Of Melville, Tortoises, and the Galapagos

The Galápagos Islands were a world ravaged by whalemen. One such whaleman was Herman Melville, who wrote of the islands in ten “sketches” entitled The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles, first published in the March, April, and May 1854 issues of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and later reprinted in The Piazza Tales in 1856. Melville transmuted his time in the Galápagos and his sometimes leaden written sources into the heady, evocative, golden language of The Encantadas. What were Melville’s actual experiences of the Galápagos? What did he take from other written accounts of the islands, and how did he combine and transcend his actual experience and his printed sources?

The Galápagos, Melville tells us in The Encantadas, are a place to which “change never comes.” He continues: “In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.” Of course, Melville is wrong—just as he is wrong in the “Nantucket” chapter of Moby-Dick. Change does come to the Galápagos, just as Nantucket is more than “a mere hillock, and elbow of sand.” Yet it is Melville’s stunning word pictures of both the Galápagos and Nantucketthat soar within us. When he writes of the Galápagos, “Like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky,” we feel that, to misquote Moby-Dick, “these extravaganzas only show that [the Galápagos are] no Illinois.”

Capturing tortoises in the Galápagos. Illustration from Harpers New Monthly Magazine, August 1859

The Encantadas is based in part on Melville’s time in the Galápagos aboard his first whaleship, the Acushnet. In November of 1841, the Acushnet spent six days at anchor off Chatham Island. The Acushnet returned to the waters of the Galápagos for the month of January 1842, but the six days at Chatham in 1841 were the longest continuous period during which Melville may have had the possibility of going ashore.
Whaleships were common visitors to the Galápagos. In earlier days, whaleships had come in search of whales, which frequented the waters north of Albemarle Island, but later they came with only one purpose: the Galápagos tortoise. Is it any wonder then that the tortoise haunts the early sketches of The Encantadas?

The Galápagos tortoise is a massive animal. Charles Darwin, who visited the Galápagos in 1835, only six years before Melville, writes: “Some grow to an immense size: Mr. Lawson, an Englishman, and vice-governor of the colony, told us that he had seen several so large, that it required six or eight men to lift them from the ground; and that some had afforded as much as two hundred pounds of meat.” Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, who led a six-month scientific expedition to the Galápagos in the 1930s, adds: “The ancient mariners did not exaggerate their size. The tortoise has been known to reach a weight of five hundred pounds and measure across the length of the shell a full sixty inches.”

Vessels came to the islands to gather the tortoises for food. Sailors believed that tortoises could live up to eighteen months without food and water, thus providing a continuous source of fresh meat. Darwin found the meat “indifferent” to his taste, except “young tortoises [which] make excellent soup.” However, David Porter, who visited the Galápagos twenty-two years before Darwin, in 1813, strongly disagrees:

H]ideous and disgusting as is their appearance, no animal can possibly afford a more wholesome, luscious, and delicate food than they do; the finest green turtle is no more to be compared to them, in point of excellence, than the coarsest beef is to the finest veal; and after once tasting the Gallapagos tortoises, every other animal food fell greatly in our estimation.

Fresh meat of any kind was indeed a wondrous change for sailors restricted to a diet of salt meat. It is hard to imagine how unpalatable and disgusting salt meat truly was. Beef and pork—and occasionally horse—were chopped up, with no attempt to separate the bones and fat, and then thrown into wooden casks of salt brine where the meat would turn green with age.

Tortoise hunting was brutal work because of the sharp lava over which the men had to walk, carrying animals weighing hundreds of pounds. The sailors first turned the tortoises on their backs, then placed a large stone on their shells to keep them from drawing in their legs. They then bound the legs of the tortoises with strips of canvas and slung them on their backs. The average weight was about eighty pounds, but could be much more. According to Thomas Nickerson aboard the whaleship Essex: “[The tortoises”] constant uneasiness whilst carrying them . . . [and] the very uneven walking and constant giving way of stones beneath ones feet makes it[,] I have often thought[,] the hardest labour that can be given to man.” The number of tortoises captured by visiting vessels, especially whaleships, is astounding. Von Hagen writes: “We have estimated that whalers alone, in a period of seventy-five years, removed more than 250,000.” Further research confirms his estimate.

In Journal of a Cruise, Porter tells of sending a crew ashore for approximately five days in 1813, during which “they succeeded in getting on board between four and five hundred” tortoises. When the whaleship Essex visited in 1820, the crew collected a hundred and eighty tortoises on Hood Island in four days. Then, on Charles Island, they collected another hundred tortoises, including a six-hundred-pounder that took six men to carry. Between October 13, 1832, and August 30, 1833, thirty-one whaleships called at Charles Island. If each took two hundred tortoises, that would be six thousand in less than a year.

By the time Charles Darwin arrived in 1835, the number of tortoises was greatly diminished. “Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced,” he writes. “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.”

When the Acushnet visited the Galápagos on her second voyage in June of 1847, tortoises were very scarce. A group of sailors sent ashore for two and a half days found only sixteen. “Sunday 20th [June 1847]: At Meridian came to anchor at a bay under the lee of Chattam island.[,] one bay to the westward of Stephens bay[.] two boats went [to] . . . the E[ast]ward to look for Terrapin[.] Capt wen[t] to wrack bay[,] bought Some. . . . Wednesday the boats haveing arived the night before with 16 Terapin . . . Thursday went round to Stephens bay for terrapin which we had bought.”

Charles H. Townsend searched the logbooks of whaleships and found that in the thirty-seven years between 1831 and 1868, seventy-nine vessels visited the Galápagos and carried off 13,013 tortoises. From this study and further research has come the estimate of a hundred- to three hundred thousand taken. Had travel to the Galápagos been less arduous, the supply of tortoises would hardly have lasted. Remarkably, eleven of the fifteen subspecies of Galápagos tortoise still survive, despite the onslaught of the whalers.

Herman Melville, woodcut print
by Dan Miller, 2012

Melville does not write of tortoise-hunting in The Encantadas, but only of the tortoises themselves. That leads Von Hagen to suggest that “Melville seems not to have carried the tortoises himself over the yawning crevices of the islands, for he spends no time on this phase of the hunt.” Perhaps. Or perhaps Melville was transfixed by the image of the tortoises themselves rather than by the work involved in hunting them.

Birds, fish, tortoises, and castaway humans all play a role in The Encantadas, but Melville concentrates little on the other animals. He mentions lizards, snakes, and spiders, but he does not dwell on them. Indeed, “that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana” receives only one mention. Darwin, in contrast, was intrigued by this creature, especially the marine iguana. He finds them “hideous-looking . . . of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish” and observes that they feed on underwater seaweed. The terrestrial species also interested Darwin; he notes that “they consume much of the succulent cactus.” Porter, too, had noticed the land and sea iguanas and often comments on them; he writes, in one example, “The only quadrupeds found on the island [Charles] were tortoises, lizards, and a few sea guanas; the land guana was not to be found.” Yet despite such references in his sources, Melville shows little interest in the iguana.

In The Encantadas, Melville takes his experiences in the Galápagos and his extensive reading and transforms them into haunting tales set in “[a] group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration [prison fire].” Richard Tobias Greene, Melville’s shipmate aboard the Acushnet, noted both the tales’ charm and their basis in fact. He wrote Melville on June 16, 1856, “I have just been reading the ‘Piazza Tales,’ which my brother-in-law . . . presented me. The ‘Encantadas’ called up reminiscences of days gone bye—the Acushnet—the ‘turpin’ &c. The tales are charming. I read them with delight.” Countless readers since have read them, too, with delight.

From the Fall 2014 issue of Historic Nantucket

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, author of Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works (2009), is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. For a more extensive annotated version of this article, see Research Paper 144 in the NHA Research Library.


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