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In the sixth "sketch" of "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles," the narrator describes Barrington Isle, once a popular resort for the West Indian Buccaneers. Barrington is one of the few inhabitable islands, boasting some vegetation and animals as well as water. The narrator recites a passage told to him by another voyager, who recalls seeing ruins at Barrington Isle. Left by the buccaneers, the ruins include stone tables, chairs and sofas, revealing the details of the buccaneers' more domestic life.
The seventh sketch tells the story of Charles's Isle. Charles's Isle is similar to Barrington Isle, being quite inhabitable, but it is much larger. After Peru's successful revolt against their Spanish rulers, Peru paid its soldiers primarily through land, the narrator tells us. One such soldier took Charles's Isle as his fee. He recruited some pilgrims and chartered a ship to colonize the island, taking with him twenty loyal attack dogs. The colony is a success at first, but soon the rather shady characters that had volunteered to help the new "King" of Charles's Island colonize his lands begin to commit crimes. He is forced to shoot a few of them, and he establishes a bodyguard from some of the best men of the colony. But even the bodyguards and then the entire colony revolt against the "king," and his dogs fight a long battle with the colonists. Finally, he is forced to surrender, and the soldier is exiled from the island. From then on, the colonists continually entrap unsuspecting sailors who stop off with their ships at the island to get supplies. This eventually causes Charles's Isle to be shunned by all but the least experienced captains.
The eighth sketch tells the story of Hunilla, the "Chola widow." The narrator's ship spots a lone woman on an island, and they pick her up. It turns out that she had been marooned on the island several months before. She and her newlywed husband, had been on a French whaler for a cruise, when they had come near the Galápagos Islands. The woman's husband and his friend wanted to stay at one of the islands and collect tortoise oil, which was considered quite valuable. The French captain agreed to set them down with some supplies and pick them up on his return trip four months later. The husband and his friend had significant luck in collecting the tortoise oil, so they decided to make a catamaran (similar to a canoe) and go fishing to celebrate. The boat sank and both men drowned.
The woman, now a widow, waited for months, but the French ship never returned. The narrator and his fellow crewmembers go back to the island to pick up the tortoise oil and some of her other items, including two of the dogs the woman had brought with her. The rest of the dogs are left on the island. The narrator's ship drops Hunilla off on the mainland, where they give her the money for the tortoise oil and a little of their own cash besides.
The ninth sketch tells the story of Hood's Isle and Oberlus, a hermit. Oberlus is a former sailor who deserted to Hood's Isle. He was a "warped and crooked" old man, who lived on the island growing small potatoes and other crops that he sold to passing sailors. Eventually, Oberlus grows desirous of having power over another, and he attempts to kidnap a Black slave that comes to the beach along with some sailors. His attempt fails, but later he manages to kidnap four sailors, whom he presses into service, using his musket to enforce his will. He later arms them and leads them as a band of pirates.
When two ships come in, they send four small boats to get supplies from Oberlus. Oberlus tricks them, taking one boat and destroying the rest. The sailors manage to return to their ships and escape, but Oberlus now has a boat. He escapes to the mainland, to Paita, where he attempts to secure a wife and makes plans to return to Hood's Isle. But his suspicious character gives him away, and he is caught with matches in his pocket and thrown in jail.
In the tenth and final sketch, the narrator describes many of the runaways, castaways, and other human-related features of the islands, such as grave markers and messages-in-a-bottle.
As the sketches progress, they begin to contain more "stories," which brings “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” closer to Melville's fictional form. There are two types of stories: legends (such as the dog-king and Oberlus) and direct accounts (such as the Chola widow). Each story contains some moralistic overtones or strong symbolism.
The tale of the dog-king, who took Charles's Isle as his own and was forced into exile, reads almost like a miniature account of a British or French king. The dog-king suffers from the same difficulties managing his subjects as any king does, and is ultimately revolted against in a tiny reenactment of the American revolution, or perhaps simply the Peruvian revolt against their Spanish masters. It is ironic that the Creole adventurer is first given Charles's Isle for helping Peru achieve its independence from the Spanish monarchy, but then is revolted against by the "subjects" he installs on Charles's Isle. The narrator seems to feel some sympathy for the dog-king and his failed ambitions.
The narrator has less sympathy for Oberlus, who, like the Creole adventurer, attempts to become a king of his own island, Hood's Isle. Oberlus's story reads more like a fall from grace into sin. His desire to have control of someone else—Oberlus doesn't just want to be a king, he wants control over another human being—is the point at which Oberlus descends into true evil: "that selfish ambition, or the love of rule for its own sake, far from being the peculiar infirmity of noble minds, is shared by beings which have no mind at all." Despite his stupidity, the narrator says, Oberlus wants to rule someone.
It is significant that Oberlus first tries to kidnap a Black slave. It should be remembered that Melville was writing in the 1850s, just before the Civil War, and just a short time before he publishes the much more slavery-related "Benito Cereno" in which a group of slaves revolt against their captors aboard a ship. In Oberlus's case, the first person he tries to gain dominance over is a Black slave. There is more irony here: the narrator has already suggested that ruling over another is a "selfish ambition," and presumably a negative thing. But the first person Oberlus tries to control is a slave, who (in the minds of those who own or endorse slaves or slavery) is intended to be ruled by other men. There may be a clever critique of slavery in the story, but with Melville it is always difficult to say anything for certain.
Finally, there is the story of the poor Chola widow, Hunilla. This account, unlike that of the dog-king or Oberlus, does not have any layers of legend. It is most likely drawn from Melville's own experience, or from a first-hand account from someone (it could also be entirely made up, or loosely based on similar incidents). The most tragic scene in this story is Hunilla's cold acceptance of the fact that she must leave almost all of her cute dogs behind her. Few people, it seems, who come in contact with the Encantadas leave with entirely happy memories.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!