Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Herman Melville and those nice cannibal people of Typee

In 1840 Herman Melville is 21 years old and is looking for adventure. So he signs up with the whaler Acushnet and on 1st January 1841 sets sail from New Bedford bound for the sperm fishery of the Indian Ocean.

But the ship's captain is not a nice chap, so Herman and his only chum aboard the friendless vessel, Richard Tobias (Toby) Greene, decide to jump ship at the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.

The captain allows the crew to go ashore but gives them a friendly warning that the island is the home of the Typee tribe of gourmet cannibals that like to dine on human flesh.

'You may only be third-rate sailors to me', he tells them, 'but to a Typee you're a first-rate second course'.

Choosing their moment the pair of deserters make their move and head for the interior in search of the more friendly and non-human eating Happar tribe.

But the island is a jungle labyrinth, with the valley of the Happar adjacent to that of the Typee.

Suddenly the absconders come across two tribesmen. But from which tribe? Happar of Typee? Will they greet them or will they eat them? They decide to take a chance and follow them to their native village.

After a long march they arrive at the village and are surrounded by an excited crowd of natives. But they still don't know which ones they are.

To their consternation they discover that it is the Typee they have fallen among!

They prepare themselves to be sliced and diced and put in a pot noodle. 

But lo! what's all this? The Typee are revealed not as barbarous savages but as generous hosts who offer their guests food, hospitality and tobacco. 

As Melville was to write in his account of his adventures:
'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.'  [From Typee by Herman Melville]

They have women, too!... 'groups of females fancifully decorated, dancing, capering, and uttering wild exclamations.' [From Typee by Herman Melville]

But despite the warm welcome Toby remains suspicious and he decides to make a run for it. 

Unable to follow because of an injured leg Herman remains in the village under the protection of the chief and continues his idyllic life.

Until, that is, that dreadful day when he discovers - horror of horrors! - a basket with three human heads inside it, of which one is that of a white man.

Then the tribe want to tattoo him. An adoption ceremony? Or sectioning up his body ready for the carve-up?

To add to his woes hostilities break out between the Typee and their Happar neighbours. Several warriors return to the village carrying bloody bundles. 'What in them?' wonders Herman. 

The village chiefs organise a banquet to which Herman is not invited. But what's on the menu? 

Suddenly it all becomes clear. The bloody bundles are steaks cut from the carcasses of the Happar enemy!

Herman's only thought now is to flee. But how? Apart from Jehovah Witnesses, no white people ever come to the village.

Finally, one year to the day since his vacation with the Typee people began news reaches him that a whaler has dropped anchor at the island. This is his chance! 

But the Typee chiefs will only let him go to the ship if he promises to return and if he is accompanied by his adopted parents. 

Herman agrees, but easily gives his naive 'parents' the slip, clambers aboard the whaler, and is back once more in what we amusingly call 'civilization'.


Herman Melville's novel based on his adventures, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, was published in 1846. Unable to find a publisher in the United States, the book was first published in England where it was an immediate best seller.


  1. Well the tribespeople might "have women, too", but like most (I suspect) heterosexual readers, you have ignored utterly the powerful homoeroticism in Typee, as so many straight readers do with so much else of Melville's work.

  2. Oh, please. Stop it with your heterophobia!