Herman Melville’s Typee and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing-World: A Comparison

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Emma Britton

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Toph Marshall Seminar)


There are many similarities between Herman Melville’s 1846 novel Typee and Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 novel The Blazing-World. Both texts focus on an outsider who is given an intimate view of a society fundamentally different from their own. In Typee, a sailor named Tommo spends four months with the Typee, an Indigenous tribe on the South Pacific island of Nukuheva. Melville, through the character of Tommo, expresses his views on the European occupation and “civilization” of the Marquesas islands. In The Blazing-World, an unnamed woman becomes the Emperess of the Blazing-World, a peaceful society filled with different kinds of talking animal-men. The Emperess is a reflection of Cavendish’s views toward British colonialism and imperial power. Tommo questions the accepted European view of the Typee people, eventually coming to respect them, but the Emperess does the opposite. She forces her beliefs and lifestyle on the inhabitants of the Blazing-World, eventually using them in a military effort to prove the naval superiority of her home country, a thinly-veiled allusion to England. Melville and Cavendish both tell stories of colonialism, with Cavendish advocating for European superiority and power, and Melville warning about the dangers of the very same thing.

At the beginning of Typee, Tommo’s view of the Indigenous islanders is influenced by rumours he has heard during his time at sea, and he believes them to be dangerous cannibals. The consensus among the European expansionists that occupy the island is that the Happar tribe is morally good and the Typee tribe is morally evil, but this belief appears to be based on rumour, not evidence. Upon his arrival to Nukuheva, Tommo contrasts the “the lovely valley of Happar” with “the valley of the dreaded Typees”, even though he has not personally met people from either tribe or visited either valley (Melville, pg. 24). Tommo feels hatred for the Typees, even saying “they who we denominate ‘savages’ are made to deserve the title” (Melville, pg. 26). Melville employs Tommo’s fear and hatred to demonstrate the extreme prejudice and cruelty of the white European and American expansionists toward Indigenous people. In the nineteenth century, this hateful prejudice was disturbingly common and universally accepted as the truth, something Melville is clearly aware of. He uses this prejudice, in Tommo and likely in the nineteenth-century reader, as a foundation to build on throughout the rest of the novel. European biases toward the islanders are consistently disproven as the story progresses, and Tommo is thus given a chance to grow and learn from his initial prejudice.

The Typee people show generosity and kindness to Tommo, which causes him to question his prejudices toward them. They provide Tommo and his companion Toby with food, water, and shelter, not asking or expecting anything in return (Melville, pg. 72-74). Tommo is hesitant at first, but soon grows comfortable in the valley, while Toby remains skeptical. After a few days on the island, the two men are fed meat, which Toby exclaims must be “baked baby”, refusing to eat it (Melville, pg. 94). Tommo is much more trusting of the Typees at this point and ventures to try the meat, discovering that it is roasted pig (Melville, pg. 95). Melville here illustrates this fundamental difference between Toby and Tommo. In contrast to Toby, who here represents stubborn colonial prejudice, Tommo doubts his preconceptions and displays a capacity for growth, learning, and compassion. Tommo’s willingness to learn means that Melville can use him as a blank slate, a canvas on which Melville can paint his own political ideas.

Melville’s criticism of colonialism and European expansion becomes clear as Tommo spends more time in the Typee valley. Tommo initially refers to the islanders as “cruel savages”, but after some time with them decides that “the Polynesian savage… enjoy[s] an infinitely happier existence” than the typical European man (Melville, pg. 51, 124). This causes Tommo to contemplate the dangers of “civilization” (meaning European civilization) and its impacts on the “now diseased, starving, and dying natives” (Melville, pg. 124). He even comes to question the use of the term “savage”, saying it is “often misapplied” and that Europeans display an equal or greater amount of “savagery” in their own behavior (Melville, pg. 125). This commentary is instrumental in understanding Melville’s progressive view on the dangers of colonialism. Tommo’s experience with the Typees exposes him to a peaceful way of life he is unaccustomed to, and he feels enlightened in the realization that the Indigenous way of life is not inferior to his own, but in fact equal, if not superior in many ways. Melville’s commentary on the treatment of the Indigenous people by colonial settlers evokes empathy and compassion in the reader, and he urges us to overcome our biases alongside Tommo. Melville’s progressive analysis, though a widely-established and accepted view in 2021, was likely largely influential on nineteenth century readers. The idea that white people could learn from Indigenous ways of life was extremely uncommon at the time, and the cultural and religious assimilation of Indigenous people into Christian European society was a major goal of colonialism. Melville forces the reader to question these norms by humanizing the Indigenous islanders and in turn demonizing the colonial settlers, turning typical stereotypes on their heads.

Margaret Cavendish voices an opposite opinion, advocating for colonialism in The Blazing-World. At the beginning of the novel, The Emperess fears the many different species of animal-men, but her fear quickly dissipates. When she first meets the bear-men, she is “extremely strucken with fear” and believes that “her life will be a sacrifice to their cruelty” (Cavendish, pg. 9). This description is nearly identical to Tommo’s reaction upon meeting the Typees. Unlike Tommo, however, the Emperess does not come to question her prejudice. Her fear dissipates for a completely different reason: she is given power. Astounded by her beauty and believing her to be a superior being, the Emperor of the Blazing-World gives her “absolute power to rule and govern all the world” (Cavendish, pg. 15). Upon an initial reading, this appears to be a declaration of love and a display of generosity and kindness on behalf of the Emperor. A deeper reading, however, reveals the disturbingly racist connotations of this scene.

The Emperor’s treatment of the Emperess is a clear metaphor for the way the Indigenous peoples of North America welcomed the European expansionists in the early seventeenth century. The Emperess refers to her subjects as bear- men, ape-men, fish-men, and other such animal-man hybrids. She also refers to them as “monsters” (Cavendish pg. 44). This terminology is reminiscent of that which colonial expansionists would use to refer to Indigenous people, and likely stems from Indigenous spiritual ideas about animals and nature. The animal-men’s happiness to have her in charge is a hollow depiction of historical Indigenous kindness and the ways that Europeans took advantage of it. European colonizers committed genocide against the Indigenous peoples in North America in order to seize absolute power over the land, yet according to the original British history, the land and resources were happily gifted (Canadian Encyclopedia). It is now understood that this was a blatant attempt to rewrite history. This context reveals the weight of the Emperess’s so-called “gift” of absolute power over the Blazing-World (Cavendish pg. 15). When we read The Blazing World as a metaphor for colonialism, we must question if the Emperess is truly given her power as freely and openly as it appears. The connotations of this metaphor implicate Cavendish’s overt prejudice toward Indigenous peoples.

The changes made to the Blazing-World by the Emperess echo some of the changes Europeans were making to Indigenous societies in America: cultural and religious assimilation and the annihilation of personal rights. The Emperess “convert[s] the Blazing-World to her own religion”, building churches and “preaching sermons” to the animal-men (Cavendish, pg. 50-51). She determines the jobs of all the inhabitants of the Blazing-World, and threatens punishment when tasks are not performed exactly to her liking. For example, she criticizes the bear-men heavily for their love of telescopes, even though the use of telescopes is a large part of their job as experimental philosophers (Cavendish, pg. 27-28). The Emperess also militarizes the fish-men, using them to serve her imperial agenda (Cavendish pg. 102). The novel ends on a dangerous advocation for British superiority, as the Emperess’ description of the “naval force and power” of her home country is a clear allusion to Cavendish’s home of Britain (Cavendish, pg. 103). The animal-men, who have been manipulated to serve the Emperess’ imperial interests, are used to gain power. Cavendish does not consider the ethics of these actions, nor does she prompt her reader to consider them, instead praising the Emperess and depicting her as the undeniable hero of the story. After winning the initial naval battle, the Emperess decides she will not “return into the Blazing-World until she ha[s] forced all the rest of the world to submit to that same nation” (Cavendish, pg. 104). The Emperess exploits and manipulates the Indigenous citizens of the Blazing-World for power and superiority in an abhorrent display of British colonialism, an action Cavendish presents as indisputably moral and brave.

Just as the animal-men welcome the Emperess in The Blazing-World, the Typees show nothing but kindness and generosity toward Tommo in Typee. Tommo embraces Typee culture in many ways, learning more of the language and dressing up in traditional clothing for the “Feast of the Calabashes,” a Typee festival (Melville, pg. 161-162). Tommo has developed respect for the Typee culture at this point, but his admiration has its limits. He repeatedly criticizes the tattoos that cover the Typee people, especially the ones that decorate their faces. At the beginning of the novel, Tommo’s ship’s captain describes the Indigenous tattoos as “damaging [a face] for life,” which demonstrates the general European attitude toward the practice (Melville, pg. 34). After spending several months with the Typees, they request that Tommo undergo this process of tattooing, as it is important to their culture (Melville, pg. 218). Tommo is “horrified… at the thought of being rendered hideous for life,” and it becomes clear to the reader that even after all the Typees have done for him, Tommo is still repulsed at the idea of a permanent connection to their culture (Melville, pg. 219). Melville intends this response to disappoint the reader, because it had appeared that Tommo had overcome this prejudice, when in reality, all it takes is slight discomfort to reignite his feelings of disgust toward the Indigenous culture. This development causes a shift in the peaceful tone of the novel and leads to its bitter conclusion.


Melville uses Tommo’s rejection of Typee culture to force discomfort upon the reader as the novel ends. Though the threat of cannibalism is dormant for the greater part of the novel, Tommo eventually discovers a pouch containing three shrunken human heads, confirming the cannibalistic practices he had initially suspected of the Typees (Melville, pg. 232). He is repulsed and reverts back to his prejudicial view of the islanders, forgetting all they have done for him. Although he had previously questioned if cannibalism was truly more “savage” than the Europeans’ treatment of their enemies, his reaction to the discovery of the heads is one of disgust, horror, and hypocrisy (Melville, pg. 125, 233). We are reminded of Tommo’s initial prejudice toward the Typees as Melville throws it back in our face, distorting the islanders into dangerous and violent cannibals. Tommo plots his escape, eventually leaving the Typee valley, and the last image we have of the gentle Typees is a haunting one: they swim after Tommo, knives between their teeth, “ferocious expressions” on their faces (Melville, pg. 252).

This depiction of the Typees as evil, animalistic, and dangerous is antithetical to Melville’s discussion of Indigenous people throughout the rest of the text and reminds the reader of the terrifying reputation the islanders carry among European sailors. The discomfort and disappointment of the novel’s conclusion illustrates the evolution of our perception of the Typees because Melville presents them in a way that has continually been disproven. He thus warns the reader of the dangers of prejudice and hatred, because without Tommo’s prejudice and hatred toward the Typees, he would never have needed to fear them. It was Tommo’s prejudice that pushed the Typees to act in a violent way (and even as such, they never did commit any acts of violence against him). This misrepresentation of fundamentally peaceful and kind people is what Melville leaves us with, and one can only assume that he hoped our disappointment in Tommo could extend to colonialism as a whole.

In recent weeks, the bodies of over one thousand Indigenous children have been found in residential school sites across Canada (BBC News). These schools, funded by the Roman Catholic Church during the 19thand 20thcenturies, were intended to “assimilate indigenous youth” into European culture (BBC News). Typee, written during the creation of the first residential schools in the mid-nineteenth century, feels move relevant than ever before. The hatred and prejudice exhibited by Tommo and the other European sailors is not hyperbolic or metaphorical, it was real in 1846 and it remails real in 2021. While Melville’s novel provides a relevant historical lens through which to view the European mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, it is far from a comprehensive guide to Indigenous cultural relations. If we want to truly understand the issues Melville introduces in Typee, it is imperative that we read Indigenous texts and listen to Indigenous voices, and analyze them as diligently as we do books from 200 years ago.

Melville employs the last chapter of Typeeas a microcosm for the dangers of colonialism and the mistreatment of Indigenous people. This is in harsh contrast to Cavendish’s message in the final pages of The Blazing-World. Although the two stories have many similarities, it is clear that the authors’ understandings of prejudice and colonialism are vastly different. Cavendish advocates for a system that benefits her, the same system Melville questions and criticizes. Typeeaddresses the horrifying repercussions of colonialism and criticizes the European and American treatment of Indigenous peoples, a much-needed opinion at a time of cultural assimilation and genocide. In 1846, Melville’s lens provided a guide for the deconstruction of the pro-colonial narrative presented in many popular texts at the time, including The Blazing-World.Typeeis a relevant historical tool which can and should be used as a foundation for correcting and reforming our treatment of Indigenous peoples—in 1846, 2021, and for all the years to come.



Works Cited


BBC News.“Canada: 751 Unmarked Graves Found at Residential School.” BBC News, 24

June 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57592243.

Burgess, Miranda. “Margaret Lucas Cavendish, The Blazing World.” Canvas. 23 Nov. 2020.

Canadian Encyclopedia. “Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada.” The Canadian

Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/genocide-and-indigenous-


Cavendish, Margaret. The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. Figgy Tree

Publishers, 1666, reprinted 2016.

Marshall, Toph. “Melville Lecture.” Canvas. 22 Feb. 2021.

Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Penguin, 2001.