Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Omoo in the London Morning Chronicle

Treating of real men and things, his books are as entertaining as well written novels...
Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1995; paperback 2009) gives reviews of Mardi and Moby-Dick from the London Morning Chronicle. The long notice of Moby-Dick on December 20, 1851 begins with a reference to some previous, favorable treatment of Melville's first two books:
When the author of "Omoo and Typee" appeared, we were happy to hail a new and bright star in the firmament of letters. 
In fact, on July 8, 1847 the London Morning Chronicle did publish a favorable review of Omoo in which the writer collectively praises Typee and Omoo as "racy and original" adventure narratives.


Omoo; or Adventures in the South Seas. By HERMAN MELVILLE. [Murray. 
The books of adventure in the Pacific Ocean are by no means the least interesting in that admirable series of volumes which Mr. Murray periodically issues to the reading world, under the style and title of the Home and Colonial Library. They are written by a sailor, and are frank, free, and dashing in style. The author does not seem particularly solicitous concerning scholastic rules in his compositions, but on that very account, perhaps, they are the more racy and original. Treating of real men and things, his books are as entertaining as well written novels; he has his story to tell, and he tells it after a pointed, vigorous fashion, which must arouse interest in the most languid reader. And this is done without the rhetorical artifices of the practised litterateur — interest is excited because the narrator is easy, natural, and forcible.  
"Omoo," which, in the language of the South Sea Islands, signifies a rover — is a sequel to the former work of the same author, called "Typee, or the Marquesas Islanders," and details his adventures after having been rescued from his forced sojourn of four months in Nukuheva. "Omoo," however, is complete in itself, and perfectly comprehensible to any one who may not have read the former narrative. The objects of the writer, as he informs us in a very unassuming preface, are to convey some idea of the habits and manner of life of a reckless and little known class of men — the seamen engaged in the sperm whale fishery; and secondly to give a familiar account of the present condition of the converted Polynesians, as affected by their promiscuous intercourse with foreigners, and the teachings of the missionaries, combined. With respect to the latter point, the zealous and liberal subscribers to these missions will, we fear, gather but cold comfort from the scenes which Mr. Melville describes. He speaks of the utter absence of anything like practical piety in these islands, and after all his wanderings among the natives, he ventures to number up only two individuals of them whom he personally knew to be really Christians. He says nothing disrespectful of the missionaries, but they do not appear to have impressed him with very profound admiration and reverence. Neither do the proceedings of the French in Tahiti find in him an advocate. He says: — [in Omoo chapter 32, Proceedings of the French at Tahiti]
"As I happened to arrive at the island at a very interesting period in its political affairs, it may be well to give some little account here of the proceedings of the French, by way of episode to the narrative. My information was obtained at the time from the general reports then rife among the natives, as well as from what I learned upon a subsequent visit, and reliable accounts which I have seen since reaching home. 
"It seems, that for some time back the French had been making repeated ineffectual attempts to plant a Roman Catholic mission here. But, invariably treated with contumely, they sometimes met with open violence; and, in every case, those directly concerned in the enterprise were ultimately forced to depart. In one instance, two priests, Laval and Caset, after enduring a series of persecutions, were set upon by the natives, maltreated, and finally carried aboard a small trading schooner, which eventually put them ashore at Wallis Island—a savage place—some two thousand miles to the westward. 
"Now, that the resident English missionaries authorised the banishment of these priests, is a fact undenied by themselves. I was also repeatedly informed, that by their inflammatory harangues they instigated the riots which preceded the sailing of the schooner. At all events, it is certain that their unbounded influence with the natives would easily have enabled them to prevent every thing that took place on this occasion, had they felt so inclined.

"Melancholy as such an example of intolerance on the part of Protestant missionaries must appear, it is not the only one, and by no means the most flagrant, which might be presented. But I forbear to mention any others; since they have been more than hinted at by recent voyagers, and their repetition here would,be attended with no good effect. Besides, the conduct of the Sandwich Island missionaries, in particular, has latterly much amended in this respect. 
"The treatment of the two priests formed the principal ground (and the only justifiable one) upon which Du Petit Thouars demanded satisfaction; and which subsequently led to his seizure of the island. In addition to other things, he also charged, that the flag of Merenhout, the consul, had been repeatedly insulted, and the property of a certain French resident violently appropriated by the government. In the latter instance, the natives were perfectly in the right. At that time, the law against the traffic in ardent spirits (every now and then suspended and revived) happened to be in force; and finding a large quantity on the premises of Victor, a low, knavish adventurer from Marseilles, the Tahitians pronounced it forfeit.  
"For these, and similar alleged outrages, a large pecuniary restitution was demanded ($10,000), which there being no exchequer to supply, the island was forthwith seized, under cover of a mock treaty, dictated to the chiefs on the gun-deck of Du Petit Thouar's frigate. But, notwithstanding this formality, there now seems little doubt that the downfall of the Pomarees was decided upon at the Tuilleries. 
"After establishing the Protectorate, so called, the rear-admiral sailed; leaving M. Bruat governor, assisted by Reine and Carpegne, civilians, named members of the council of government, and Merenhout, the consul, now made commissioner royal. No soldiers, however, were landed, until several months afterward. As men, Beine and Carpegne were not disliked by the natives; but Bruat and Merenhout they bitterly detested. In several interviews with the poor queen, the unfeeling governor sought to terrify her into compliance with his demands; clapping his hand upon his sword, shaking his fist in her face, and swearing violently. 'Oh, king of a great nation,' said Pomaree, in her letter to Louis Philippe, 'fetch away this man; I and my people cannot endure his evil doings. He is a shameless man.' 
"Although the excitement among the natives did not wholly subside upon the rear-admiral's departure, no overt act of violence immediately followed. The queen had fled to Imeeo; and the dissensions among the chiefs, together with the ill-advised conduct of the missionaries, prevented a union upon some common plan of resistance. But the great body of the people, as well as their queen, confidently relied upon the speedy interposition of England — a nation bound to them by many ties, and which, more than once, had solemnly guaranteed their independence. 
"As for the missionaries, they openly defied the French governor, childishly predicting fleets and armies from Britain. But what is the welfare of a spot like Tahiti, to the mighty interests of France and England? There was a remonstrance on one side, and a reply on the other; and there the matter rested. For once in their brawling lives, St. George and St. Denis were hand and glove; and they were not going to cross sabres about Tahiti.
"During my stay upon the island, so far as I could see, there was little to denote that any change had taken place in the government. Such laws as they had were administered the same as ever; the missionaries went about unmolested, and comparative tranquillity everywhere prevailed. Nevertheless, I sometimes heard the natives inveighing against the French (no favourites, by the by, throughout Polynesia), and bitterly regretting that the queen had not, at the outset, made a stand."
After a brief allusion to the conflicts which afterwards took place, Mr. Melville says:—

"By the latest accounts, most of the islanders still refuse to submit to the French; and what turn events may hereafter take it is hard to predict. At any rate, these disorders must accelerate the final extinction of their race. 
"Along with the few officers left by Du Petit Thouars, were several French priests, for whose unobstructed exertions in the dissemination of their faith, the strongest guarantees were provided by an article of the treaty. But no one was bound to offer them facilities, much less a luncheon, the first day they went ashore. True, they had plenty of gold; but to the natives it was anathema—taboo — and, for several hours and some odd minutes, they would not touch it. Emissaries of the Pope and the devil, as the strangers were considered—the smell of sulphur hardly yet shaken out of their canonicals — what islander would venture to jeopardise his soul, and call down a blight upon his bread-fruit, by holding any intercourse with them? That morning the priests actually picknicked in a grove of cocoa-nut trees; but, before night, Christian hospitality— in exchange for a commercial equivalent of hard dollars—was given them in an adjoining house.

"Wanting in civility, as the conduct of the English missionaries may be thought, in withholding a decent reception to these persons, the latter were certainly to blame in needlessly placing themselves in so unpleasant a predicament. Under far better auspices, they' might have settled upon some one of the thousand unconverted isles of the Pacific, rather than have forced themselves thus upon a people already professedly Christians." 
A chapter is devoted to the report of a sermon by one of the missionaries, which has certainly no very edifying effect upon perusal; but as the circumstances were unfavourable to accuracy on the part of the reporter, it would be unfair to the preacher to pin him down to this version of his discourse. Upon the general subject of converting the South Sea islanders to Christianity Mr. Melville has these remarks:— [in Omoo chapter 45, A Missionary's Sermon]
"The Tahitians can hardly ever be said to reflect: they are all impulse; and so, instead of expounding dogmas, the missionaries give them the large type, pleasing cuts, and short and easy lessons of the primer. Hence, any thing like a permanent religious impression is seldom or never produced. 
"In fact, there is, perhaps, no race upon earth less disposed by nature to the monitions of Christianity than the people of the South Sea. And this assertion is made with full knowledge of what is called the 'Great Revival at the Sandwich Islands,' about the year 1836; when several thousands were, in the course of a few weeks, admitted into the bosom of the Church. But this result was brought about by no sober moral convictions; as an almost instantaneous relapse into every kind of licentiousness soon afterwards testified. It was the legitimate effect of a morbid feeling, engendered by the sense of severe physical wants, preying upon minds excessively prone to superstition; and by fanatical preaching, inflamed into the belief, that the gods of the missionaries were taking vengeance upon the wickedness of the land.* 
[footnote:] *At this period, many of the population were upon the verge of starvation.
"It is a noteworthy fact, that those very traits in the Tahitians which induced the London Missionary Society to regard them as the most promising subjects for conversion, and which led, moreover, to the selection of their island as the very first field for missionary labour, eventually proved the most serious obstruction. An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity. 
"Added to all this, is a quality inherent in Polynesians; and more akin to hypocrisy than any thing else. It leads them to assume the most passionate interest in matters for which they really feel little or none whatever, but in which those whose power they dread, or whose favour they court, they believe to be at all affected. Thus, in their heathen state, the Sandwich Islanders actually knocked out their teeth, tore their hair, and mangled their bodies with shells, to testify their inconsolable grief at the demise of a high chief, or member of the royal family. And yet, Vancouver relates, that, on such an occasion, upon which he happened to be present, those apparently the most abandoned to their feelings, immediately assumed the utmost light-heartedness, on receiving the present of a penny whistle, or a Dutch looking-glass. Similar instances, also, have come under my own observation. 
"The following is an illustration of the trait alluded to, as occasionally manifested among the converted Polynesians 
"At one of the Society Islands — Raiatair, I believe — the natives, for special reasons, desired to commend themselves particularly to the favour of the missionaries.
Accordingly, during divine service, many of them behaved in a manner, otherwise unaccountable, and precisely similar to their behaviour as heathens. They pretended to be wrought up to madness by the preaching which they heard. They rolled their eyes; foamed at the mouth; fell down in fits; and so were carried home. Yet, strange to relate, all this was deemed the evidence of the power of the Most High; and, as such, was heralded abroad." 
We have left ourselves no space for extracts from the lighter parts of the volume, which, however, are extremely amusing. The whole book will repay perusal, not only in entertainment, but in the matter for reflection, which thinking men will easily pick out of the rapid and slapdash sentences of the author.    
--London Morning Chronicle, July 8, 1847; found at
Thu, Jul 8, 1847 – 6 · The Morning Chronicle (London, Greater London, England) ·

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