We meet our narrator Tommo, an American sailor who has been at sea for six months. He describes his vessel and his bleak longing for solid land.
On the ship there is one poor rooster left in the hen house, the hens having been killed for food earlier in the voyage. Tommo declares that, as long as the rooster is alive, Captain Vangs may hope for the taste of fresh meat, and will be less likely to take the ship into shore.
The ship's paint is peeling and its residents are bedraggled, bored of life and bored of eating hard biscuits.
Captain Vangs announces to the crew that they will be heading toward the Marquesa Islands, home to peoples who, despite their exposure to Europeans since 1595, remain "strange and barbarous as ever" (1.10), and are said to be cannibals.
Although Protestant missionaries have tried to convert the Marquesan natives, they have had little luck.
To illustrate this point, Tommo tells the story of a missionary's beautiful wife who was at first revered by the natives. Once they found out she was a woman, however, they felt cheated and made this clear. Fearful of how she would be treated, she made her husband leave the islands at once.
On the other hand, Tommo says, the women of the island were brash, pointing to the time the queen of Nukuheva, a Marquesan island, approached a tattooed French sailor in admiration, and wanted to show him her own ink, lifting up her skirts without any semblance of European modesty.