Herman Melville, “Omoo” Part One: Authority and Resistance

Omoo is a continuation of the story laid out in Typee.  Like the earlier work, it is semi-autobiographical and is based on Melville’s time in Tahiti and the Society Islands.  Like Typee, it is critical of the missionaries and challenges the division between “civilization” and “savagery” promoted by the Western imperialists in the Pacific.  It is also a tale of power, authority, resistance, and transgression.  It speaks of islands in rapid transformation due to the arrival of white “rovers,” who like “Typee” (the narrator takes on a new name here, sailor fashion) seeking a place for themselves in the islands.  For the modern reader, Omoo also works as a study in roving.  Typee never finds a place for himself in the South Seas but tries half a dozen places.

20091113Omoo_01

The plot of the first half of the novel is as follows.  Typee signs onto an English whaler to escape the events of Typee.  The authority structure of the ship is dysfunctional and the sailors nearly mutiny.  Typee talks the crew into submitting a petition to the English consul.  This fails and on Papeetee, the crew is imprisoned in the “Calabooza Beretanee.”  They live a reasonable life in this “prison.”  The English whaler, Julie, finally leaves with a new crew.  During these events, Typee strikes up a lasting friendship with the doctor “Long Ghost,” who has earlier left the leadership structure of the ship and stayed with the sailors in the forecastle.  This act of class-betrayal in the book is important because it highlights the breakdown of authority on the Julia and solidarity overcoming difference (He is Australian and part of the old authority structure of the ship).

Much of the first part of the book is a dissertation on the failures and absurdities of the disciplinary regimen of the sailing ship.  The Julia‘s captain, Guy, is incompetent and often ill.  The first mate, John Jermin, who takes over the ship, is a drunkard but fairly effective, but is still unable to forestall a near-mutiny.  The second mate, Bembo, seems near mad in his blood-thirsty desire to hunt whales and fights with a common sailor, “Sydney Dan.”

The sailors explore three ways of resisting the their bosses.  One method is desertion.  Desertion plagues Jermin from the earliest pages.  Before the novel began, the Julia suffered from mass desertion leading to a low company.  In chapter five, five crew members desert only to be recovered.  Throughout the South Seas we see evidence of massive sailor desertions.  Many of the whites working in service to local chiefs deserted from ships.  Others, picked up to work on the passing whaling ships deserted form earlier ships.  A mobile and flexible labor force existed as a result of these desertions.  Deserters who frustrated one captain became the ready labor supply for another captain.  Like the post-modern worker, drifting from employer to employer these sailors left due to personal conflicts with employers or a fleeting desire for new adventures.  Those who fled the Julia did so out of frustration over low provisions, illness (in an interesting passage, a crewman with believed supernatural powers predicts the deaths of most of the crew), an incompetent captain, or a grim realization that they would remain at sea as long as it took to fill the ship with whale oil.  Deserters prove to be some of the most colorful characters in the novel, all having interesting histories and experiences, often lost to standard maritime history.

The sailors attempted a mutiny, the pinnacle of all maritime resistance.  Typee talks them down to a petition, which is rejected by the British consul, Wilson.

Another, weaker, form of resistance is that reflected in the massive consumption of Pisco – a locally-produced alcoholic drink.  It provides an escape from the fears of sickness. In the end, drink is used to help prevent the mutiny.  When ordered to return to the ship by Wilson, one justification is the full provision of Pisco on board.  This fails to convince the rebellious sailors.  A much more rebellious form of escape is Long Ghost’s escape from the cabin to the forecastle.  “Aside from the pleasure of his society, my intimacy with Long Ghost was of great service to me in other respects.  His disgrace in the cabin only confirmed the good-will of the democracy of the forecastle; and they not only treated him in the most friendly manner, but looked up to him with the utmost deference, besides laughing heartily at all his jokes.” (363)

The only resistance that has any real effect on the men is “opting out.”  Which is why it was so commonly used in the South Seas.  It was not a final solution.  For most, the best they could hope was a better captain in the future, but it was effective for creating  a zone of freedom in an otherwise hierarchical and oppressive environment.  The effectiveness of the “temporary autonomous zone” of sailor desertion is fully developed in the second half of the novel as Typee and Long Ghost seek out a permanent freedom.

The mutinous sailors are eventually sent to a jail with the help of the local French authorities and the English consul.  Believe it or not, the jail is an improvement from the Julia in many ways.  They are more well freed and enjoy considerable freedom during the day.  They can make full use of the citrus orchards.  When the Julia leaves the mutineers behind, they decide to stay for the time being in the jail, which offers more freedoms and security than the ship.

At the half-way point in the narrative, the sailors have achieved some successes.  Through desertion and resistance, they escaped the regimen of Jermin and the incompetence of Captain Guy.  At no point were their actions driven by ideological concerns.  They simply found themselves in a precarious, unsettling, or demeaning position and asserted their natural desire for liberty.  Perhaps the choice of many of us to desert, which might be mistaken by employers, the government, parents, or friends are rootlessness, recklessness, or vagrancy, is our way of unknowingly creating temporary spaces of individual freedom in an economic system that demands service.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Herman Melville, “Omoo” Part One: Authority and Resistance

  1. Pingback: William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs” (1820-1861) | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Pingback: Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973) | Neither Kings nor Americans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s