Olaudah Equiano: “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (1789)

O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery. (79)

Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his enslavement and his successful path toward freedom is one of the richest tests of the eighteenth century Atlantic, and by extension colonial America. He manages to describe the various conditions of slaves across the Atlantic at the height of the slave trade, while also putting together a powerful autobiography. Slave narratives are invariably stories of resistance. The very act of writing down their life story when the white ruling class depended on their silence for the sustaining of slavery is resistance enough, but when coupled with learning to write, escaping captivity, or—as many of them document doing—challenging the very assumption of racial slavery in their everyday lives we must look at these documents as evidence of the universal nature of resistance to slavery. These narratives come to us from men and women, plantation slaves and sailors, people who purchased their freedom and people who ran away. These are unique individuals who were part of that small group that could document their stories, but they are also representatives to humanity for the millions who were worked to death and beaten into silence.

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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published two years before Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. As any reader of these two texts knows, the West was engaged in a debate about the meaning, limits and political possibilities of freedom in the Atlantic world. Paine and Equiano stand on the same side of that debate. Yes, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, was the first author of a slave narrative in English, but Equiano’s was the first that is clearly part of the libertarian tradition of the anti-slavery movement.

Equiano begins his narrative with a social history of the Igbo people, who he claimed to belong to. (This is controversial point and some have claimed Equiano was an African-American, making up his African birth, but I will set this aside as irrelevant for my reading.) In this chapter he does several things, most importantly establish clear moral differences between European civilization and the culture of his birth. Careful to present it as culturally and economically complex, Equiano also wants to point out that it was relatively egalitarian compared to Europe, despite being—like Europe—a society with slaves. Social distinctions do exist but they are not manifest in grotesque displays and wealth and power. “As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. . . . Our manner of living is entirely plain.” (52–53) Equiano makes several comparisons between his people and the Jews, even suggesting some commonalities. This will evolve into an important dialog throughout African-American religious history.

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Equiano then describes the process of his enslavement and his arrival in Barbados. Most of the narrative actually focuses on his labor on various ships, both in slavery and freedom. Like Gronniosaw’s narrative, we find that the line between slavery and freedom is very clear. Equiano sees a clear moral line between the two. Yet, he would acknowledge that exploitation existed at many levels. “Masters” means both the commanders of the ships that Equiano worked on as a freeman and the people who owned him. Since he was not a plantation slave, there was not as radical a change for Equiano from slavery to freedom as there would have been for someone escaping from enslavement in the sugar islands. This is part of the reason why Equiano focused so much of his most politically powerful prose for his empathetic descriptions of plantation slavery. Perhaps he knew that his sufferings as an enslaved sailor were not so far from the sufferings of the free sailors. For his work to become an anti-slavery tract, he needed to identity and expose the most brutal aspect of the system. If he did lie about his origins and enduring the Middle Passage, this was why.

There is a passage that clarifies how exploitation and violence was not reserved for enslaved men and women.

While we were at Gibraltar, I saw a soldier hanging by his heels, at one of the moles: I thought this a strange sight, as I had seen a man hanged in London by his neck. At another time I saw the master of a frigate towed to shore on a grating, by several of the men of war’s boats, and discharged the fleet, which I understood was a mark of disgrace for cowardice. On board the same ship there was also a sailor hung up at the yard-arm. (97)

In this fashion, Equiano suggests that being a free man working on a ship contained its own brutalities and degrees of unfreedom. However, at the same time, working first as a slave and then a freedman on various naval and merchant ships provided Equiano with some space to secure his eventual freedom. Most importantly he was able to make money on the side, which he used to purchase his freedom. He was also given a degree of responsibility, to the chagrin of some of the more racist elements on board the ship.

Chapter five is the core of his anti-slavery writings, and the least autobiographical. Here is explores the nature of plantation slavery in the Caribbean sugar islands. There is no need for a full recounting (even Equiano shy away from descriptions after a while to avoid excess), but he does show that the violence of the system was developed in concert with efforts by slaves to secure some liberty. Power also develops and refines itself in the face of resistance. Without resistance power rarely needs to innovate, defend itself, or exert much effort to sustain itself. This alone suggests the moral necessity of resistance, even if futile, for it makes oppression dearly purchased.

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Equiano devotes a chapter to his conversion to Christianity and another to his growing political activities. We suspect that these are connected. Equiano enjoyed framing slaveholders as false Christians (or “nominal Christians”). His conversion was important as well, because although it involved some acceptance of his master’s culture, it is arrived at after through the logic of his life in the international Atlantic world, not forced upon him. Like Gronniosaw, Equiano came to Christianity as a free moral agent. And for Equiano at least, Christianity was a springboard for political action, not a surrender of earthly paradise for a fantastical heavenly one.

Equiano’s book is one of the most important documents speaking to eighteenth century Atlantic slavery and the emergence of commercial capitalism. For those who borrow from the pro-slavery apologists of the Old South the belief that slavery was some projection of feudalism into the modern world, Equaino’s narrative will reveal that in fact slavery and capitalism were joined at the hip. The abolitionist movement that Equiano helped formed after he settled in England was on the first stage in the struggle against the exploitations, violence, and criminality of capitalism. In fact, if you take slavery out of the Equiano’s story, we are left with a long list of abuses inflicted on free people. Equiano’s struggle may have been morally more urgent, but it was only the start.

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Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast” Conclusion

The final sections of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana take us back to sea after a long hiatus on the diverse and changing California coast, where he and the crew of the Pilgrim engaged in the arduous labor of preparing hides. We saw in those sections the origins, perhaps, of global capitalism in California—a region that would help lay the foundation for America’s Pacific empire. In the last chapters, Dana takes a closer look at sailor culture, particularly the role of sailor songs. The class war (rooted in the hierarchical organization and absolute authority of ship masters), described so impressively in the early chapters, remains as well.  It is also notable that Dana shifted to another ship for the return voyage (the Alert). This shows us that the experiences he had on the Pilgrim were not unique but rather representative of life on the American merchant ship in the “age of sail.”

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Dana concludes his work with a list of recommendations for the reform of sailor’s life. While he had his problems with hierarchical domination on the ship, he was not in favor of overturning the system entirely. Perhaps he was not on the ship long enough to understand that sailors are perfectly capable of self-rule (18th century piracy suggests this). Instead of being a revolutionary document, the final chapter is more suggestive of the antebellum social and moral reform movements that touched so many areas of American society.

He begins with the romantic image of the sea and suggests freedom is a better way to provide the maritime workforce than slavery. “There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe.” (347) This romanticism is juxtaposed to the tyranny and violence inflicted on that volunteer workforce. (Perhaps not unlike the academic workforce.  We get drawn in by the romance when we are young and by the time we are my age we realize how vile the institutions we once loved are.)  He falls short on advocating democracy as a solution.  The sea, Dana suggests, is not the proper place for democratic values to be lived.  “It is absolutely necessary that there should be one head and one voice, to control everything, and be responsible for everything.” (348) That he would not say this for a nation, I have no doubt.  The sea is a unique place and any interference with resource distribution or the authority of a master might be troublesome in the future. At the same time, he provides evidence that captains and masters often go too far. They act better when passengers are on the ship. Depositions by sailors document abuse after abuse. If a ship works fine with censored and restrained authority when passengers are on board, why not when the captains are free from such surveillance?

Another problem he mentions with authority is perhaps at first glance a contradiction.  The captains tend to come from the forecastle and have poor backgrounds but have been placed in a position as representatives and agents of the elite.  They are akin to our era’s middle management (but instead of pink slips and HR departments they had a lash).

His essential solution to these difficulties is a greater fairness in law.  Dana—who became a lawyer for seamen—sees ultimately a statist solution to the lawlessness of the sea.

In this final chapter, Dana also discusses at length the civilian efforts to improve the lives of sailors such as the Sailors’ Homes, the Bethals, and the American Seamen’s Friend Society.  Dana lavishes praise on these institutions for their work in creating solid institutions of support and religious instruction. He is convinced that sailors are religious and find in the Bible support and meaning for their life, but that the social conditions of maritime work make it impossible for them to live a religious life, making the Bethals essential. He hopes that more religious captains will help.

In short, after documenting the intense solidarity among sailors at sea, their capacity to run the ship, their knowledge, their culture and their common struggles, as well as the brutality of the authority of the ship masters, proposes a series of reforms that miss the revolutionary potential of democracy at the sea.  The reason why this has not been achieved, it seems to me, is that the seas are not the place where people establish themselves to live. Its exploration and exploitation have largely – but not entirely – been done in the interests of capital. The workplace and the economy is the last place that tends to be democratic for it is at this location that our concept of freedom is most confused. As so-called libertarians (the anarcho-capitalist stypes) seem to think, property and the defense of it in law cannot be a tool of oppression and force. Clearly, history proves this false. As long as our seas are the realm of capital, work, and exploitation of natural resources and people, it will be hostile to democracy.
This edition of Two Years Before the Mast also includes an appendix called “Twenty-Four Years Later,” which comes from his 1859-1860 tour of the world.  I will examine his diary of this in a few days as it is included in the Library of America volume, but a few words on its place as part of the book is warranted.  His main interest in exploring the old places he worked at in California.  He even meets some of his old acquaintances (who must have each endured some fame from their inclusion in the popular work). Most striking to Dana is the rapid development of San Francisco, from a small fort into a major Pacific city, looking outward as an entry point for the American empire.

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

Herman Melville, “Redburn”: Workplace Cultures

Melville named Typee and Mardi after the places that the narrator ran to from the ship.  Omoo simply refers to the “wanderers.”  These three earlier novels talk about searching, discontent, and mobility.  Reburn (and later White-jacket) is named after the narrator.  Redburn is not about escape but about a young man coming to terms with disciplinary regimens, alien workplace cultures, and brutal indifference in a foreign land.  With Reburn, Melville stops discussing the libertarian urge for autonomy and about the real world that most of us live in – a life of work, crushing authority, discipline and alienation.  In this world, evil is not an exceptional event but it is intertwined in the structures of everyday life.  To quote C. L. R. James, Melville is beginning to describe “the World We Live In.”   With this post, I am beginning the second volume of the Library of America‘s collection of Melville’s work, containing RedburnWhite-jacket, and Moby-Dick.

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Background and Summary
Redburn emerged from Melville’s frustration with the poor reception of Mardi.  It did not sell and Melville needed money since he was now married with a son.  The novel was written quickly and drew heavily on his own experiences.  Redburn tells the story of Wellingborough Redburn on his first voyage on the merchant ship.  He sails to Liverpool, experiences that industrial city, and is spirited away to London for a night by a bit of a vagrant who be befriends.  He returns to the ship and sails home to New York, where he is denied a salary due to his “escape.”  The vast majority of the novel focuses on Redburn’s naivety  and his failure to come to terms with the workplace culture, his observations of the crew, his horror at what he sees in Liverpool, and his attempts to gain the respect of the officers of the crew.  It is a coming of age tale, and one in which maturity is the result of repeated failures.

Workplace culture
Redburn’s first struggle is to enter the workplace culture of the ship.  Entering the ship as a “boy” Redburn is not respected by either officers or crew.  He did not understand any of the unwritten rules of ship life: the proper way to interact with officers, the meaning of workplace slang, the use of tobacco and drink (Redburn starts the novel as an advocate of temperance, which he abandons by the end of the novel), and even the proper, “manly,” ways to deal with fear.  Through his failures, the narrator describes the tension between individualism and culture.  Although naive, Redburn starts as a fairly self-assured individual, confidently sailing on a ship, a strong believer in temperance, and with a plan to gain the friendship of the captain, within the first few chapters the failures of this individualism is apparent.  It fails because it did not account for the way the world of the ship actually functioned.  Without these unwritten rules, beliefs and practices, the ship could not have functioned.  He only earns some baseline respect from the crew when he learns to integrate himself into this culture.

Needless to say, this workplace culture is authoritarian.   It demanded more from Redburn than the disciplinary structure of the ship.  Resisting or reforming this workplace culture is not possible for someone in Redburn’s position.  This brings us to Redburn’s antagonist in the novel: Jackson.

Jackson
Jackson is one force on the ship that isolates Redburn more than any other.  He has a forceful personality and if in a position of command reminds us of Ahab or Wolf Larsen from Jack London’s Sea-Wolf.  He understands the pyschology of others and willfully manipulates his knowledge.  His dislike for Redburn helped enforce the narrator’s isolation and account for many of his frustrations and anxieties.  “He was a great bully, and being the best seaman on board, and very overbearing every way, all the men were afraid of him, and durst not contradict him, or cross his path in any thing.  And what made this more wonderful was, that he was the weakest man, bodily, of the whole crew; and I have no doubt that young and small as I was then, compared to what I am now, I could have thrown him down.  But he had such an over-awing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him.  And besides all this, it was quite plain, that he was by nature a marvelously clever, cunning man, though without education; and understood human nature to a kink, and well knew whom he had to deal with; and then, one glance of his squinting eye, was as good as a knock-down, for it was the most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head.”  (67)  According to C. L. R. James, for Melville, Jackson is the product of a brutal working class culture.  “Jackson is a worker whose evil character Melville attributes to the suffering and misery which society imposes upon the class to which he belonged. . . . Melville knew workers and workers are not people who in revenge wish to destroy the world.” (James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, 76-77).  The problem in the workplace is not so unlike the problem in intentional communities.  While it can be a place of worker self-management, it is also easily dominated by people of strong personalities.  Perhaps Jackson is reflecting the authority structure of the ship.  Melville has much more to say about the impact of authoritarian structures on the sailors in White Jacket.

Europe
Redburn sees in Liverpool harsh inequalities.  If he is speaking for Melville, then Melville is continuing the old American critique of Europe, in particular England, as a realm of inequality, decadence, poverty, and oppression.  As nasty as the ship is for Redburn, the poverty and indifference in Liverpool are a shock.  That the return “cargo” is made up of emigrants to America is not a coincidence.  It is Melville’s celebration of the relative democracy and equality of America (even if not always actualized on the ship).  Redburn witnesses the making of America as a multinational republic.  The U.S. imperialism dominating so much of Melville’s, Pacific writing disappears as he engages in a bit of American myth-making.  “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own.  We are heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance.”

The only hope for Europe is found in the figure of Harry Bolton, a reckless liar and gambler.  It is him who is responsible for Redburn losing his wages, by whisking him off to London for a night (this was the justification for the captain withholding his wages).  He also lies about his maritime experience.  This lie will eventually  cost him his life when he dies on a whaling voyage, he was likely unprepared for.  Harry Bolton is Redburn’s friend and returns his meager wages to Captain Riga in response to Redburn’s being withheld.  This act of solidarity in the face of a duplicitous captain can be contrasted with the way the police of Liverpool deal with the poor and starving.

In one of the most memorable parts of Redburn, the narrator comes across a family starving to death in a cellar.  Redburn smuggles them food, but also informs the local police and some other local people about the dire condition of this family.  Redburn’s generosity is not enough to save the family, who died some days after he begins aiding them.

In a related event, even the impoverished sailors aid a wounded naval veteran who begs for coin on the docks.  This contrast teaches us that, as oppressive as the workplace culture can be to young sailors like Redburn, it is the working poor who can sustain real empathy.

Herman Melville, “Mardi” Thematic Summary

As anyone who has attempted reading Mardi knows, it is a strange and largely opaque novel.  At best, it is allegorical and impressionistic.  At worst, it is a messy garble of ideas without any concrete center, theme, or message.  I will not attempt to find one in these posts.  Instead, I will attempt to highlight a few ideas to convince the brave to take another look at Mardi.

Its plot follows the narrator, who takes the name Taji after being deemed a demi-god, as he deserts from a doomed whaling ship.  Taji and his comrade take a boat out and eventually run into a brig, which they take and sail along with the two surviving members of an annihilated company.  That ship sinks, leaving them again on a small boat.  The survivors run into a priest and his sons carrying a imprisoned woman, Yillah, a Polynesian woman with bleached skin and hair.  She is to be sacrificed, so Taji kills the priest and saves her, but will be followed by his three cons throughout the novel.  The narrator falls in love with Yillah and begins to learn more about her story.  She believes her origins are supernatural.  They arrive in Mardi (“the world” in Polynesian and in the world of the novel a series of islands).  At the island of Odo, they meet king Media.  After a visit from the handmaidens of Queen Hautia.  Soon after this Yillah is missing.  For the rest of the novel, Taji searches for his love.  He is accompanied by his initial comrades, King Media, Babbalanja (a philosopher), Mohi (a historian) and Yoomy (a poet).  The plot of the rest of the novel is their travels through Mardi, visiting islands and meeting people that provided allegorical critiques of Melville’s own world.  During this voyage, Yillah becomes more and more of an abstract ideal.  The novel ends with their arrival at the island of Queen Hautia.  Here Taji is nearly seduced by the queen and her worldliness.  They never find Yillah and Taji ends the novel continuing his wanderings.  Taji becomes the ultimate “Omoo” (wanderer), traveling the entire world and seeking an unreachable ideal.  His travels expose him to numerous realms, kings, good, evil, wisdom, foolishness, violence, and peace.  As readers of this blog already know, I am a supporter of the rootless, the unsettled, and the malcontent, for until we are malcontent with the bravery to recreate ourselves and our worlds we are easily enslaved.

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Everyplace that Taji visited lacked Yillah.  What they all seemed to have were kinds, hierarchies, criminal foolishness, and slavery.  This is the reading C. L. R. James gives in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways.  James believed that Melville was writing on the Revolutions of 1848 (Mardi was published one year after these tumultuous events).  “He was for example an extreme, in fact a fanatical democrat.  Some of his views he expressed would change in his next book.  But Mardi shows that he already believed that a future of continually expanding democracy was an illusion, for America as for the rest of the world, that he considered politics a game played by politicians.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 75)  If this reading is correct, Yillah suggests that vision of an expanding democracy which is  not achieved (and seemingly impossible) by the end.  “And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.” (1316)

In the next two posts, we will further explore Mardi.  First, we will consider the failed visions, including those provided by Taji’s companions.  Next, we will attack the one tempting island in Mardi, Serenia – a democratic and anarchist utopia.  On the final page, Taji is given the choice of Serenia or the “endless sea.”

Herman Melville, “Omoo,” Part 2: Transgression

The second part of Melville’s Omoo follows the narrator “Typee” as he and his fellow shipmate (and now jailmate) Dr. Long Ghost as they seek happiness and freedom in the South Seas.

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Part two begins with the mutinous sailors in the jail.  It is an easy-going jail.  They can come and go during the day as the please, interact with the local Polynesians, and are fairly well-cared for.  They decide to stay there even after their ship Julia leaves to continue its whaling voyage.  Melville devotes some of the time that his narrator is in jail to continue the anti-missionary and anti-imperial arguments that he started in Typee.  Melville argues for a degree of religious environmentalism suggesting that the missionaries are not only importing degradation into Tahiti but also that the Polynesians are incapable of being true Christian converts.  “There is perhaps no race upon earth less disposed, by nature, to the monitions of Christianity, than the people of the South Seas. . . . Added to all this, is that quality inherent to Polynesians; and more akin to hypocrisy than anything else.  It leads them to assume the most passionate interest, in matters for which they really feel little or none whatever.”  (500-501)  An incompatible religious is perhaps anodyne enough, but much more devastating to the Polynesians is the destruction of their economy: the depopulation by disease, the destruction of the tappa manufacturing industry, and the establishment of sugar plantations.  These sugar plantations pose one of the greatest threats to the Polynesian way of life.  This rejection of Western civilization is Typee’s first transgression in this part of the novel.

After these digressions, the narrative continues with a scheme by Dr. Long Ghost to improve the living conditions in their jail.  With the Julia gone, there is no need to restrain the sailors any longer.  They are becoming an economic burden.  The sailors, content with a life of luxury scheme to demand higher rations.  Like many working-class people, turned off by the failure of work in the achievement of their dreams, choose the “dole” as a way to take advantage of a system that has exploited them for years.  The first scheme, by Long Ghost, is to fake a fit and blame his condition on poor rations and poor conditions.  This fails and they next march on Wilson.  With little hope in jail for an improved life, Long Ghost and Typee set off for the island of Imeeo, where they heard from two deserters that a pair of foreigners established a sugar plantation.  This way, they can at least leave on their own terms.  They are certain that Wilson will get rid of them someway.  Interestingly, and powerfully, Typee “longed for a change.”  It is these whims that drive so much of the plot of Melville’s first two novels.  A form of attention-defect-disorder that is a powerful tool of subtle resistance.  Allowing our whims to drive us is certainly better than allowing the bosses desires control us.  The name of the novel “Omoo” refers to a Polynesian word for “wanderer.”

A Sugar Plantation.  The gift of "civilization."

A Sugar Plantation. The gift of “civilization.”

They take up a job laboring on the plantation, but it is not long before they find the work too odious and seek to venture out to find the employment of a Polynesian queen.  He is searching for a pristine Polynesian way of life, perhaps closer to what he experienced among the Typee but was quickly being lost in places of greater European control, such as Tahiti.  They venture off by lying to their employers.  The second transgression of the narrator and his companion is their rootlessness and vagrancy along with their unabashed ability to take advantage of their captors and employers.

The remainder of the novel follows the “Omoo” as they go deeper into the areas of the Society Islands they hope are untouched by European empire.  Even in Tamai, the Western influence is visible.  A hermit salesman tries to sell them Western-style trousers and Westerners often populate the courts of local kings and queens, working in various fashions.  These people serve as other examples of “Omoo” seeking a place for themselves and averting work by any means possible.  Of course, the Polynesians can play this game too, taking advantage of the Western presence however they can.  Some, like the hermit, sell their artifacts.  Others made their living turning in deserting sailors for the bounty.

Their next stop is Imeeo, where they find a more pristine culture.  They are taken in by Marharvai, the local chief.  They enjoy a dinner party, the company of three girls, fishing, swimming, and relaxing.  Their next to last stop in the novel is a visit with a “dealer in the contraband,” a hermit called Varvy.  Long Ghost drinks heavily with him and losses his boots under suspicious circumstances.

Even in distant Partoowye, the European impact is felt.  Here it is reflected in the native Christian Ereemear, who takes in the “Omoo” as guests.  They also encounter a carpenter from a ship (another deserter) who falls in love with a native girl.  Long Ghost falls in love with Ereemear’s daughter Loo, who rejects his advances.  After a failed attempt to work from the Queen of Partoowye, the omoo part ways.  Long Ghost stays on the island and Typee sails off with a whaling ship.

The major theme of the novel is resistance to capitalism and empire through the individual acts of working people.  Sometimes it took the form of running away other times in fencing stolen goods.  For many it was just the refusal to work when other options presented themselves.  This is a strategy that has been used for centuries to oppose the alienation and exploitation of capital.  I think we should all become “Omoo.”

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.

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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.

Herman Melville, “Typee” Part One

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Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life evolved from Herman Melville’s experiences in 1841 and 1842 in the South Seas.  It is semi-autobiographical.  This work began the literary career of who I see as the greatest American artist.  If I cannot locate the blogs themes in the work of Melville, I expect I could wrap up this blog as a failure.  While waiting in detention in Ellis Island, C. L. R. James wrote: “What Melville did was to place within the covers of one book [Moby Dick] a presentation of a whole civilization so that any ordinary human being today can read it in a few days and grasp the essentials of the world he lived in.  To do this a man must contain within his single self, at one and the same time, the whole history of the past, the most significant experiences of the world around him, and a clear vision of the future.  Of all this he creates an ordered whole.  No philosopher, statesman, scientist or soldier exceeds him in creative effort.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 115)

 

I will work through Melville’s work with a degree of humility and patience, both to the master and the many dozens of scholars who understand his words better than me.  I will, of course, focus my energies on what Melville has to say about freedom, empire, community, solidarity, progress, the environment, democracy and other questions of interest in anarchists.

Typee tells the story of sailor deserting from his ship with a friend, his struggle for survival on the island, his discovery of a native community (which he feared was the “cannibal” Typee), the society, culture, economy, and politics of the people he met, and his return to European and American “civilization” represented by the ship.  It parallels, broadly, experiences Melville himself went through while on a whaling voyage.

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To start, the ship is Tommo’s (the narrator is named Tom but identified as Tommo by the Typee) connection to the West.  It has a degree of security and comfort for him.  Despite choosing to flee the ship, for a long time he remained fearful of the “cannibal” Typee.  He remains anxious throughout his time with the Typee.  This anxiety was symbolized in his aching leg, which seemed to heal as he got closer to assimilation and pained him during his bouts with anxiety and fear.  The ship reflected a world of inequality and want.  “We left both law and equity on the other side of the Cape; and unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, our crew was composed of a parcel of dastardly and mean-spirited wretches, divided among themselves, and only united in enduring without resistance the unmitigated tyranny of the captain.” (31)  Stories of whaling ships remaining in the Pacific for years despite low provisions helped convince Tom to flee with his companion Toby.

The ship is also a zone for the imperial domination of the Pacific islands, a theme Melville often returns to.  He was critical of French imperialism in the Pacific, with the degradation of the lives of islanders, and the tendency of Europeans and Americans to paint themselves as civilized and the Islanders as “savages.”  The ship, was the initial hammer of empire.  Much of the early part of the book engages these themes of desperation and want on the ship and the colonial conquest.  When discussing the arrival of women to the ship, he critiqued the tendency of Westerners to take advantage of their innocence.  “The grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.  . . . Unsophisticated and confiding, they are easily led into every vice, and humanity weeps over the ruin thus remorselessly inflicted upon them by their Europeans civilizers.” (25)  Now, I tend to think that this over-emphasizes the naivety of Pacific island women, it does suggest the hypocrisy of empire – the bringing of “civilization” covering up the use of violence, manipulation, or corruption.  Melville reserves his harshest critiques of the French, who he describes as “insolent” and “arrogant.”  He also praised at times the ability of the Typee to resist full domination by the French.

The entire narrative is just one of many examples in the American tradition of people choosing to escape European and American settler colonialism for the relative equality and freedom of “hidden places.”  Starting with one of the first colonies in North America at Roanoke, people have fled capitalism, monarchical hierarchies, and slavery. Some joined Indian tribes.  Slaves fled and formed the “maroon communities.”  Sailors fled in other ways.  By fleeing at the right moment they could await the arrival of new ships to sign on with.  These ships may be on the way home, better provisioned, or just have a new captain.  Many sailors fled simply to escape personal conflicts with officers.  Armed resistance and mutiny were only a last resort.  It seems to me one explanation for the lack of armed resistance to capitalism in American history is that so many people found alternative ways to resist, often by opting out.  This is what Melville did and it is what he has Tom and Toby attempt.  Better to be free and starving and on the run from cannibals than to be degraded into submission by the authoritarian structure of the whaling ship.

Is “opting out” still an option for us.  We lack the wild places to flee too, but there are other ways people continue to opt out of the system.  Maybe many of these options are inauthentic.  Someone can drop out of school but still take a job at Wal-mart.  But remember, Melville was not fully authentic either.  He got his one month of peace from the whaling ship before returning.  (He gives Tom four months in the novel.)  In the same way, slaves who ran away often had to return after a brief respite.  True escape was difficult then and impossible now.  I suggest we not dwell on purity and focus on the power of “opting out” by cultivating options for people looking for escape  from the state and capital, the moral law and religion.  Maybe the Temporary Autonomous Zone is all we can ask for.

In Chapter 17, Melville makes his most full critique of the concept of civilization.  He does this by harnessing different values.  Certainly, Melville was romanticizing the Pacific islanders a bit, but I reckon the broad strokes are correct.  The Typee were more free and more happy than the Westerners.  “In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters and no squalling brats.  All was mirth, fun, and high good humor.” (151-152)  Much of this happiness evolved from their post-scarcity situation.  Work was limited and breadfruit readily available.  For a sailor like Melville, this must have been a strong contrast to the daily violence and drudgery of work on the sailing ship.

This has a strong parallel with Denis Diderot’s “Supplement au voyage de Bougainville.”  The Bougainville voyages of the later 18th century, explored the South Seas for the French and led to encounters with Tahiti.  In his “Supplement” Diderot fictionalized this encounter between a Christian and a Taihitian man.  The Christian initially offended the man by refusing to sleep with his daughter.  The discussion that follows from this is a perfect example of the proper way to deal with cultural differences.  In simple language, both men express the reasons for their belief, but for the reader, the Taihitian cannot but look the more mature and wise.  That he argued for the anathema (for Europeans) of non-monogamy, makes the clarity and persuasiveness of his position all the more striking.   His argument rests on the hypocrisy of a civilization based on control, institutional order, unchanging rules, and inflexible customs running contrary to human nature is more oppressive than a civilization based on our natural freedoms and desires.