"Nothing would justify us in reprinting the description given of a Bath of the Typee Nymphs, but the finding of it either in a classical account of the gods and goddesses, or in so pure a repository as the Colonial Library."
|Venus and Nymphs Bathing|
1776 - Louis Jean François Lagrenée via The Athenaeum
POLYNESIAN LIFE.Mr. Murray, the publisher, has just added another volume to his "Colonial Library," under the title of "Narrative of a four months residence among the natives of a valley of the Marquesas Islands; or a peep at Polynesian Life." The book is written by Herman Melville, an American sailor, who took it into his head, or rather into his heels, to run away from the ship he belonged to, the Dolly, South Sea whaler, in consequence of the tyranny of his captain—citizen Vangs. Melville was accompanied in his departure from the Dolly by a ship-mate of the name of Toby; and the two made the best of their way to the mountains of Nukuheva, as a place of present security. Hunger, and exposure to the weather, compelled them, after a few days, to descend; a business, it appears, of considerable peril. However, the two, at length, found themselves safe in the valley of the Typees; but how long they would continue so was a matter of some uncertainty, the Typees being noted cannibals. Of all possible doubts that can arise in the human mind, the doubt of a man famishing with hunger, whether he shall be invited to dine, or be turned into food for the dinner of others, must be the most uncomfortable. The introduction of Herman and his companion Toby to an assembly of the Typees, soon settled the question. They were received hospitably. Herman Melville remained four months among these savages, before he was enabled to make his escape; which he at length effected in the boat of an English vessel. The time he remained among the Typees appears to have been spent pleasantly enough. Bathing was among his recreation—natural enough for a sailor—and he enjoyed it under very different regulations from those observed in reference to the Serpentine and other great European baths. Nothing would justify us in reprinting the description given of a Bath of the Typee Nymphs, but the finding of it either in a classical account of the gods and goddesses, or in so pure a repository as the Colonial Library.
THE BATH OF THE NYMPHS.
Returning health and peace of mind gave new interest to everything around me. I sought to diversify time by many enjoyments lay within reach. Bathing in company with troops of girls formed one of my chief amusements. We sometimes enjoyed the recreation in the waters of a miniature lake, into which the central stream of the valley expanded. This lovely sheet of water was almost circular in figure, and about three hundred yards across. Its beauty was indescribable. All around its banks waved luxuriant masses of Tropical foliage; soaring high above which were to seen, here and there, the symmetrical shaft of the cocoa-nut tree, surmounted its tuft of graceful branches, drooping the air like so many waving ostrich plumes.
The ease and grace with which the maidens of the valley propelled themselves through the water, and their familiarity with the element, were truly astonishing. Sometimes they might seen gliding along just under the surface, without apparently moving hand or foot; then throwing themselves their sides, they darted through the water, revealing glimpses of their forms, as, the course of their rapid progress, they shot for instant partly into the air; at one moment they dived deep down into the water, and the next they rose bounding to the surface.
I remember upon one occasion plunging in among parcel of these river-nymphs, and, counting vainly upon superior strength, sought to drag some of them under the water; but I quickly repented my temerity. The amphibious young creatures swarmed about me like a shoal of dolphins, and, seizing hold of my devoted limbs, tumbled me about and ducked me under the surface, until, from the strange noises which rang in my ears, and the supernatural visions dancing before my eyes. I thought I was in the land of spirits. I stood, indeed, a[s] little chance among them as cumbrous whale attacked on all sides by a legion of sword-fish. When at length they relinquished their hold of me. they swam away in every direction, laughing at my clumsy endeavours to reach them.
All this was pleasant enough, but the sudden and unexplained absence of Toby, led Herman Melville to consider whether the hospitality he was receiving was not of the same kind as that shown towards young pigs and turkeys in more civilized communities. It may easily imagine that his apprehensions upon the point were not lessened by his discovering one day in the larder of the family he was residing with, three smoked human heads, one of which, at a hasty glance, he saw to be white man's.
The book is smartly written—certainly in advance of what might expected from a common seaman—but there is little doubt of its authenticity. The writer is unsparing in his censure of the conduct of the South Sea Missionaries—who, certainly, endeavour to heighten the desire of the Islanders to taste the bliss of another world, by lessening their inducements to remain in this.
The "service" has had the effect of enlarging Mr. Melville's mind, and making him less provincial in feeling than many of his countrymen. It has also given him some knowledge of the South Seas generally. which appears in the comparisons he incidentally introduces; and has impressed him with an indifferent opinion of (to say the least) the self-seeking and worldly spirit of the missionaries. Here is an example of them at the Sandwich Islands:
"Among a multitude of similar exhibitions" says the writer ["] that I saw, I shall never forget a robust, red-faced, personage, a missionary's spouse, who day after day, for months together, took her regular airings, in a little go cart drawn by two of the islanders, one an old grey-headed man. and the other a rogueish stripling, both being, with the exception of the fig-leaf, as naked as when they were born. Over a level piece of ground this pair of, draught, bipeds would go with a shambling. unsightly trot, the youngster hanging back all the time like a knowing horse, while the old hack plodded on and did all the work.["]
After describing the manner in which the old lady used to "rabble through the streets” of the town of Honolulu, in this stylish equipage, and the labour of these poor human beasts of burden, for the benefit of whose souls the Missionary and his tender-hearted spouse have come, perhaps, all the way from Kentucky, Herman Melville observes, with great force and truth—
Not until I visited Honolulu was I aware of the fact, that the small remnant of the Natives had been civilized into draught horses, and evangelized into beasts of burden. But so it is. They have been literally broken into the traces, and are harnessed to the vehicles of their spiritual instructors like so many dumb brutes!
The narrative, altogether, is one of considerable interest; and, as it is published in so neat and cheap a form, will, no doubt, have an extensive circulation.