Herman Melville, Author of Moby-Dick, in the Galapagos Islands: the Dog-King of Charles Island, also called Santa Maria or Floreana
(A selection from In the Galapagos Islands with Herman Melville)
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s greatest masterpiece, was a failure when first published. “So much trash” and a “monstrous bore” wrote the kindest critics. Sales were poor.
As 1854 began, its thirty-four year old author was supporting his growing family on borrowed money and advances from his wife’s expected inheritance.
That winter, Herman Melville mentally transported himself away from the snowy blasts rattling his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, farmhouse, back twelve years and three thousand miles to the tropical South Seas of his youth, to the Galapagos Islands.
He worked on regaining his readership with shorter and less challenging magazine articles, a series of ten sketches—really an extended travelogue—full of myth and exotic scenery but still reflecting complex themes of good and evil that dominated his thoughts. The result—The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles, Melville’s description of the Galapagos Islands.
Although Melville focused on landscapes, plants and animals of the Galapagos Islands in many of his sketches, he also recounted stories of the archipelagos’ human inhabitants.
Melville based the narrative in this sketch very loosely upon the history of a settlement on Charles Island, also called Santa Maria or Floreana. In it, his themes of imperialism’s evils and the abuse of power often addressed in his earlier novels emerge again. He conflates the stories of the colony’s first two leaders, but after all, these sketches were sold as fiction.
CHARLES’S ISLE AND THE DOG-KING
by Herman Melville
Southwest of Barrington lies Charles’s Isle. And hereby hangs a history which I gathered long ago from a shipmate learned in all the lore of outlandish life. During the successful revolt of the Spanish provinces from Old Spain, there fought on behalf of Peru a certain Creole adventurer from Cuba, who, by his bravery and good fortune, at length advanced himself to high rank in the patriot army.
The war being ended, Peru found itself like many valorous gentlemen, free and independent enough, but with few shot in the locker. In other words, Peru had not wherewithal to pay off its troops. But the Creole—I forget his name—volunteered to take his pay in lands. So they told him he might have his pick of the Enchanted Isles, which were then, as they still remain, the nominal appanage of Peru.
The soldier straightway embarks thither, explores the group, returns to Callao, and says he will take a deed of Charles’s Isle. Moreover, this deed must stipulate that thenceforth Charles’s Isle is not only the sole property of the Creole, but is forever free of Peru, even as Peru of Spain.
To be short, this adventurer procures himself to be made in effect Supreme Lord of the Island, one of the princes of the powers of the earth.*
*The American Spaniards have long been in the habit of making presents of islands to deserving individuals. The pilot Juan Fernandez procured a deed of the isle named after him, and for some years resided there before Selkirk came. It is supposed, however, that he eventually contracted the blues upon his princely property, for after a time he returned to the main, and as report goes, became a very garrulous barber in the city of Lima.
He now sends forth a proclamation inviting subjects to his as yet unpopulated kingdom. Some eighty souls, men and women, respond; and being provided by their leader with necessaries, and tools of various sorts, together with a few cattle and goats, take ship for the promised land; the last arrival on board, prior to sailing, being the Creole himself, accompanied, strange to say, by a disciplined cavalry company of large grim dogs.
These, it was observed on the passage, refusing to consort with the emigrants, remained aristocratically grouped around their master on the elevated quarter-deck, casting disdainful glances forward upon the inferior rabble there; much as, from the ramparts, the soldiers of a garrison, thrown into a conquered town, eye the inglorious citizen-mob over which they are set to watch.
Now Charles’s not only resembles Barrington Isle in being much more inhabitable than other parts of the group, but it is double the size of Barrington [Santa Fe], say forty or fifty miles in circuit.
Safely debarked at last, the company, under direction of their lord and patron, forthwith proceeded to build their capital city. They make considerable advance in the way of walls of clinkers, and lava floors, nicely sanded with cinders.
On the least barren hills they pasture their cattle, while the goats, adventurers by nature, explore the far inland solitudes for a scanty livelihood of lofty herbage. Meantime, abundance of fish and tortoises supply their other wants.
The disorders incident to settling all primitive regions, in the present case were heightened by the peculiarly untoward character of many of the pilgrims. His Majesty was forced at last to proclaim martial law, and actually hunted and shot with his own hand several of his rebellious subjects, who, with most questionable intentions, had clandestinely encamped in the interior, whence they stole by night, to prowl barefooted on tiptoe round the precincts of the lava-palace.
It is to be remarked, however, that prior to such stern proceedings, the more reliable men had been judiciously picked out for an infantry body-guard, subordinate to the cavalry bodyguard of dogs. But the state of politics in this unhappy nation may be somewhat imagined, from the circum-stance that all who were not of the body-guard were downright plotters and malignant traitors.
At length the death penalty was tacitly abolished, owing to the timely thought, that were strict sportsman’s justice to be dispensed among such subjects, ere long the Nimrod King would have little or no remaining game to shoot.
The human part of the life-guard was now disbanded, and set to work cultivating the soil, and raising potatoes; the regular army now solely consisting of the dog-regiment. These, as I have heard, were of a singularly ferocious character, though by severe training rendered docile to their master. Armed to the teeth, the Creole now goes in state, surrounded by his canine janizaries, whose terrific bayings prove quite as serviceable as bayonets in keeping down the surgings of revolt.
But the census of the isle, sadly lessened by the dispensation of justice, and not materially recruited by matrimony, began to fill his mind with sad mistrust. Some way the population must be increased.
Now, from its possessing a little water, and its comparative pleasantness of aspect, Charles’s Isle at this period was occasionally visited by foreign whalers. These His Majesty had always levied upon for port charges, thereby contributing to his revenue.
But now he had additional designs. By insidious arts he, from time to time, cajoles certain sailors to desert their ships, and enlist beneath his banner. Soon as missed, their captains crave per-mission to go and hunt them up. Whereupon His Majesty first hides them very carefully away, and then freely permits the search. In consequence, the delinquents are never found, and the ships retire without them.
Thus, by a two-edged policy of this crafty monarch, foreign nations were crippled in the number of their subjects, and his own were greatly multiplied. He particularly petted these renegado strangers. But alas for the deep-laid schemes of ambitious princes, and alas for the vanity of glory.
As the foreign-born Pretorians, unwisely introduced into the Roman state, and still more unwisely made favorites of the Emperors, at last insulted and overturned the throne, even so these lawless mariners, with all the rest of the body-guard and all the populace, broke out into a terrible mutiny, and defied their master.
He marched against them with all his dogs. A deadly battle ensued upon the beach. It raged for three hours, the dogs fighting with determined valor, and the sailors reckless of everything but victory. Three men and thirteen dogs were left dead upon the field, many on both sides were wounded, and the king was forced to fly with the remainder of his canine regiment. The enemy pursued, stoning the dogs with their master into the wilderness of the interior.
Discontinuing the pursuit, the victors returned to the village on the shore, stove the spirit casks, and proclaimed a Republic. The dead men were interred with the honors of war, and the dead dogs ignominiously thrown into the sea.
At last, forced by stress of suffering, the fugitive Creole came down from the hills and offered to treat for peace. But the rebels refused it on any other terms than his unconditional banishment. Accordingly, the next ship that arrived carried away the ex-king to Peru.
The history of the king of Charles’s Island furnishes another illustration of the difficulty of colonizing barren islands with unprincipled pilgrims.
Doubtless for a long time the exiled monarch, pensively ruralizing in Peru, which afforded him a safe asylum in his calamity, watched every arrival from the Encantadas, to hear news of the failure of the Republic, the consequent penitence of the rebels, and his own recall to royalty. Doubtless he deemed the Republic but a miserable experiment which would soon explode.
But no, the insurgents had confederated themselves into a democracy neither Grecian, Roman, nor American. Nay, it was no democracy at all, but a permanent Riotocracy, which gloried in having no law but lawlessness.
Great inducements being offered to deserters, their ranks were swelled by accessions of scamps from every ship which touched their shores. Charles’s Island [Santa Maria/Floreana] was proclaimed the asylum of the oppressed of all navies. Each runaway tar was hailed as a martyr in the cause of freedom, and became immediately installed a ragged citizen of this universal nation.
In vain the captains of absconding seamen strove to regain them. Their new compatriots were ready to give any number of ornamental eyes in their behalf. They had few cannon, but their fists were not to be trifled with.
So at last it came to pass that no vessels acquainted with the character of that country durst touch there, however sorely in want of refreshment. It became Anathema—a sea Alsatia—the unassailed lurking-place of all sorts of desperadoes, who in the name of liberty did just what they pleased.
They continually fluctuated in their numbers. Sailors, deserting ships at other islands, or in boats at sea anywhere in that vicinity, steered for Charles’s Isle, as to their sure home of refuge; while, sated with the life of the isle, numbers from time to time crossed the water to the neighboring ones, and there presenting themselves to strange captains as shipwrecked seamen, often succeeded in getting on board vessels bound to the Spanish coast, and having a compassionate purse made up for them on landing there.
One warm night during my first visit to the group, our ship was floating along in languid stillness, when some one on the forecastle shouted “Light ho!” We looked and saw a beacon burning on some obscure land off the beam. Our third mate was not intimate with this part of the world. Going to the captain he said, “Sir, shall I put off in a boat? These must be shipwrecked men.”
The captain laughed rather grimly, as, shaking his fist towards the beacon, he rapped out an oath, and said—”No, no, you precious rascals, you don’t juggle one of my boats ashore this blessed night. You do well, you thieves—you do benevolently to hoist a light yonder as on a dangerous shoal. It tempts no wise man to pull off and see what’s the matter, but bids him steer small and keep off shore—that is Charles’s Island; brace up, Mr. Mate, and keep the light astern.”
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