The narrator uses the preface to say that more than three years has past since he experienced the events that he writes about. He shall tell his story in the manner of sailors who spin yarns to amuse one another while working long shifts. Despite his limited knowledge of Polynesian culture and language, he has taken pains to preserve the "unvarnished truth" of his tale to the best of his ability.
The whaling ship on which the narrator works, the Dolly, has been out to sea for six months without seeing land. Almost all of the fresh food has disappeared, with the exception of one chicken. With a crew longing for land, the captain, Captain Vangs, decides that they will head towards the Marquesas Islands and determines that they should be there in about a week. Unlike many of the other islands in the South Pacific, Europeans have rarely visited the Marquesas. Even the overzealous missionaries have generally stayed away. The reason for their avoidance lies with the reputation of barbaric cannibalism that the natives of those islands enjoy. Despite the possibility of danger, the narrator looks forward to reaching the "Cannibal Islands," and to seeing bamboo temples, coconut trees, and tattooed chiefs.
Knowing that they will soon hit land, the crew of the Dolly rests languidly watching the sights of the sea and doing little work. After a few days, they happily hear, "land ho!" They sail into the bay of the largest island, Nukuheva. A small fleet of French ships sits in the bay and the crew learns that the French have just claimed the islands for France. The crew immediately has other distractions though, because native men on canoes start approaching the ship bearing tropical fruits and goods. Simultaneously, a stream of half-dressed women are swimming towards them, soon overwhelming the all male crew. Later that night, a scene of wild debauchery takes place between these girls and the crew. The narrator criticizes the foul way that the crew deals with the young native girls. He suggests that natives are much better off on undiscovered islands to which Europeans and Americans shall never come.
It is the summer of 1842 and the French have arrived on the island only a few weeks before the Dolly. About a hundred French soldiers now live around the bay. The natives come from their huts to watch the foreigners. They appear intrigued by European customs and especially are impressed by the arrival of a European horse. One of the chiefs of Nukuheva, Mowanna, is appointed by the French to serve as a puppet chieftain. Although the French act as if they are polite and diplomatic, this behavior merely cloaks the true brutality with which they generally treat natives.
After a few days in Nukuheva, the narrator decides that he wants to abandon his ship. He has been aboard for about a year and a half and has signed a several year contract, but he is tired of the terrible living conditions. The captain treats the sailors poorly—overworking them, not feeding them enough, and punishing them if they complain. The captain is so cruel that the narrator decides to press his luck by living amongst natives until another European ship comes along to pick him up.
After deciding to flee, the narrator decides that he will have to immediately climb the high mountain above the bay of Nukuheva and stay in hiding until the Dolly leaves. The natives do not go near the top of the mountain, but rather dwell in the two valleys behind it. These valleys hold the friendly Happar tribe and the legendarily ferocious and cannibalistic Typee tribe. The narrator resolves to stay clear of the Typees, given the terrible stories he has heard of them brutally killing Europeans for no reason.