Herman Melville and the Galapagos Islands

Herman Melville
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
The American author best known for Moby Dick was honoured by the United States Postal Service with this commemorative stamp issued on August 1, 1984.

Herman Melville was forced to begin working at the age of twelve after his father, a failed merchant, died. Self-educated, he worked as a farm labourer before going to sea in 1839. In Liverpool, he signed on to the whaler Acushnet which brought him to the Galapagos Islands in 1841. Jumping ship to join the U.S. Navy, Melville served for three years before beginning a career as an author.

His first novel, Typee, published in England in 1846, was based on his experiences living in the Marquesas Islands. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, based on his experiences aboard the Acushnet, was published in 1851. Three years later, Melville, writing under the pseudonym Salvator R. Tarnmoor, published The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles in Putnam's magazine.

The ten "sketches" in the series provide vivid descriptions of the desolate volcanic landscape of the islands, the population of lizards and tortoises and the bucaneers and castaways who have inhabited the islands. Melville emphasizes the solitude of the islands in passages such as this:

Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all-forsaken overthrow that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon, but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana . No voice, no low, no howl is heard--the chief sound of life here is a hiss. (Melville 6)

The descriptions blend apocalyptic imagery with sailors' yarns to provide a strong sense of the bleak isolation of the islands.


Melville, Herman. The Enchanted Iles. Foreward by Margaret Drabble. London: Hesperus Press, 2002.

"United States." Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. 1997.




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© Grose Educational Media, 2007