Named after the Polynesian term for a rover, or someone who roams from island to island, Omoo chronicles the tumultuous events aboard a South Sea whaling vessel and is based on Melville’s personal experiences as a crew member on a ship sailing the Pacific. From recruiting among the natives for sailors to handling deserters and even mutiny, Melville gives a first-person account of life as a sailor during the nineteenth century filled with colourful characters and vivid descriptions of the far-flung locales of Polynesia.
IT WAS the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main–topsail aback about a league from the land, and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.
On approaching, she turned out to be a small, slatternly–looking craft, her hull and spars a dingy black, rigging all slack and bleached nearly white, and everything denoting an ill state of affairs aboard. The four boats hanging from her sides proclaimed her a whaler. Leaning carelessly over the bulwarks were the sailors, wild, haggard–looking fellows in Scotch caps and faded blue frocks; some of them with cheeks of a mottled bronze, to which sickness soon changes the rich berry–brown of a seaman’s complexion in the tropics.
On the quarter–deck was one whom I took for the chief mate. He wore a broad–brimmed Panama hat, and his spy–glass was levelled as we advanced.