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Typee: A Romance of the South Seas

Herman Melville

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    Published in 1846, this was Herman Melville's first book. It was written about three years after the harrowing experience he describes. The original title was Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. This particular edition published by Project Gutenberg, includes a quite long Introduction to the 1892 edition by Arthur Stedman, who renamed it as the above title. Stedman provides autobiographical materials not just related to the book, beginning with Melville's ancestors and ending with his death. I found it all interesting.
    Melville's first sailing experience was as a cabin boy, from New York to London and back. He then engaged in other pursuits, including school teaching, but again found himself on board a whaler, where he spent eighteen months. At the Marquesas Islands he abandons ship, due to the terrible treatment of the crew by the captain. And this is where Typee begins.
    Wikipedia states that the novel is partly autobiographical and partly made up, though what parts are what, we don't really know. After his rescue, the sequel to this story, Omoo, begins. Stedman states that both of these novels are autobiographical. Melville ends up in Honolulu, where he worked as a clerk for four months. He then joined a frigate which eventually reached Boston. And there Melville's seafaring experience ended. He married in 1847, then settled down on a farm.
    I have to say that whether made up or not, it certainly seemed to me very real, because most of it was a detailed description of the natives of the Typee Valley on the Marquesan island of Nukuheva and their way of life. The whaling ship arrives there in terrible shape after no luck in finding what they sought—the sperm whale. The captain is dreadful, and the conditions have become intolerable. And there is no end in sight, because after they leave the islands, the crew will continue their search, and sperm whale adventures have been known to last for years. The author and Toby, probably the only friend he has on the ship, decide to abandon and run off into the mountains where they can hide until the Dolly sails again. They carry few supplies, because they count on living on the luscious fruits that abound on the island. Their main concern, other than getting caught, is that they do not, under any circumstances, end up falling in with the Typees, whose name means "lover of human flesh," with a reputation as a hostile tribe, and blatant cannibals. But things don't go as planned. They stash a few hard biscuits in their uniforms, plus some tobacco and calico, to be used as gifts of goodwill toward the tribal people.
    But no sooner do they begin their trek than it begins to pour. Their biscuits and tobacco become a mushy blend, and all those fruits they expected are nowhere to be found in the mountains. Nothing goes as planned. They are drenched and cold, and find when they reach the peak of the mountain that there are simply more and more peaks and valleys. Toby remains sprightly, but our author, named Tom, becomes deathly ill and his leg becomes swollen and painful. Finally, they do reach "civilization" only to find that it is the community of the dreaded Typees. However, once the inhabitants realize these are not Happars or Nukahevas, both with whom they have hostile relations, the two men are welcomed into a dwelling, that of old Marheyo, his wife, and son Kory-Kory, who becomes "Tommo's" bodyguard, plus a number of other family members. They are first greeted by the noble Mehevi, however, who seems to make the arrangements for their stay.
    Though filled with anxiety, nothing happens to threaten the young men or cause them bodily harm. They are fed well, and treated like honored guests, especially Tom, whose leg is getting only worse, leaving him nearly crippled. One day there is the news that a ship has come to the beach, and Toby is permitted to go with the natives, so he can get medicine (and of course, rescue from their predicament). But when the others return, he does not, and any attempt of Tom to communicate on this matter is quickly hushed by all the Typees. Now Tom fears that Toby has been killed, maybe even eaten, and he is alone here now, and unable to move. Though he is treated well, he is nonetheless a prisoner.
    Yet life goes on, and though Tom obviously wants to get away, (no matter how well he is treated, he never loses the fear that he will some day be lunch), he does relax a bit and allows himself to enjoy the paradise in which he has landed. And, apart from the cannibal fear, his description truly is paradise, and that takes up most of the story. Eventually his leg heals, at least for a while, so he is able to fully participate in tribal life.
    He spends quite a bit of time explaining how to cook and use breadfruit and coconut, and how the natives easily climb the coconut palms. Breadfruit is one of their staples, and they even have a method of mashing them into a doughy consistency, then wrapping them in leaves to store in the earth for when needed. Starting a fire is something that requires a lot of energy and very nearly a theatrical performance! There is also a special process that the ladies do to make cloth out of bark called tapa.
    One of the first aspects that strikes and really repulses Tom are the tattoos, which are added as a man ages (though women have them, too, just not as bold). The females, however, were very beautiful and everything and every person was so clean. These people bathe a couple times a day, and the women constantly anoint themselves with fragrant oils and adorn themselves with fragrant flowers. Everyone smells good. He becomes close to a most beautiful damsel named Fayaway.
    He describes the "architecture," which is always built on a stone foundation called a pi-pi.. There was a particular spot for the guys only, called the "Ti" which was taboo to women. Taboo is a word that came up a lot, and these restrictions were enforced usually very strictly, but there were many levels of taboo, like a mother might tell her child not to do something, but some were permanent and very serious. The language itself was a challenge that Tom never mastered, so his attempts to find out more about this word failed.
    He wonders where the taboo came from, or what force was not allowing them to do something, but found their idols not very well respected, and very little in the way of any kind of "religious" tradition. In fact, the most important task of any Typee native seemed to be to have fun, and play, with lots of sleeping and eating in between, and on special occasions, there were even festival, although what they were celebrating was never clear. There were never any quarrels, and everyone seemed to be of the same opinion, so there were never differences to iron out. Except for the fear in the back of his mind about the cannibal thing, his experience with these people was truly a paradise of love and harmony. At one point, Tom made a boy a "pop gun" out of a cane. Very soon, everyone wanted one, old and young alike, and the excitement over this went on for days.

Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop! green guavas, seeds, and berries were flying about in every direction, and during this dangerous state of affairs I was half afraid that, like the man and his brazen bull, I should fall victim to my own ingenuity.

    The population never really grows.. Though women bore children at age thirteen, there were not that many young children, and only two babies were born during his stay, and no one died. They are polygamous, but it is the women who have usually two husbands—first a young one, then later, an older one, who marries both the woman and man and they all live together! In addition, everyone is very healthy, at least then, but that was prior to Westerners invading them and spreading disease.
    One of the most emphatic commentaries made by the author, really throughout the whole book, was about the missionaries coming to the islands to "civilize" the inhabitants. Yet how many Americans or Europeans live with such joy for life, so carefree, and so harmoniously?

The term "Savage" is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed, when I consider the vices, cruelties, and enormities of every kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four of five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans dispatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.

    In all this is a very interesting and very enjoyable book, not complicated at all in Melville's easy-going narrative style. I am looking forward to reading Omoo, the sequel!


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