Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 16, 2008

Herman Melville and indigenous peoples

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm
Melville painted a picture of the society of his day, not merely the society of America, but all of society. He indicated very clearly where he thought it was heading–at the end of the book the last sight of the ship shows an eagle, symbol of America, caught in an American flag and being nailed down without possibility of escape, to the mast by the blows of an American Indian. It is impossible to speak more clearly. The social perspectives, however, are not completely hopeless. The survivor is not saved merely for the purpose of relating the story. He is saved by a coffin, prepared by the request of another savage, and fitted for its ultimate purpose so deliberately by the author as to exclude any idea that this is accidental. Who the survivor is, who rescues him, etc., its symbolical significance will appear later. It is enough that while Melville sees no solution to the problem of society, he does not say that there is none. He can see none.

(From chapter 2 of “American Civilization” by CLR James, titled “American Writers of the Nineteenth Century)

Chapter three of Moby Dick, titled “The Spouter Inn”, contains one of the most famous scenes in American literature. The narrator Ishmael awakens to find the heavily tattooed, South-Sea Islander, harpooner and sometime cannibal Queequeg in his bed. In a few days he and Queequeg have overcome their initial shock and have become good friends. Chapter thirteen, titled “Wheelbarrow,” is not as well-known, but deserves to be since it is very relevant to contemporary discussions of multiculturalism, western “civilization” and other hotly contested issues.

This chapter begins with the two men making their way to the docks where they have booked passage on a packet schooner. The small ship will bring them to Nantucket, where Ahab’s whaling-ship, the Pequod, awaits them.

Queequeg has borrowed a wheelbarrow, which is loaded with the two men’s gear, including Queequeg’s harpoons. As they make their way to the docks, Queequeg lets Ishmael in on his comic mishap with the first wheelbarrow he ever saw. Now that the South-Sea Islander feels comfortable with his white companion, he doesn’t mind letting him know about his occasional difficulties with white civilization.

One time, after Queequeg had just arrived in the port of Sag Harbor, his captain lent him a wheelbarrow so he could get his heavy chest from the ship to the boarding-house in town. Queequeg didn’t quite know how to use the contraption, so he loaded his chest on the wheelbarrow and then carried both the wheelbarrow and its contents into town on his head. Ishmael says, “Queequeg, you might have known better than that, one would think. Didn’t the people laugh?”

This leads Queequeg to tell him another story. On his native island of Rokovoko, there is always a ceremonial large calabash at wedding feasts that is filled with the fragrant water of young coconuts. One day a large merchant ship docked at the island on the occasion of Queequeg’s sister’s wedding, to which they invite the captain. The feast began with a ceremonial blessing of the calabash, which includes the tribal high priest dipping his fingertips into the bowl before passing it around so people can fill their cups with the blessed nectar. The captain, who is seated next to priest, views himself as being more powerful than the priest and consequently takes it upon himself to wash his hands in the bowl. “Now,” said Queequeg, “what you tink now?–Didn’t our people laugh?”

Once Queequeg and Ishmael are on the deck of the packet schooner, Ishmael notices the other passengers gawking at Queequeg. Some are so rude as to make disrespectful gestures behind Queequeg’s back. He catches one of them out of the corner of his eye and throws him bodily into the air. When the startled young man lands on his feet, he goes running to the captain crying out, “Capting, Capting, here’s the Devil,” referring to Queequeg.

The captain approaches Queequeg and lectures him for nearly killing his tormentor. Queequeg explains that the young man he threw in the air was a only a “small fish-e” and that he only kills big whales. At that very moment, the mainsail boom become unlashed and begins swinging wildly back and forth. Not only does it throw the crew into a complete panic, it knocks Queequeg’s tormentor into the water. Everybody is frozen in panic.

At this point, Queequeg goes into action. He grabs hold of a rope and secures one end to a bulwark. With the other end, he fashions a lasso and tosses it on the wayward boom which he brings under control. As soon as this is done, he jumps into the water in the general direction of the man overboard. Melville writes:

“A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon. From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.”

Queequeg took all this in stride and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He didn’t seem to think that he deserved a medal. He only asked for some fresh water to wash the brine off with. Once that was done, he put on dry clothes and began to smoke his pipe. Ishmael thought that the expression on Queequeg’s face seem to say “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.”

Melville was a very careful, deliberate writer who chose words carefully. Why would he have the cannibal describe the world in these commercial terms? Doesn’t joint-stock seem to describe the world that Ishmael was fleeing: the isle of Manhattan, “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf.” The words “joint-stock” are chosen in irony. Melville was very familiar with the South-Sea island societies and knew that stock ownership of any sort was alien to such peoples.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world’s oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick’s most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg.

It would also explain why Ahab and his fellow Christian profiteers are so villainous. I have never understood why American literary critics equate the great white whale with evil, when it seems so obvious that what disturbs Melville is commerce itself and not the hunted animal. We must remember that nobody has really analyzed the system at this point. European novelists and poets simply regarded it as the “factory system”, but didn’t quite understand what made it tick. Meanwhile, America’s greatest writer takes as his subject the whaling factory of the open waters. It is not an oppressive place, but nonetheless there is something about the single-minded desire to kill whales that troubles the writer. Perhaps Melville understood the final logic of such expeditions–they would lead to the extinction of one of the world’s noblest creatures. Since Melville wrote literature rather than propaganda, we can not be sure. This ambiguity, of course, is what gives Moby Dick so much power.

The slaughter of whales, like the slaughter of beavers and buffaloes, were key elements in the development of American capitalism. In the final fifty years of the 19th century, capitalism in the United States became better understood as a social system. European socialism was imported into the United States as the labor movement took root. In the next fifty years, from 1900 to the mid-century mark, this system gained hegemony all over the world. The American Indian had been herded into reservations; the South-Sea islanders–from Hawaii to the Bikini Atolls–had lost their land and way of life; the African-American had been freed from slavery but still faced Jim Crow. For the past fifty years, these kinds of people–the ones who had suffered the most when American world domination was being born–have been taking important steps to regain their rights. Reading works like Moby Dick will prove useful in understanding how such peoples were viewed by a sympathetic writer. Melville’s writings are like hieroglyphs that can uncover the secret, brutal and evil origins of the American system. Since we need to understand our history better in order to change society today, works like Moby Dick are essential reading. At a certain level, they tell us something that the social scientists can never tell us and that is who we really are.

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Dickens or Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a “phonographist” from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas? His reply:

“Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside–splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?”

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

“The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

“The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.”


  1. GREAT post!!!

    Comment by profacero — February 18, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  2. I hate to be a pedant but North America has bison, not buffaloes…

    Comment by Mark S. — February 19, 2008 @ 1:07 am

  3. Sorry again, but the plural of beaver is typically beaver…

    Comment by Mark S. — February 19, 2008 @ 1:09 am

  4. No, you are not being pedantic at all. Although I am aware that the animals are bison, I used the word buffalo because that is how it was referred to historically.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 19, 2008 @ 1:10 am

  5. In that case, I’ll also note that people who share your preferred language in Canada usually use buffalo as the plural for buffalo…

    Comment by Mark S. — February 19, 2008 @ 1:33 am

  6. Mark, no offense, but I does most of my writing on the fly between writing software and house chores. If you wants flawless spelling and grammar, might I suggest David Horowitzs’ website? He have a stables of writer and editors who pore over every words.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 19, 2008 @ 1:41 am

  7. Sorry! Feel free to delete my comments!

    Comment by Mark S. — February 19, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  8. Good stuff. I think “Bartleby the Scrivener” is the best example of Melville’s critique of capitalism. It’s set in Manhattan, and is all about atomization in the 19th century version of the corporate cubicle maze.

    Comment by Josiah — February 23, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  9. […] (5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples 16 February 2008 https://louisproyect.org/2008/02/16/herman-melville-and-indigenous-peoples/ […]

    Pingback by Happy 200th, Herman! | manuelgarciajr — August 1, 2019 @ 12:33 am

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