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Typee | Context


The Marquesas Islands

Early History

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Marquesas Islands, where Typee takes place, had been settled by Polynesian peoples since approximately 300 BCE. The Polynesian islands are located in the central and southern Pacific. Polynesian culture developed in Samoa and Tonga and gradually spread out into other islands in the Pacific, including Hiva (now known as the Marquesas), eventually making it to Hawaii around 400 CE. Thus, the indigenous people of the French Polynesian islands, which include the Marquesas and Tahiti, are culturally related to the Polynesian people of Samoa, New Zealand, and Hawaii.


The Marquesas Islands first became known to Europeans in 1595, when they were sighted by the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira. De Neira named the islands the Marquesas for his patron, Peru's marqués de Mendoza. Later, the famous British explorer Captain James Cook visited one of the islands in 1774.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the French Polynesian islands began to attract many foreign ships to their shores, and the islands were officially annexed by the French in 1842. Melville reached the islands at the same time that the French Navy arrived to claim the Marquesas for France, and he details his observations of this occasion in the novel Typee.

Polynesian culture is extremely different from European culture. Polynesian religion is animistic, meaning they view many parts of the natural world as sacred or divine. Additionally, Polynesian traditions of marriage and social structure are nothing like European traditions, and many Polynesian cultures don't practice monogamy. In the conservative European atmosphere of the 1800s, many of the traditional practices of Polynesian culture would have seemed shocking and thus "uncivilized" to the European eye.

As Europeans found and began visiting the Polynesian islands they brought with them disease, social problems, and violence. Many islands never had a single ruler or saw themselves as a unified nation, so when Europeans came in and installed puppet rulers the entire social and hierarchical structure of the island changed as well.

The effects of French colonization of the Marquesas and other Polynesian islands were at first limited to the conversion of their population to Catholicism. To many missionaries, the goal was a simple one: save the souls of the so-called "savages" and convert them to the Christian religion. However, this mission required a complete rescripting of native culture, tradition, and social organization. This type of change created great upheavals in Polynesian culture.

The French did bring some social services to the indigenous peoples of the Marquesas, including schools and health services. However, over time, the French limited the authority of the local tribal chiefs in the islands. By the early 20th century the tribal divisions had largely lost their significance.

19th-Century Depiction

The 19th-century Europeans had two popular conceptions regarding the native Polynesian people. One is that they were bloodthirsty savages who would murder and eat white foreigners. Melville quotes many scholars and so-called scientists in Typee who paint the native Polynesians as violent, savage cannibals. Melville, too, adopts this perception of Polynesian islanders.

However, Melville, like French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, also published accounts of the Polynesian people that painted them as "noble savages" and often idealized and romanticized their culture. Romanticization of Polynesian culture was common from the late 1700s into the 20th century. As presenter William Heath explained in the context of a 21st-century conference on Melville and the Marquesas, "The Marquesas spoke to both his deepest fears and desires."

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