In his literary sketches of the Galapagos Islands, Melville sees a lens through which individuals can fully explore existence, power, liberty, and responsibility.
Melville's Short Stories, Part IV
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Melville’s literary sketches of “The Enchanted Isles,” or what we would call Galapagos, consist of ten observational and philosophical reflections on the land, the sea, plant and animal life, and the human species. The islands are a series of existential mirrors, scattered together in the middle of the Pacific. For Melville and the intrepid, hopeless, or hagridden sailors who also made the islands their temporary homes, the rocky shoals and dense, concentrated outcroppings of flora served as a fixed source of natural wonders, mysterious terrors, and existential challenges to the modern mind. As our first sketch notes, the Encantadas existed under a “special curse,” in which their position on the Equator condemned the islands to a ceaseless summer. “Man and wolf alike disown[ed]” the Encantadas, and even time seemed to have forgotten the lonely castaway rocks. Their only inhabitants were antediluvian monsters from the slowly scrabbling hordes of giant tortoises to the endless “lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and the strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the aguano.” In the land that civilization knew not, “No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.” The scope of the Galapagos went “all the way from Paradise to Tartarus.”
Pirates were the first westerners to touch land on Melville’s canvas. Swept along through the decidedly odd and challenging currents of the Pacific’s “Enchanted Ground,” the stray Spanish sailing vessel happening upon the islands would have called them the “Enchanted Group.” Indeed, the sailors spread the legend that “all wicked sea‐officers, more especially commodores and captains,” suffered the curse of being transformed into a tortoise as a post mortem punishment for their tyrannies. Thus, the exploitative and violent ruling classes were condemned to spend countless generations trapped in cumbersome turtle bodies, scraping endlessly along the Enchanted Isles. The metaphor is, appropriately and frankly, enchanting.
The second sketch continues to examine the human‐tortoise comparison. As the monstrous creature emerges from its shadowy home, an observer may think tortoises are “dark and melancholy” beasts, but should the poor thing be unfortunate enough to tip onto its shell the observer would witness an explosion of coloring. To continue the metaphor, one might remark that the Spanish captain’s essence trapped in a turtle’s existence also contains both dark and light, the potential to do evil and good. In life, their power and privilege aboard ship accorded them immense ability to do evil and their cursed state was evidence of having done too little good. For the passed captains, the Encantadas offered a state of limbo where they could spend many lifetimes reflecting on the harm they caused others. For Melville, the islands functioned as existential mirrors, reflecting to ourselves who we really are.
The islands’ state of complete isolation, barren loneliness, and natural hostility to any form of civilized, social existence offered stranded individuals near total freedom to do and to be whatever they wished. In reality, we all are free to act as we will, using our power as individual agents to impact the world around us. We stand responsible for those actions, and our moral failures can often result in centuries of regression and moral reeducation. Melville tells of the time when his fellow sailors hoisted several giants on board. The great turtles lumbered awkwardly around the decks, tripping themselves over buckets and rope. Melville was mystified and transfixed by the creatures, marveling at their ancient age and the scars time and battle had etched into their shells. That evening, our author’s mind occupies the tortoise’s world so thoroughly that he experiences a religious union of spirits and peace with the natural world. Through the powerful image of the tortoises containing the cursed souls of wicked human beings, Melville came to a profounder perspective on the nature of his own fleeting existence and the powerful responsibilities that come with great freedom. Nevertheless, the next day he joined the crew in feasting on turtle steaks and soup. Perhaps our author comforted himself in the thought that the tortoises had withstood the extent of their cosmic test and the old captains had finally atoned for their tyranny. In consuming the wizened monsters, Melville releases the reformed essence from its accursed existence, and the turtle’s life history becomes both materially and morally useful.
By Herman Melville. The Piazza Tales, New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856.
Sketch First: The Isles at Large
Take five‐and‐twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration.
It is to be doubted whether any spot of earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group. Abandoned cemeteries of long ago, old cities by piecemeal tumbling to their ruin, these are melancholy enough; but, like all else which has but once been associated with humanity, they still awaken in us some thoughts of sympathy, however sad. Hence, even the Dead Sea, along with whatever other emotions it may at times inspire, does not fail to touch in the pilgrim some of his less unpleasurable feelings.
And as for solitariness; the great forests of the north, the expanses of unnavigated waters, the Greenland ice‐fields, are the profoundest of solitudes to a human observer; still the magic of their changeable tides and seasons mitigates their terror; because, though unvisited by men, those forests are visited by the May; the remotest seas reflect familiar stars even as Lake Erie does; and in the clear air of a fine Polar day, the irradiated, azure ice shows beautifully as malachite.
But the special curse, as one may call it, of the Encantadas, that which exalts them in desolation above Idumea and the Pole, is, that to them change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows. Cut by the Equator, they know not autumn, and they know not spring; while already reduced to the lees of fire, ruin itself can work little more upon them. The showers refresh the deserts; but in these isles, rain never falls. Like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky. “Have mercy upon me,” the wailing spirit of the Encantadas seems to cry, “and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.”
Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all‐forsaken overthrow, that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon; but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the aguano. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.
On most of the isles where vegetation is found at all, it is more ungrateful than the blankness of Aracama. Tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and without a name, springing up among deep fissures of calcined rock, and treacherously masking them; or a parched growth of distorted cactus trees.
In many places the coast is rock‐bound, or, more properly, clinker‐bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron‐furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam; overhanging them with a swirl of gray, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din. However calm the sea without, there is no rest for these swells and those rocks; they lash and are lashed, even when the outer ocean is most at peace with, itself. On the oppressive, clouded days, such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.
Those parts of the strand free from the marks of fire, stretch away in wide level beaches of multitudinous dead shells, with here and there decayed bits of sugar‐cane, bamboos, and cocoanuts, washed upon this other and darker world from the charming palm isles to the westward and southward; all the way from Paradise to Tartarus; while mixed with the relics of distant beauty you will sometimes see fragments of charred wood and mouldering ribs of wrecks. Neither will any one be surprised at meeting these last, after observing the conflicting currents which eddy throughout nearly all the wide channels of the entire group. The capriciousness of the tides of air sympathizes with those of the sea. Nowhere is the wind so light, baffling, and every way unreliable, and so given to perplexing calms, as at the Encantadas. Nigh a month has been spent by a ship going from one isle to another, though but ninety miles between; for owing to the force of the current, the boats employed to tow barely suffice to keep the craft from sweeping upon the cliffs, but do nothing towards accelerating her voyage. Sometimes it is impossible for a vessel from afar to fetch up with the group itself, unless large allowances for prospective lee‐way have been made ere its coming in sight. And yet, at other times, there is a mysterious indraft, which irresistibly draws a passing vessel among the isles, though not bound to them.
True, at one period, as to some extent at the present day, large fleets of whalemen cruised for spermaceti upon what some seamen call the Enchanted Ground. But this, as in due place will be described, was off the great outer isle of Albemarle, away from the intricacies of the smaller isles, where there is plenty of sea‐room; and hence, to that vicinity, the above remarks do not altogether apply; though even there the current runs at times with singular force, shifting, too, with as singular a caprice.
Indeed, there are seasons when currents quite unaccountable prevail for a great distance round about the total group, and are so strong and irregular as to change a vessel’s course against the helm, though sailing at the rate of four or five miles the hour. The difference in the reckonings of navigators, produced by these causes, along with the light and variable winds, long nourished a persuasion, that there existed two distinct clusters of isles in the parallel of the Encantadas, about a hundred leagues apart. Such was the idea of their earlier visitors, the Buccaneers; and as late as 1750, the charts of that part of the Pacific accorded with the strange delusion. And this apparent fleetingness and unreality of the locality of the isles was most probably one reason for the Spaniards calling them the Encantada, or Enchanted Group.
But not uninfluenced by their character, as they now confessedly exist, the modern voyager will be inclined to fancy that the bestowal of this name might have in part originated in that air of spell‐bound desertness which so significantly invests the isles. Nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes. Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles.
However wavering their place may seem by reason of the currents, they themselves, at least to one upon the shore, appear invariably the same: fixed, cast, glued into the very body of cadaverous death.
Nor would the appellation, enchanted, seem misapplied in still another sense. For concerning the peculiar reptile inhabitant of these wilds—whose presence gives the group its second Spanish name, Gallipagos—concerning the tortoises found here, most mariners have long cherished a superstition, not more frightful than grotesque. They earnestly believe that all wicked sea‐officers, more especially commodores and captains, are at death (and, in some cases, before death) transformed into tortoises; thenceforth dwelling upon these hot aridities, sole solitary lords of Asphaltum.
Doubtless, so quaintly dolorous a thought was originally inspired by the woe‐begone landscape itself; but more particularly, perhaps, by the tortoises. For, apart from their strictly physical features, there is something strangely self‐condemned in the appearance of these creatures. Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longevity does not fail to enhance the impression.
Nor even at the risk of meriting the charge of absurdly believing in enchantments, can I restrain the admission that sometimes, even now, when leaving the crowded city to wander out July and August among the Adirondack Mountains, far from the influences of towns and proportionally nigh to the mysterious ones of nature; when at such times I sit me down in the mossy head of some deep‐wooded gorge, surrounded by prostrate trunks of blasted pines and recall, as in a dream, my other and far‐distant rovings in the baked heart of the charmed isles; and remember the sudden glimpses of dusky shells, and long languid necks protruded from the leafless thickets; and again have beheld the vitreous inland rocks worn down and grooved into deep ruts by ages and ages of the slow draggings of tortoises in quest of pools of scanty water; I can hardly resist the feeling that in my time I have indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground.
Nay, such is the vividness of my memory, or the magic of my fancy, that I know not whether I am not the occasional victim of optical delusion concerning the Gallipagos. For, often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle‐light in old‐fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise, with “Memento * * * * *” burning in live letters upon his back.
Sketch Second: Two Sides to a Tortoise
In view of the description given, may one be gay upon the Encantadas? Yes: that is, find one the gayety, and he will be gay. And, indeed, sackcloth and ashes as they are, the isles are not perhaps unmitigated gloom. For while no spectator can deny their claims to a most solemn and superstitious consideration, no more than my firmest resolutions can decline to behold the spectre‐tortoise when emerging from its shadowy recess; yet even the tortoise, dark and melancholy as it is upon the back, still possesses a bright side; its calipee or breast‐plate being sometimes of a faint yellowish or golden tinge. Moreover, every one knows that tortoises as well as turtle are of such a make, that if you but put them on their backs you thereby expose their bright sides without the possibility of their recovering themselves, and turning into view the other. But after you have done this, and because you have done this, you should not swear that the tortoise has no dark side. Enjoy the bright, keep it turned up perpetually if you can, but be honest, and don’t deny the black. Neither should he, who cannot turn the tortoise from its natural position so as to hide the darker and expose his livelier aspect, like a great October pumpkin in the sun, for that cause declare the creature to be one total inky blot. The tortoise is both black and bright. But let us to particulars.
Some months before my first stepping ashore upon the group, my ship was cruising in its close vicinity. One noon we found ourselves off the South Head of Albemarle, and not very far from the land. Partly by way of freak, and partly by way of spying out so strange a country, a boat’s crew was sent ashore, with orders to see all they could, and besides, bring back whatever tortoises they could conveniently transport.
It was after sunset, when the adventurers returned. I looked down over the ship’s high side as if looking down over the curb of a well, and dimly saw the damp boat, deep in the sea with some unwonted weight. Ropes were dropt over, and presently three huge antediluvian‐looking tortoises, after much straining, were landed on deck. They seemed hardly of the seed of earth. We had been broad upon the waters for five long months, a period amply sufficient to make all things of the land wear a fabulous hue to the dreamy mind. Had three Spanish custom‐house officers boarded us then, it is not unlikely that I should have curiously stared at them, felt of them, and stroked them much as savages serve civilized guests. But instead of three custom‐house officers, behold these really wondrous tortoises—none of your schoolboy mud-turtles—but black as widower’s weeds, heavy as chests of plate, with vast shells medallioned and orbed like shields, and dented and blistered like shields that have breasted a battle, shaggy, too, here and there, with dark green moss, and slimy with the spray of the sea. These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindoo plants this total sphere. With a lantern I inspected them more closely. Such worshipful venerableness of aspect! Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells. I no more saw three tortoises. They expanded—became transfigured. I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.
Ye oldest inhabitants of this, or any other isle, said I, pray, give me the freedom of your three‐walled towns.
The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age:—dateless, indefinite endurance. And in fact that any other creature can live and breathe as long as the tortoise of the Encantadas, I will not readily believe. Not to hint of their known capacity of sustaining life, while going without food for an entire year, consider that impregnable armor of their living mail. What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?
As, lantern in hand, I scraped among the moss and beheld the ancient scars of bruises received in many a sullen fall among the marly mountains of the isle—scars strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees, I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird‐tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.
As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great, that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid‐watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering‐ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage. That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.
Meeting with no such hinderance as their companion did, the other tortoises merely fell foul of small stumbling-blocks—buckets, blocks, and coils of rigging—and at times in the act of crawling over them would slip with an astounding rattle to the deck. Listening to these draggings and concussions, I thought me of the haunt from which they came; an isle full of metallic ravines and gulches, sunk bottomlessly into the hearts of splintered mountains, and covered for many miles with inextricable thickets. I then pictured these three straight‐forward monsters, century after century, writhing through the shades, grim as blacksmiths; crawling so slowly and ponderously, that not only did toad‐stools and all fungus things grow beneath their feet, but a sooty moss sprouted upon their backs. With them I lost myself in volcanic mazes; brushed away endless boughs of rotting thickets; till finally in a dream I found myself sitting crosslegged upon the foremost, a Brahmin similarly mounted upon either side, forming a tripod of foreheads which upheld the universal cope.
Such was the wild nightmare begot by my first impression of the Encantadas tortoise. But next evening, strange to say, I sat down with my shipmates, and made a merry repast from tortoise steaks, and tortoise stews; and supper over, out knife, and helped convert the three mighty concave shells into three fanciful soup‐tureens, and polished the three flat yellowish calipees into three gorgeous salvers.