Navigating the Polynesian World of Tattoos and Cannibals

Explore the thrilling and thought-provoking tale of "Typee" by Herman Melville as two sailors navigate the complexities of Polynesian life and culture, marked by tattoos and fear of cannibalism. Find out what body art means to Polynesians and how it affects the main characters.

Navigating the Polynesian World of Tattoos and Cannibals
Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, in Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, The Limited Editions Club, New York, 1935. © María Elena Rico Covarrubias

Herman Melville is famous for living among cannibals. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life" which tells the story of two sailors named Tom and Toby who were on a whaling ship. After six months at sea, they arrived at Nuku Hiva Island in the Marquesas Archipelago to refuel. They deserted the ship because they couldn't handle life on board and entered the taipivai, a tribe known for cannibalism. Unfortunately, they were kidnapped by the taipis.

Typee: An Adventure in Polynesian Life and Culture

"Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life" is an adventure novel that also has elements of ethnography. It describes the exotic plants, friendly natives, and their customs such as making textiles, gender roles, celebrations, and tribal wars. The sailors are saved from being eaten because they are not seen as enemies and because they taste salty. This experience causes the narrator to question his humanity and the idea of eating human flesh. For Melville, the natives of the Marquesas are characterized as "civilized sui generis", not "savages".

The drama of the novel centers on the lives of the beachcombers, deserters who at this time often inhabited the beaches of the Pacific islands and frequently worked as translators and intermediaries between the expeditionaries and the native peoples. The beachcombers fled the tyranny of the captains but lived in fear of being tattooed or eaten by the natives. They had to get tattoos if they wanted to be a full part of Polynesian society.

For Melville, it is surprising that tattoos, and not cannibalism, are the main threat to the narrator's existence. After witnessing the retouching of an old chief's tattoos, Tommo, as the narrator was called, became the object of desire for the local tuhuna, or master tattooist, who stalks him insistently to "disfigure" his face with ink. In one of the passages, Tommo talks about one of his biggest fears: that even if he could go back to civilization, he would never have "the face" to show his people again.

Melville described the tattoos of his male characters with excitement. He stated, for example, that the Marquesan bodies covered with "representations of birds and fish, as well as a variety of the most delectable creatures", came to suggest to him "the idea of a pictorial museum of natural history or a copy of Goldsmith's Animated Nature." By this, he means an illustrated natural history book that was widely consulted at the time.

Melville faced criticism from censors and Christian newspapers for his support of Polynesian spiritual freedom. However, many famous writers like Whitman, Irving, Longfellow, and Hawthorne praised his work. Henry David Thoreau was especially excited about it and wrote about the relationship between "savage" and civilized worlds. He even spoke in favor of Pacific tattoos as a form of clothing.

Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, in Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.
Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, in Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, The Limited Editions Club, New York, 1935. © María Elena Rico Covarrubias

The Significance of Polynesian Body Art

Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias included this important part of Melville's novel in his 1935 illustrated edition for The Limited Editions Club of New York. In the Pacific, the most famous form of art at the time was wooden tiki statues. Collectors and ethnology museums were already collecting these works of art.

The unique power of this art caught the attention of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, and artists including Gauguin, Pechstein, Nolde, Ernst, and Matisse. While the Cubists preferred African art, the Expressionists and Surrealists were more drawn to the art of the South Seas. Despite tattoos being widespread, especially in Polynesian islands, these artists did not get tattoos themselves.

Miguel Covarrubias stood out among the modernists. He was the only one who truly appreciated the visual elements of body art. He had a deeper understanding of the significance of inscribing designs on the skin and its central role in cultures based on ritual gestures and images.

Covarrubias did a lot of research for his illustrations, especially by studying the work of German anthropologist Karl von den Steinen. Von den Steinen lived in Las Marquesas for 6 months in 1897 and wrote the first comprehensive study of Marquesan art called "The Marquesans and Their Art". Covarrubias used many pictures from the first volume of this work, which was about tattooing, and had a detailed list of motifs and information on how the art was made.

Traditional Polynesian tattoos are created through a painful process using instruments made of teeth and bones attached to a wooden or bamboo handle. The Polynesians hit the skin to inject ink made from mineral and vegetable pigments. This method of tattooing is where the word "tattoo" comes from the Tahitian word "tatau", meaning "to hit" or "mark."

Von den Steinen emphasizes that the most important aspect of this cultural practice is its sacrifice of blood, which creates the magical force known as "mana". Tattooing protects bodies from disease and enhances the sexual attraction to promote procreation and fertility. Von den Steinen saw skin tattooing as a way for people to express their universal desire for beauty.

Alfred Gell, an English anthropologist, observed that tattoos among Pacific peoples are part of an individual's development and ritual processes during the transition from childhood to adulthood. He believed that Marquesan tattoos, made up of various designs, serve to beautify and ennoble a person through their connection to powerful native spirits. Tattoos also reveal a person's place in their social network.

Miguel Covarrubias, s. t. (three characters), image discarded for publication, ca. 1935.
Miguel Covarrubias, s. t. (three characters), image discarded for publication, ca. 1935. Casa Luis Barragan Collection. © María Elena Rico Covarrubias

Primitive Art and Tattoo Aesthetics in Covarrubias' Illustrations

Covarrubias, like many artists and intellectuals in the early 1900s, valued primitive art for its spiritual expression of true human nature. In his illustrations for Melville's novel, he sought to challenge stereotypical exotic depictions. He believed in the aesthetic value of tattoo art.

Covarrubias created an illustration showing three Marquesans with full tattoos drinking kava, but it was not used in the final edition of the novel. Despite the bodies being in a flexed position, the intricate details in the illustration show his expertise and understanding of the tattoo motifs. Marheyo, Kory-Kory's father, is the older man with a white beard and elongated lobes. Even though Tommo and Toby were hostages during their stay, Taipi chief Mehevi assigned them to him as servants.

The man on the left in the picture has a tooth from a whale in his ear. He's holding a bowl made from a coconut shell. The man with his back turned, a shaved head, and hair in two parts is Kory-Kory, the servant. Kory-Kory's tattoos came from an engraving by a Russian expedition led by Captain Adam Krusenstern in 1804. The two Beachcombers interpreters, Robert Robarts and Jean-Baptiste Cabris, who had left their English whaler and become "true savages," helped with the expedition.

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau, A Young Nukahivan Not Completely Tattooed, 1813.
Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau, A Young Nukahivan Not Completely Tattooed, 1813. Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History, New York

Cabris: A Tragic Tale of Tattoos and Explorers

Cabris adapted to the community by getting a tattoo, learning to swim like the natives, and marrying the daughter of a minor island chief. In 1804, he was the main source of information for the naturalist Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff on an expedition. Langsdorff and Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau produced important visual sources about Las Marquesas.

The story of Cabris has a tragic ending. He was aboard the Russian vessel when Krusenstern gave the order to weigh anchor. He re-enlisted as a sailor and was released in Kamchatka. From there, he was able to travel to European Russia and experience what Melville's character Tommo had feared. Because he was fully tattooed, he was forced to join sideshows and was only famous for his strange tattoos.

He lived this stage by staging "cannibal dances" and telling fantastic stories about the South Seas. He was also the star of the Cabinet of Illusions in Paris for a time. When he died in Valenciennes in 1822, a French museum, claiming scientific interest, attempted to buy his body to preserve his skin in alcohol. It is also said that he was buried in a secret location to protect his remains from desecration and collection.

Pacific historian Nicholas Thomas has pointed out that contemporary Western tattooing cannot be understood without these processes of exchange, appropriation, and translation originating in contact during the era of Pacific exploration and colonization. Long before anthropologists and artists, people who were looking for money—sailors, castaways, mutineers, deserters, escaped convicts, and renegade missionaries—were the ones who started to get tattoos. Today, tattoos are becoming more accepted and valued.

Full Citation: Luna, Anahí. “Los Tatuajes Polinesios | Anahí Luna.” Los Tatuajes Polinesios | Anahí Luna, June 2019,