Fatal embrace! | A passage from Herman Melville’s novel Typee

I shall never forget the observation of one of our crew as we were passing slowly by the entrance of the bay in our way to Nukuheva. As we stood gazing over the side at the verdant headlands, Ned, pointing with his hand in the direction of the treacherous valley, exclaimed, ‘There—there’s Typee. Oh, the bloody cannibals, what a meal they’d make of us if we were to take it into our heads to land! but they say they don’t like sailor’s flesh, it’s too salt. I say, maty, how should you like to be shoved ashore there, eh?’ I little thought, as I shuddered at the question, that in the space of a few weeks I should actually be a captive in that self-same valley.

The French, although they had gone through the ceremony of hoisting their colours for a few hours at all the principal places of the group, had not as yet visited the bay of Typee, anticipating a fierce resistance on the part of the savages there, which for the present at least they wished to avoid. Perhaps they were not a little influenced in the adoption of this unusual policy from a recollection of the warlike reception given by the Typees to the forces of Captain Porter, about the year 1814, when that brave and accomplished officer endeavoured to subjugate the clan merely to gratify the mortal hatred of his allies the Nukuhevas and Happars.

On that occasion I have been told that a considerable detachment of sailors and marines from the frigate Essex, accompanied by at least two thousand warriors of Happar and Nukuheva, landed in boats and canoes at the head of the bay, and after penetrating a little distance into the valley, met with the stoutest resistance from its inmates. Valiantly, although with much loss, the Typees disputed every inch of ground, and after some hard fighting obliged their assailants to retreat and abandon their design of conquest.

The invaders, on their march back to the sea, consoled themselves for their repulse by setting fire to every house and temple in their route; and a long line of smoking ruins defaced the once-smiling bosom of the valley, and proclaimed to its pagan inhabitants the spirit that reigned in the breasts of Christian soldiers. Who can wonder at the deadly hatred of the Typees to all foreigners after such unprovoked atrocities?

Thus it is that they whom we denominate ‘savages’ are made to deserve the title. When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the ‘big canoe’ of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted into the bitterest hate.

The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders will nigh pass belief. These things are seldom proclaimed at home; they happen at the very ends of the earth; they are done in a corner, and there are none to reveal them. But there is, nevertheless, many a petty trader that has navigated the Pacific whose course from island to island might be traced by a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnappings, and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.

Sometimes vague accounts of such thing’s reach our firesides, and we coolly censure them as wrong, impolitic, needlessly severe, and dangerous to the crews of other vessels. How different is our tone when we read the highly-wrought description of the massacre of the crew of the Hobomak by the Feejees; how we sympathize for the unhappy victims, and with what horror do we regard the diabolical heathens, who, after all, have but avenged the unprovoked injuries which they have received. We breathe nothing but vengeance, and equip armed vessels to traverse thousands of miles of ocean in order to execute summary punishment upon the offenders. On arriving at their destination, they burn, slaughter, and destroy, according to the tenor of written instructions, and sailing away from the scene of devastation, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice.

How often is the term ‘savages’ incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.

From Herman Melville’s novel Typee.

Bourbon Island 1730 — Olivier Appollodorus and Lewis Trondheim

Bourbon Island 1730, part funny animal graphic novel, part historical literature, recounts the story of Raphael Pommeroy who travels from France to Bourbon Island with his ornithology professor in search of a living dodo. On the journey to the French colony, Raphael becomes entranced by pirate tales, and when he arrives to Bourbon Island, he immediately tries to join up with some ex-pirates–unsuccessfully, of course. The French government has offered an amnesty to all pirates, and many have become successful plantation owners. However, their new wealth comes at the expense of the large population of slaves brought to Bourbon Island from Madagascar and Mozambique. The most interesting subplot of Bourbon Island 1730 involves a network of maroons, runaway slaves who have colonized their own villages at the top of the island’s treacherous terrain. When the notorious pirate Captain Buzzard is captured, some of the maroons plan to set him free and lead a revolt against the French colonials. In the meantime, the colonial authorities, including the scheming governor and the greedy priest, are trying to get Buzzard to reveal where he’s hidden a large cache of treasure.

Lewis Trondheim’s art strikes a nice balance between vivid detail and the classic funny animal style, and the book’s measured pacing delivers the story at a nice clip. Appollodorus and Trondheim never rush, taking the time to convey the cultural complexity of Bourbon Island–quite a feat, really, when you consider how much is going on here: the end of a pirate age, the horrors of slavery, and the problematics of colonization. Appollodorus and Trondheim envision Bourbon Island as a strange nexus of slavery and freedom, piracy and central authority, of the meeting of the cultures of Africa, India, and Europe. Leading man Raphael is a hopeless romantic who pines wistfully for the absolute freedom he sees as the life of a pirate and the natural right of all men. And yet, as the book makes clear, idealism can rarely stand up to the corrosive complexity of the real world.

Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island
Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island

With twelve pages of endnotes, Bourbon Island 1730 is just the kind of well-researched historical fiction that would fit neatly into any post-colonial studies course. There’s only one major fault with the book: it ends too quickly. Appollodorus and Trondheim have too many fascinating subplots that they don’t bother to resolve. While we have no problem with ambiguous conclusions, Bourbon feels simply rushed at the end, as it sprints to a virtual non-conclusion. We would’ve been much happier with a cliff-hanger and a promise of a part two. Nonetheless, anyone interested in colonialism and post-colonial studies should check out this book.

Bourbon Island 1730 is available October 28th, 2008 from First Second.