammer-like piece of wood, thus puncturing the skin, and
charging it with the colouring matter in which the instrument was
dipped.  A cocoanut shell containing this fluid was placed upon
the ground.  It is prepared by mixing with a vegetable juice the
ashes of the 'armor', or candle-nut, always preserved for the
purpose.  Beside the savage, and spread out upon a piece of
soiled tappa, were a great number of curious black-looking little
implements of bone and wood, used in the various divisions of his
art.  A few terminated in a single fine point, and, like very
delicate pencils, were employed in giving the finishing touches,
or in operating upon the more sensitive portions of the body, as
was the case in the present instance.  Others presented several
points distributed in a line, somewhat resembling the teeth of a
saw.  These were employed in the coarser parts of the work, and
particularly in pricking in straight marks.  Some presented their
points disposed in small figures, and being placed upon the body,
were, by a single blow of the hammer, made to leave their
indelible impression.  I observed a few the handles of which were
mysteriously curved, as if intended to be introduced into the
orifice of the ear, with a view perhaps of beating the tattoo
upon the tympanum.  Altogether the sight of these strange
instruments recalled to mind that display of cruel-looking
mother-of-pearl-handled things which one sees in their
velvet-lined cases at the elbow of a dentist.

The artist was not at this time engaged on an original sketch,
his subject being a venerable savage, whose tattooing had become
somewhat faded with age and needed a few repairs, and accordingly
he was merely employed in touching up the works of some of the
old masters of the Typee school, as delineated upon the human
canvas before him.  The parts operated upon were the eyelids,
where a longitudinal streak, like the one which adorned
Kory-Kory, crossed the countenance of the victim.

In spite of all the efforts of the poor old man, sundry
twitchings and screwings of the muscles of the face denoted the
exquisite sensibility of these shutters to the windows of his
soul, which he was now having repainted.  But the artist, with a
heart as callous as that of an army surgeon, continued his
performance, enlivening his labours with a wild chant, tapping
away the while as merrily as a woodpecker.

So deeply engaged was he in his work, that he had not observed
our approach, until, after having, enjoyed an unmolested view of
the operation, I chose to attract his attention.  As soon as he
perceived me, supposing that I sought him in his professional
capacity, he seized hold of me in a paroxysm of delight, and was
an eagerness to begin the work.  When, however, I gave him to
understand that he had altogether mistaken my views, nothing
could exceed his grief and disappointment.  But recovering from
this, he seemed determined not to discredit my assertion, and
grasping his implements, he flourished them about in fearful
vicinity to my face, going through an imaginary performance of
his art, and every moment bursting into some admiring exclamation
at the beauty of his designs.

Horrified at the bare thought of being rendered hideous for life
if the wretch were to execute his purpose upon me, I struggled to
get away from him, while Kory-Kory, turning traitor, stood by,
and besought me to comply with the outrageous request.  On my
reiterated refusals the excited artist got half beside himself,
and was overwhelmed with sorrow at losing so noble an opportunity
of distinguishing himself in his profession.

The idea of engrafting his tattooing upon my white skin filled
him with all a painter's enthusiasm; again and again he gazed
into my countenance, and every fresh glimpse seemed to add to the
vehemence of his ambition.  Not knowing to what extremities he
might proceed, and shuddering at the ruin he might inflict upon
my figure-head, I now endeavoured to draw off his attention from
it, and holding out my arm in a fit of desperation, signed to him
to commence operations.  But he rejected the compromise
indignantly, and still continued his attack on my face, as though
nothing short of that would satisfy him.  When his forefinger
swept across my features, in laying out the borders of those
parallel bands which were to encircle my countenance, the flesh
fairly crawled upon my bones.  At last, half wild with terror and
indignation, I succeeded in breaking away from the three savages,
and fled towards old Marheyo's house, pursued by the indomitable
artist, who ran after me, implements in hand.  Kory-Kory,
however, at last interfered and drew him off from the chase.

This incident opened my eyes to a new danger; and I now felt
convinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured in
such a manner as never more to have the FACE to return to my
countrymen, even should an opportunity offer.

These apprehensions were greatly increased by the desire which
King Mehevi and several of the inferior chiefs now manifested
that I should be tattooed.  The pleasure of the king was first
signified to me some three days after my casual encounter with
Karky the artist.  Heavens!  what imprecations I showered upon
that Karky.  Doubtless he had plotted a conspiracy against me and
my countenance, and would never rest until his diabolical purpose
was accomplished.  Several times I met him in various parts of
the valley, and, invariably, whenever he descried me, he came
running after me with his mallet and chisel, flourishing them
about my face as if he longed to begin.  What an object he would
have made of me!

When the king first expressed his wish to me, I made known to him
my utter abhorrence of the measure, and worked myself into such a
state of excitement, that he absolutely stared at me in
amazement.  It evidently surpassed his majesty's comprehension
how any sober-minded and sensible individual could entertain the
least possible objection to so beautifying an operation.

Soon afterwards he repeated his suggestion, and meeting with a
little repulse, showed some symptoms of displeasure at my
obduracy.  On his a third time renewing his request, I plainly
perceived that something must be done, or my visage was ruined
for ever; I therefore screwed up my courage to the sticking
point, and declared my willingness to have both arms tattooed
from just above the wrist to the shoulder.  His majesty was
greatly pleased at the proposition, and I was congratulating
myself with having thus compromised the matter, when he intimated
that as a thing of course my face was first to undergo the
operation.  I was fairly driven to despair; nothing but the utter
ruin of my 'face divine', as the poets call it, would, I
perceived, satisfy the inexorable Mehevi and his chiefs, or
rather, that infernal Karky, for he was at the bottom of it all.

The only consolation afforded me was a choice of patterns: I was
at perfect liberty to have my face spanned by three horizontal
bars, after the fashion of my serving-man's; or to have as many
oblique stripes slanting across it; or if, like a true courtier,
I chose to model my style on that of royalty, I might wear a sort
of freemason badge upon my countenance in the shape of a mystic
triangle.  However, I would have none of these, though the king
most earnestly impressed upon my mind that my choice was wholly
unrestricted.  At last, seeing my unconquerable repugnance, he
ceased to importune me.

But not so some other of the savages.  Hardly a day passed but I
was subjected to their annoying requests, until at last my
existence became a burden to me; the pleasures I had previously
enjoyed no longer afforded me delight, and all my former desire
to escape from the valley now revived with additional force.

A fact which I soon afterwards learned augmented my apprehension.
The whole system of tattooing was, I found, connected with their
religion; and it was evident, therefore, that they were resolved
to make a convert of me.

In the decoration of the chiefs it seems to be necessary to
exercise the most elaborate pencilling; while some of the
inferior natives looked as if they had been daubed over
indiscriminately with a house-painter's brush.  I remember one
fellow who prided himself hugely upon a great oblong patch,
placed high upon his back, and who always reminded me of a man
with a blister of Spanish flies, stuck between his shoulders.  
Another whom I frequently met had the hollow of his eyes tattooed
in two regular squares and his visual organs being remarkably
brilliant, they gleamed forth from out this setting like a couple
of diamonds inserted in ebony.

Although convinced that tattooing was a religious observance,
still the nature of the connection between it and the
superstitious idolatry of the people was a point upon which I
could never obtain any information.  Like the still more
important system of the 'Taboo', it always appeared inexplicable
to me.

There is a marked similarity, almost an identity, between the
religious institutions of most of the Polynesian islands, and in
all exists the mysterious 'Taboo', restricted in its uses to a
greater or less extent.  So strange and complex in its
arrangements is this remarkable system, that I have in several
cases met with individuals who, after residing for years among
the islands in the Pacific, and acquiring a considerable
knowledge of the language, have nevertheless been altogether
unable to give any satisfactory account of its operations.  
Situated as I was in the Typee valley, I perceived every hour the
effects of this all-controlling power, without in the least
comprehending it.  Those effects were, indeed, wide-spread and
universal, pervading the most important as well as the minutest
transactions of life.  The savage, in short, lives in the
continual observance of its dictates, which guide and control
every action of his being.

For several days after entering the valley I had been saluted at
least fifty times in the twenty-four hours with the talismanic
word 'Taboo' shrieked in my ears, at some gross violation of its
provisions, of which I had unconsciously been guilty.  The day
after our arrival I happened to hand some tobacco to Toby over
the head of a native who sat between us.  He started up, as if
stung by an adder; while the whole company, manifesting an equal
degree of horror, simultaneously screamed out 'Taboo!'  I never
again perpetrated a similar piece of ill-manners, which, indeed,
was forbidden by the canons of good breeding, as well as by the
mandates of the taboo.  But it was not always so easy to perceive
wherein you had contravened the spirit of this institution.  I
was many times called to order, if I may use the phrase, when I
could not for the life of me conjecture what particular offence I
had committed.

One day I was strolling through a secluded portion of the valley,
and hearing the musical sound of the cloth-mallet at a little
distance, I turned down a path that conducted me in a few moments
to a house where there were some half-dozen girls employed in
making tappa.  This was an operation I had frequently witnessed,
and had handled the bark in all the various stages of its
preparation.  On the present occasion the females were intent
upon their occupation, and after looking up and talking gaily to
me for a few moments, they resumed their employment.  I regarded
them for a while in silence, and then carelessly picking up a
handful of the material that lay around, proceeded unconsciously
to pick it apart.  While thus engaged, I was suddenly startled by
a scream, like that of a whole boarding-school of young ladies
just on the point of going into hysterics.  Leaping up with the
idea of seeing a score of Happar warriors about to perform anew
the Sabine atrocity, I found myself confronted by the company of
girls, who, having dropped their work, stood before me with
starting eyes, swelling bosoms, and fingers pointed in horror
towards me.

Thinking that some venomous reptile must be concealed in the bark
which I held in my hand, I began cautiously to separate and
examine it.  Whilst I did so the horrified girls re-doubled their
shrieks.  Their wild cries and frightened motions actually
alarmed me, and throwing down the tappa, I was about to rush from
the house, when in the same instant their clamours ceased, and
one of them, seizing me by the arm, pointed to the broken fibres
that had just fallen from my grasp, and screamed in my ears the
fatal word Taboo!

I subsequently found out that the fabric they were engaged in
making was of a peculiar kind, destined to be worn on the heads
of the females, and through every stage of its manufacture was
guarded by a rigorous taboo, which interdicted the whole
masculine gender from even so much as touching it.

Frequently in walking through the groves I observed bread-fruit
and cocoanut trees, with a wreath of leaves twined in a peculiar
fashion about their trunks.  This was the mark of the taboo.  The
trees themselves, their fruit, and even the shadows they cast
upon the ground, were consecrated by its presence.  In the same
way a pipe, which the king had bestowed upon me, was rendered
sacred in the eyes of the natives, none of whom could I ever
prevail upon to smoke from it.  The bowl was encircled by a woven
band of grass, somewhat resembling those Turks' heads
occasionally worked in the handles of our whip-stalks,

A similar badge was once braided about my wrist by the royal hand
of Mehevi himself, who, as soon as he had concluded the
operation, pronounced me 'Taboo'.  This occurred shortly after
Toby's disappearance; and, were it not that from the first moment
I had entered the valley the natives had treated me with uniform
kindness, I should have supposed that their conduct afterwards
was to be ascribed to the fact that I had received this sacred

The capricious, operations of the taboo are not its least
remarkable feature: to enumerate them all would be impossible.  
Black hogs--infants to a certain age--women in an interesting
situation--young men while the operation of tattooing their faces
is going on--and certain parts of the valley during the
continuance of a shower--are alike fenced about by the operation
of the taboo.

I witnessed a striking instance of its effects in the bay of
Tior, my visit to which place has been alluded to in a former
part of this narrative.  On that occasion our worthy captain
formed one of the party.  He was a most insatiable sportsman.  
Outward bound, and off the pitch of Cape Horn, he used to sit on
the taffrail, and keep the steward loading three or four old
fowling pieces, with which he would bring down albatrosses, Cape
pigeons, jays, petrels, and divers other marine fowl, who
followed chattering in our wake.  The sailors were struck aghast
at his impiety, and one and all attributed our forty days'
beating about that horrid headland to his sacrilegious slaughter
of these inoffensive birds.

At Tior he evinced the same disregard for the religious
prejudices of the islanders, as he had previously shown for the
superstitions of the sailors.  Having heard that there were a
considerable number of fowls in the valley the progeny of some
cocks and hens accidentally left there by an English vessel, and
which, being strictly tabooed, flew about almost in a wild
state--he determined to break through all restraints, and be the
death of them.  Accordingly, he provided himself with a most
formidable looking gun, and announced his landing on the beach by
shooting down a noble cock that was crowing what proved to be his
own funeral dirge, on the limb of an adjoining tree.  'Taboo',
shrieked the affrighted savages.  'Oh, hang your taboo,' says the
nautical sportsman; 'talk taboo to the marines'; and bang went
the piece again, and down came another victim.  At this the
natives ran scampering through the groves, horror-struck at the
enormity of the act.

All that afternoon the rocky sides of the valley rang with
successive reports, and the superb plumage of many a beautiful
fowl was ruffled by the fatal bullet.  Had it not been that the
French admiral, with a large party, was then in the glen, I have
no doubt that the natives, although their tribe was small and
dispirited, would have inflicted summary vengeance upon the man
who thus outraged their most sacred institutions; as it was, they
contrived to annoy him not a little.

Thirsting with his exertions, the skipper directed his steps to a
stream; but the savages, who had followed at a little distance,
perceiving his object, rushed towards him and forced him away
from its bank--his lips would have polluted it.  Wearied at last,
he sought to enter a house that he might rest for a while on the
mats; its inmates gathered tumultuously about the door and denied
him admittance.  He coaxed and blustered by turns, but in vain;
the natives were neither to be intimidated nor appeased, and as a
final resort he was obliged to call together his boat's crew, and
pull away from what he termed the most infernal place he ever
stepped upon.

Lucky was it for him and for us that we were not honoured on our
departure by a salute of stones from the hands of the exasperated
Tiors.  In this way, on the neighbouring island of Ropo, were
killed, but a few weeks previously, and for a nearly similar
offence, the master and three of the crew of the K---.

I cannot determine with anything approaching to certainty, what
power it is that imposes the taboo.  When I consider the slight
disparity of condition among the islanders--the very limited and
inconsiderable prerogatives of the king and chiefs--and the loose
and indefinite functions of the priesthood, most of whom were
hardly to be distinguished from the rest of their countrymen, I
am wholly at a loss where to look for the authority which
regulates this potent institution.  It is imposed upon something
today, and withdrawn tomorrow; while its operations in other
cases are perpetual.  Sometimes its restrictions only affect a
single individual--sometimes a particular family--sometimes a
whole tribe; and in a few instances they extend not merely over
the various clans on a single island, but over all the
inhabitants of an entire group.  In illustration of this latter
peculiarity, I may cite the law which forbids a female to enter a
canoe--a prohibition which prevails upon all the northern
Marquesas Islands.

The word itself (taboo) is used in more than one signification.  
It is sometimes used by a parent to his child, when in the
exercise of parental authority he forbids it to perform a
particular action.  Anything opposed to the ordinary customs of
the islanders, although not expressly prohibited, is said to be

The Typee language is one very difficult to be acquired; it bears
a close resemblance to the other Polynesian dialects, all of
which show a common origin.  The duplication of words, as 'lumee
lumee', 'poee poee', 'muee muee', is one of their peculiar
features.  But another, and a more annoying one, is the different
senses in which one and the same word is employed; its various
meanings all have a certain connection, which only makes the
matter more puzzling.  So one brisk, lively little word is
obliged, like a servant in a poor family, to perform all sorts of
duties; for instance, one particular combination of syllables
expresses the ideas of sleep, rest, reclining, sitting, leaning,
and all other things anywise analogous thereto, the particular
meaning being shown chiefly by a variety of gestures and the
eloquent expression of the countenance.

The intricacy of these dialects is another peculiarity.  In the
Missionary College at Lahainaluna, on Mowee, one of the Sandwich
Islands, I saw a tabular exhibition of a Hawiian verb, conjugated
through all its moods and tenses.  It covered the side of a
considerable apartment, and I doubt whether Sir William Jones
himself would not have despaired of mastering it.

Herman Melville