Universal History Archive/Getty Images
The few tales Herman Melville told of the land never lose the whiff of brine. Indeed, the author of Moby-Dick was moulded by the sea. It became a reference point for his complex, hot-tempered “tornadoed Atlantic” soul. When his first child was born he wrote to his in-laws that “the harbor here is empty: – all the ships, brigs, schooners and smacks have scattered in all directions with the news for foreign parts”. Even his study in the remote New England farmhouse of Arrowhead gave him “a sort of sea-feeling… I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin”.
Melville had found himself on the sea as a whaler in the Pacific, travelling from island to island for four years in the early 1840s. It was a time of liberation for a young man till then shackled to a family riddled with debt. Freed from the laws of the land, the high seas to Melville were a place of freedom and terror, where individuals could show their true colours, turning from civility to savagery, or vice versa.
Later in life he produced a series of quick sketches of the Galapagos Islands, briefly visited during his peregrinations. Melville was fascinated by the Spanish name for the archipelago, Las Encantadas – “The Enchanted Isles”.
Much of Melville’s writing is now forgotten, plodding and dry, the narrative clouded by incomprehensibility or frequent digressions. But on occasion his pen was dragged along by a mysterious Leviathan. In The Encantadas, the archipelago is portrayed as maleficent. In comparison to the natural paradise Charles Darwin described when visiting in 1835, they are said to be “evilly enchanted” by Melville. An apocalyptic land of ash and cinders, of “penal conflagration”.
As with EM Forster’s Malabar Caves in Passage to India, the Galapagos are presented as an ominous blank slate, challenging man’s beliefs with their lack of meaning. Man never evolved here, “Adam and his billions of posterity remain uncreated”, so its ways are strange and unknown. A rag-tag bunch of “renegades, and castaways, and cannibals”, lured by the island’s isolation in the pursuit of freedom, morph with the abandonment of civilization’s laws into demons. Melville relates numerous stories he heard on his travels – of lone hermits enslaving sailors who wandered onto their land; of would-be Kings who descend into tyranny, surrounded by a retinue of vicious dogs; of lone rocks that from afar appear like sails, hopeful crews dashed against them. It’s almost as if the islands have a siren capacity, deliberately luring men in only to destroy them, bringing out humanity’s worst instincts – this selection of short stories was written over forty years before Heart of Darkness.
The prose is Melville at the peak of his literary capabilities, lines and cadences that flow like an ocean swell, peppered with alliteration and a pacing stronger than any current, painting a picture of a land either abandoned by God or part of an unknowable greater plan. They lie hundreds of miles from the coast of South America, right along the rainless Equator, “like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky.” What beauty there is for Melville comes from offshore: “The great full moon burnt in the low west like a half-spent beacon, casting a soft mellow tinge upon the sea like that cast by a waning fire of embers upon a midnight hearth.”
Melville had anchored in the Galapagos for a week in November 1841. Ten years later, in dire financial straits after the critical failure of Moby-Dick he dashed off these ten sketches. The experience was still vivid in his mind, to the point of a haunting:
Often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candlelight in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the furthest 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.
The giant Galapagos tortoises once crawled the islands in their thousands. Some were endowed with personality, treated as old friends and communal forums – “Port Royal Tom” became a sea-faring legend, a humungous beast still alive in 1881 whose shell had been carved with nautical names, messages and dates going back 110 years. Populations dwindled rapidly when it was discovered that they were easy to catch and tasted delicious, and they were carried aboard and allowed to wander the decks, requiring little food and water on long whaling journeys. In Melville’s eyes this simple source of sustenance turns into a variety of symbols. They could be a vehicle to find God, a steed ridden like a Hindu deity for the mysteries of the universe. Their stupidity aboard ship, refusing to divert their path by going around the mast, ramming and pushing against it for hours in the hope it would fall, was evidence “that these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps downright diabolical, enchanter”.
As in Moby-Dick, Melville imputes the presence of an ominous power manipulating the material world, the islands mere “pasteboard masks” behind which lurk mighty forces beyond human comprehension. Carl Jung was fascinated by Melville’s work, with its instinctive acceptance of unknown darkness lying dormant in the heart of every man. For Melville it was embodied by the ocean depths and whales (“the Leviathan”), for Jung by “the shadow”. In Moby-Dick each mind is a “Tahiti”, an island world surrounded by a vast body of water, “the horrors of the half-known life”. “Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” But the Encantadas were swamped by the spirit of the sea.