In January of 1841 the twenty-two-year-old Herman Melville shipped aboard the whaler Acushnet for a multi-year cruise. He had many motivations for doing this. There was, in the first place, a desire to see the world and test himself against its challenges; then there was a need to escape the stultifying confines and restrictions of a nineteenth-century “proper” American household; and finally, a longing to cleanse himself of his father’s failures, disgrace, and early death.
His vessel, the Acushnet, was commanded by Captain Valentine Pease II. Things started out well enough; Melville grew accustomed to the many hardships of seaboard life, and even grew to love the feel of the wind in his face as he perched atop the ship’s rigging. In March of 1841, off the coast of Brazil, he experienced his first whale hunt. Things then gradually began to turn sour. As the ship sailed into the Pacific, there were no whales to be found; Captain Pease became more and more irritable, the result of bad health and bad temper. As grumblings among the crew increased, Pease decided to stop at the Galapagos Islands to entertain his men with a tortoise hunt. The vessel then resumed its drive to the South Pacific. By this time conditions had grown nearly intolerable for the young Melville: Pease’s erratic behavior, arbitrary rules, and ill-treatment of the crew had combined to form a combustible mixture that might explode at any time. If so, Melville was not alone in these feelings. Half of the Acushnet’s crew would desert during its four-year cruise, one man would die by his own hand, and two would perish from disease; even her first and third mates would desert in Payta, Peru. When the Acushnet finally returned home, she carried only eleven crew members. Such are the terrible realities of bad leadership in trying conditions.
When Melville’s ship finally reached the Marquesas, he talked his close friend Richard Tobias (“Toby”) Greene into deserting with him. Greene was initially hesitant; there were reportedly cannibals among the islanders, and they would be completely at their mercy. If caught by Pease, they would face strict punishment, probably including confinement. Yet they decided to proceed. Melville’s experiences among the Marquesans is recounted in detail in his first book Typee, and we will not say much more about them here. He stayed four weeks with the “Typee” tribe in one of the more remote valleys; his account is generally faithful and accurate, although forgivably embellished for the enjoyment of his readers. What strikes the reader is Melville’s astute powers of observation and strong sense of justice. He will not call the Marquesas paradise, but he does strongly condemn the practices of foreign colonists and missionaries. These pungent little asides, sprinkled throughout his later books, would do much to alienate him from “respectable” literary circles in the United States.
But inevitably Melville and his friend chafed at being under the control of the native Marquesans. He never knew precisely where he stood with them, and this doubt generated considerably anxiety. Were they fattening him up for the slaughter? Did they intend to tattoo him at some point, an act that in his day would render him unfit for Western society? His infected leg also needed urgent medical attention. Toby Greene left the valley of the Typees to look for help in port; he found it in the form of an Australian ship captain who badly needed sailors. This was how Melville signed aboard the Australian whaler Lucy Ann in August 1842.
Unfortunately, the Lucy Ann turned out to be run just as badly as the Acushnet. Twelve out of the original thirty-two crewmen had deserted, and those who remained were undisciplined and surly. The captain, whose name was Ventom, was a martinet and a brute; his first mate, John German, was an alcoholic. Ventom piloted his sorry vessel to Tahiti, and there had to be taken ashore for treatment of a lung ailment; John German was put in charge, whom no one liked or trusted. Unable to rebel openly, most of the crew took to malingering, among them Melville, whose leg injury from Nuku Hiva had never fully healed. When a drunken riot erupted aboard the anchored Lucy Ann one night, armed men from a nearby French frigate boarded her and took the ringleaders into custody. Melville himself was among those so arrested; he claimed he was trying to dissuade the rioters, but the exact details are not clear. Most likely he found himself in the middle of a violent fracas and did what he felt he needed to do to survive.
Melville and some others were clapped into irons and taken ashore by the local consul. They were handed over to British authorities and imprisoned in an outdoor jail to “await trial.” Good luck here intervened, however; the warden, called “Warden Bob,” turned out to be a genial Englishman who took pity on his charges. Perhaps sensing the accusations against the sailors were trumped-up, he gave his prisoners a full range of freedom, asking only that they return to the jail at night, and look appropriately contrite when government inspectors made their rounds. Melville spent two weeks in custody with Warden Bob.
Yet his situation was bound to come to a head sooner or later. He was tormented by fears that the British consul would either force him back aboard the miserable Lucy Ann, or deport him to Sydney to work as a common laborer. So he again decided to act. He and a friend named John Troy stole a canoe and paddled to a nearby island named Imeeo, now known as Moorea. There he labored on a plantation that raised yams, sweet potatoes, and breadfruit; he mingled with the Polynesians at every opportunity, learning about their culture and ways of thinking. For a parochial nineteenth century New Englander who had known financial and emotional insecurity his entire life, Herman Melville had come a very long way.
Deliverance eventually came in November 1842. Melville kept his sharp eyes alert for a whaling vessel that might be suitable as a ticket home. He and Troy, whitewashing their colorful history, found just such a suitable ship in the Charles & Henry, which was captained by a man named Coleman and owned by a Nantucket firm. As they made their final boarding, however, the ship captain recognized Melville’s friend Troy as an ex-convict from Sydney, and refused to take him. There was nothing Melville could do about it; but he was determined to get back to the United States, and so continued alone.
The Charles & Henry made for Hawaii to stock up on fruit and pigs before cruising the whaling grounds off the Japanese islands. When the ship docked at Lahaina on Maui, Melville deserted again in early May of 1843. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with life aboard ship; or perhaps—and this seems to me more likely—he wanted more time for himself to imbibe Hawaii’s ravishing beauty. In Honolulu he worked in a bowling alley as a pin-setter before finding more stable work with a British merchant named Isaac Montgomery. Beginning in July 1843, Melville worked as Montgomery’s clerk and bookkeeper; he also seems to have made a name for himself by denouncing the American missionary establishment, which he saw as oppressive and hypocritical. When unwelcome attention from the authorities looked imminent, Melville found it expedient to leave Hawaii.
In August, he signed aboard the American naval frigate United States, which was bound for Boston; but he was beset by gnawing fears that his past history as a deserter from the Acushnet and the Lucy Ann would come to light. Melville enlisted for a period of three years, together with the option of leaving the Navy once the ship reached Boston. As we might have predicted, military life was a horror for a man of his disposition; his years of roving had sewn a rebellious streak in his breast; he found it difficult to submit to the authority of men he did not respect; and his innate sense of justice could not accept the rule of such petty tyrants that are sometimes found in militaries, then and now.
But Melville made do with the situation. He know how to lie low when he had to, and was intelligent enough to understand that being on deck was much better than being in the brig. It was here that he met the man he would speak so highly of all his life: John J. “Jack” Chase, an Englishman who had signed aboard the United States after deserting a British vessel in Peru. Chase was an educated and fascinating man who spoke five languages; his peers thought so highly of his abilities that they appointed him their spokesman and leader. After numerous incidents, delays, and little adventures—which space prevents us from relating here—Melville finally arrived home in Massachusetts in October of 1844 and was discharged from the Navy. He had been gone for four years. His experiences would furnish the raw material for his literary career, and shaped his outlook for the rest of his days.
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