Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter Two



I CAN never forget the eighteen or twenty days during which the
light trade-winds were silently sweeping us towards the islands.  
In pursuit of the sperm whale, we had been cruising on the line
some twenty degrees to the westward of the Gallipagos; and all
that we had to do, when our course was determined on, was to
square in the yards and keep the vessel before the breeze, and
then the good ship and the steady gale did the rest between them.
The man at the wheel never vexed the old lady with any
superfluous steering, but comfortably adjusting his limbs at the
tiller, would doze away by the hour.  True to her work, the Dolly
headed to her course, and like one of those characters who always
do best when let alone, she jogged on her way like a veteran old
sea-pacer as she was.

What a delightful, lazy, languid time we had whilst we were thus
gliding along!  There was nothing to be done; a circumstance that
happily suited our disinclination to do anything.  We abandoned
the fore-peak altogether, and spreading an awning over the
forecastle, slept, ate, and lounged under it the live-long day.  
Every one seemed to be under the influence of some narcotic.  
Even the officers aft, whose duty required them never to be
seated while keeping a deck watch, vainly endeavoured to keep on
their pins; and were obliged invariably to compromise the matter
by leaning up against the bulwarks, and gazing abstractedly over
the side.  Reading was out of the question; take a book in your
hand, and you were asleep in an instant.

Although I could not avoid yielding in a great measure to the
general languor, still at times I contrived to shake off the
spell, and to appreciate the beauty of the scene around me.  The
sky presented a clear expanse of the most delicate blue, except
along the skirts of the horizon, where you might see a thin
drapery of pale clouds which never varied their form or colour.  
The long, measured, dirge-like well of the Pacific came rolling
along, with its surface broken by little tiny waves, sparkling in
the sunshine.  Every now and then a shoal of flying fish, scared
from the water under the bows, would leap into the air, and fall
the next moment like a shower of silver into the sea.  Then you
would see the superb albicore, with his glittering sides, sailing
aloft, and often describing an arc in his descent, disappear on
the surface of the water.  Far off, the lofty jet of the whale
might be seen, and nearer at hand the prowling shark, that
villainous footpad of the seas, would come skulking along, and,
at a wary distance, regard us with his evil eye.  At times, some
shapeless monster of the deep, floating on the surface, would, as
we approached, sink slowly into the blue waters, and fade away
from the sight.  But the most impressive feature of the scene was
the almost unbroken silence that reigned over sky and water.  
Scarcely a sound could be heard but the occasional breathing of
the grampus, and the rippling at the cut-water.

As we drew nearer the land, I hailed with delight the appearance
of innumerable sea-fowl.  Screaming and whirling in spiral
tracks, they would accompany the vessel, and at times alight on
our yards and stays.  That piratical-looking fellow,
appropriately named the man-of-war's-hawk, with his blood-red
bill and raven plumage, would come sweeping round us in gradually
diminishing circles, till you could distinctly mark the strange
flashings of his eye; and then, as if satisfied with his
observation, would sail up into the air and disappear from the
view.  Soon, other evidences of our vicinity to the land were
apparent, and it was not long before the glad announcement of its
being in sight was heard from aloft,--given with that peculiar
prolongation of sound that a sailor loves--'Land ho!'

The captain, darting on deck from the cabin, bawled lustily for
his spy-glass; the mate in still louder accents hailed the
masthead with a tremendous 'where-away?'  The black cook thrust
his woolly head from the galley, and Boatswain, the dog, leaped
up between the knight-heads, and barked most furiously.  Land ho!
Aye, there it was.  A hardly perceptible blue irregular outline,
indicating the bold contour of the lofty heights of Nukuheva.

This island, although generally called one of the Marquesas, is
by some navigators considered as forming one of a distinct
cluster, comprising the islands of Ruhooka, Ropo, and Nukuheva;
upon which three the appellation of the Washington Group has been
bestowed.  They form a triangle, and lie within the parallels of
8 degrees 38" and 9 degrees 32" South latitude and 139 degrees
20" and 140 degrees 10" West longitude from Greenwich.  With how
little propriety they are to be regarded as forming a separate
group will be at once apparent, when it is considered that they
lie in the immediate vicinity of the other islands, that is to
say, less than a degree to the northwest of them; that their
inhabitants speak the Marquesan dialect, and that their laws,
religion, and general customs are identical.  The only reason why
they were ever thus arbitrarily distinguished may be attributed
to the singular fact, that their existence was altogether unknown
to the world until the year 1791, when they were discovered by
Captain Ingraham, of Boston, Massachusetts, nearly two centuries
after the discovery of the adjacent islands by the agent of the
Spanish Viceroy.  Notwithstanding this, I shall follow the
example of most voyagers, and treat of them as forming part and
parcel of Marquesas.

Nukuheva is the most important of these islands, being the only
one at which ships are much in the habit of touching, and is
celebrated as being the place where the adventurous Captain
Porter refitted his ships during the late war between England and
the United States, and whence he sallied out upon the large
whaling fleet then sailing under the enemy's flag in the
surrounding seas.  This island is about twenty miles in length
and nearly as many in breadth.  It has three good harbours on its
coast; the largest and best of which is called by the people
living in its vicinity 'Taiohae', and by Captain Porter was
denominated Massachusetts Bay.  Among the adverse tribes dwelling
about the shores of the other bays, and by all voyagers, it is
generally known by the name bestowed upon the island
itself--Nukuheva.  Its inhabitants have become somewhat
corrupted, owing to their recent commerce with Europeans, but so
far as regards their peculiar customs and general mode of life,
they retain their original primitive character, remaining very
nearly in the same state of nature in which they were first
beheld by white men.  The hostile clans, residing in the more
remote sections of the island, and very seldom holding any
communication with foreigners, are in every respect unchanged
from their earliest known condition.

In the bay of Nukuheva was the anchorage we desired to reach.  We
had perceived the loom of the mountains about sunset; so that
after running all night with a very light breeze, we found
ourselves close in with the island the next morning, but as the
bay we sought lay on its farther side, we were obliged to sail
some distance along the shore, catching, as we proceeded, short
glimpses of blooming valleys, deep glens, waterfalls, and waving
groves hidden here and there by projecting and rocky headlands,
every moment opening to the view some new and startling scene of

Those who for the first time visit the South Sea, generally are
surprised at the appearance of the islands when beheld from the
sea.  From the vague accounts we sometimes have of their beauty,
many people are apt to picture to themselves enamelled and softly
swelling plains, shaded over with delicious groves, and watered
by purling brooks, and the entire country but little elevated
above the surrounding ocean.  The reality is very different; bold
rock-bound coasts, with the surf beating high against the lofty
cliffs, and broken here and there into deep inlets, which open to
the view thickly-wooded valleys, separated by the spurs of
mountains clothed with tufted grass, and sweeping down towards
the sea from an elevated and furrowed interior, form the
principal features of these islands.

Towards noon we drew abreast the entrance go the harbour, and at
last we slowly swept by the intervening promontory, and entered
the bay of Nukuheva.  No description can do justice to its
beauty; but that beauty was lost to me then, and I saw nothing
but the tri-coloured flag of France trailing over the stern of
six vessels, whose black hulls and bristling broadsides
proclaimed their warlike character.  There they were, floating in
that lovely bay, the green eminences of the shore looking down so
tranquilly upon them, as if rebuking the sternness of their
aspect.  To my eye nothing could be more out of keeping than the
presence of these vessels; but we soon learnt what brought them
there.  The whole group of islands had just been taken possession
of by Rear-Admiral Du Petit Thouars, in the name of the
invincible French nation.

This item of information was imparted to us by a most
extraordinary individual, a genuine South-Sea vagabond, who came
alongside of us in a whale-boat as soon as we entered the bay,
and, by the aid of some benevolent persons at the gangway, was
assisted on board, for our visitor was in that interesting stage
of intoxication when a man is amiable and helpless.  Although he
was utterly unable to stand erect or to navigate his body across
the deck, he still magnanimously proffered his services to pilot
the ship to a good and secure anchorage.  Our captain, however,
rather distrusted his ability in this respect, and refused to
recognize his claim to the character he assumed; but our
gentleman was determined to play his part, for, by dint of much
scrambling, he succeeded in getting into the weather-quarter
boat, where he steadied himself by holding on to a shroud, and
then commenced issuing his commands with amazing volubility and
very peculiar gestures.  Of course no one obeyed his orders; but
as it was impossible to quiet him, we swept by the ships of the
squadron with this strange fellow performing his antics in full
view of all the French officers.

We afterwards learned that our eccentric friend had been a
lieutenant in the English navy; but having disgraced his flag by
some criminal conduct in one of the principal ports on the main,
he had deserted his ship, and spent many years wandering among
the islands of the Pacific, until accidentally being at Nukuheva
when the French took possession of the place, he had been
appointed pilot of the harbour by the newly constituted

As we slowly advanced up the bay, numerous canoes pushed off from
the surrounding shores, and we were soon in the midst of quite a
flotilla of them, their savage occupants struggling to get aboard
of us, and jostling one another in their ineffectual attempts.  
Occasionally the projecting out-riggers of their slight shallops
running foul of one another, would become entangled beneath the
water, threatening to capsize the canoes, when a scene of
confusion would ensue that baffles description.  Such strange
outcries and passionate gesticulations I never certainly heard or
saw before.  You would have thought the islanders were on the
point of flying at each other's throats, whereas they were only
amicably engaged in disentangling their boats.

Scattered here and there among the canoes might be seen numbers
of cocoanuts floating closely together in circular groups, and
bobbing up and down with every wave.  By some inexplicable means
these cocoanuts were all steadily approaching towards the ship.  
As I leaned curiously over the side, endeavouring to solve their
mysterious movements, one mass far in advance of the rest
attracted my attention.  In its centre was something I could take
for nothing else than a cocoanut, but which I certainly
considered one of the most extraordinary specimens of the fruit I
had ever seen.  It kept twirling and dancing about among the rest
in the most singular manner, and as it drew nearer I thought it
bore a remarkable resemblance to the brown shaven skull of one of
the savages.  Presently it betrayed a pair of eyes, and soon I
became aware that what I had supposed to have been one of the
fruit was nothing else than the head of an islander, who had
adopted this singular method of bringing his produce to market.  
The cocoanuts were all attached to one another by strips of the
husk, partly torn from the shell and rudely fastened together.  
Their proprietor inserting his head into the midst of them,
impelled his necklace of cocoanuts through the water by striking
out beneath the surface with his feet.

I was somewhat astonished to perceive that among the number of
natives that surrounded us, not a single female was to be seen.  
At that time I was ignorant of the fact that by the operation of
the 'taboo' the use of canoes in all parts of the island is
rigorously prohibited to the entire sex, for whom it is death
even to be seen entering one when hauled on shore; consequently,
whenever a Marquesan lady voyages by water, she puts in
requisition the paddles of her own fair body.

We had approached within a mile and a half perhaps of this foot
of the bay, when some of the islanders, who by this time had
managed to scramble aboard of us at the risk of swamping their
canoes, directed our attention to a singular commotion in the
water ahead of the vessel.  At first I imagined it to be produced
by a shoal of fish sporting on the surface, but our savage
friends assured us that it was caused by a shoal of 'whinhenies'
(young girls), who in this manner were coming off from the shore
to welcome is.  As they drew nearer, and I watched the rising and
sinking of their forms, and beheld the uplifted right arm bearing
above the water the girdle of tappa, and their long dark hair
trailing beside them as they swam, I almost fancied they could be
nothing else than so many mermaids--and very like mermaids they
behaved too.

We were still some distance from the beach, and under slow
headway, when we sailed right into the midst of these swimming
nymphs, and they boarded us at every quarter; many seizing hold
of the chain-plates and springing into the chains; others, at the
peril of being run over by the vessel in her course, catching at
the bob-stays, and wreathing their slender forms about the ropes,
hung suspended in the air.  All of them at length succeeded in
getting up the ship's side, where they clung dripping with the
brine and glowing from the bath, their jet-black tresses
streaming over their shoulders, and half enveloping their
otherwise naked forms.  There they hung, sparkling with savage
vivacity, laughing gaily at one another, and chattering away with
infinite glee.  Nor were they idle the while, for each one
performed the simple offices of the toilette for the other.  
Their luxuriant locks, wound up and twisted into the smallest
possible compass, were freed from the briny element; the whole
person carefully dried, and from a little round shell that passed
from hand to hand, anointed with a fragrant oil: their adornments
were completed by passing a few loose folds of white tappa, in a
modest cincture, around the waist.  Thus arrayed they no longer
hesitated, but flung themselves lightly over the bulwarks, and
were quickly frolicking about the decks.  Many of them went
forward, perching upon the headrails or running out upon the
bowsprit, while others seated themselves upon the taffrail, or
reclined at full length upon the boats.  What a sight for us
bachelor sailors!  How avoid so dire a temptation?  For who could
think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they
had swum miles to welcome us?

Their appearance perfectly amazed me; their extreme youth, the
light clear brown of their complexions, their delicate features,
and inexpressibly graceful figures, their softly moulded limbs,
and free unstudied action, seemed as strange as beautiful.

The Dolly was fairly captured; and never I will say was vessel
carried before by such a dashing and irresistible party of
boarders!  The ship taken, we could not do otherwise than yield
ourselves prisoners, and for the whole period that she remained
in the bay, the Dolly, as well as her crew, were completely in
the hands of the mermaids.

In the evening after we had come to an anchor the deck was
illuminated with lanterns, and this picturesque band of sylphs,
tricked out with flowers, and dressed in robes of variegated
tappa, got up a ball in great style.  These females are
passionately fond of dancing, and in the wild grace and spirit of
the style excel everything I have ever seen.  The varied dances
of the Marquesan girls are beautiful in the extreme, but there is
an abandoned voluptuousness in their character which I dare not
attempt to describe.

Herman Melville