Melville's Missionaries and the Loss of Culture

Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


On January 3, 1841, Herman Melville boarded the whaler Acushnet and left the harbor of New Bedford. Traveling through the South Pacific, Melville spent time in the Marquesas, Tahiti, and the Sandwich Islands where he witnessed the missionary efforts among the islanders. The religious conversion and acculturation of the Polynesian natives led Melville to question the missionaries' activities. The different cultures of these islands increased Melville's already skeptical outlook on the standards his own culture insisted that he follow. Experiencing both the tranquil Typee Valley and the "civilized" island of Tahiti, Melville felt compelled to write about his island adventures in his first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Observing the influence of the Sandwich Islands' missionaries, Melville came to the conclusion that the natives of the Pacific would have been better off left to their own devices, as opposed to being converted to the Euro-American standards of civilized living. Instead of receiving the benefits of Christian living, the natives had been reduced from the Edenic state of the Typee Valley to the devastating, dehumanizing existence Melville witnessed in Tahiti and Hawaii. The contrasts Melville draws between the primitive Typee and the converted Tahitian cultures illustrate his belief that the missionaries were actually driving the natives toward a cultural death through the removal of pagan practices and the introduction of the "civilized" Christian beliefs governing Euro-American society.


English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America

This document is currently not available here.