TUPAIA, CAPTAIN COOK'S POLYNESIAN NAVIGATOR


FROM POLYNESIA COMES THE STORY OF THE UNACKNOWLEDGED TAHITAIN WHO WAS ESSENTIAL TO THE SUCCESS, AND SUBSEQUENT FAME, OF THE VOYAGE OF CAPTAIN JAMES COOK ON THE ENDEAVOUR.


The name of this remarkable man was Tupaia.


Being a gifted linguist, a brilliant orator, and a most devious politician, Tupaia could aptly be called the Machiavelli of Tahiti. Born in Ra'iatea, the most sacred island in the Pacific, and the cradle of Polynesian civilization, about 1760 he had been forced to flee to Tahiti after a disastrous war with neighboring Borabora. Within a handful of years he had risen from the humble status of a refugee to become one of the most powerful men in the land. The political advisor of Amo, one of the highest chiefs, he was also the lover and advisor of Amo's wife, Purea, a high chief in her own right. Tupaia completed the conversion of the whole island to the worship of Oro, the god of war, and designed and supervised the construction of Mahaiatea, which was one of the most massive marae (temple-compounds) in Polynesia. Then, when European ships arrived, he became Tahiti's most important diplomat.

An extremely intelligent man, Tupaia was intrigued with European science, technology, and military might. On 18 April 1769, after the Endeavour dropped anchor in Matavai Bay, Tupaia agreed to join the ship's list of supernumeraries, and was signed onto the muster roll by Captain Cook. Over the intervening weeks he struggled with the decision of whether to join the scientific contingent for the ongoing voyage. The answer was yes. In July, when the ship sailed, he sailed with them.


Captain Cook was extraordinarily lucky. Not only was Tupaia highly skilled in astronomy, navigation, and meteorology, but he was an expert in the geography of the Pacific, able to name directional stars and predict landfalls and weather. At any stage in the convoluted course of the voyage, including in the East Indies, he was able without hesitation to point unerringly to the position of distant Tahiti. He even drew a chart of the Pacific, which encompassed every major group in Polynesia and extended more than 2,500 miles from the Marquesas to Rotuma and Fiji. In normal times such privileged knowledge of currents, weather patterns, geography, and astronomy would never have been revealed to anyone outside Tupaia's select group. But, as an exile . . . and a man who had boarded the British ship to evade capture and sacrifice by his enemies . . . the navigator-priest was willing to share this secret lore.
Tupaia was also the ship's translator, able to communicate with all the Polynesian people they met, including New Zealand Maori. As a noble member of the arioi sect, which was going through its greatest flowering at the time, and was famous for its gifted orators, artists, actors, dancers, and lovers, Tupaia commanded awe and respect wherever he went.

Unhappily, Tupaia died before the ship arrived home, and since then has been almost forgotten, his name familiar only to a handful of Pacific historians, geographers, and anthropologists. Worse still, his belongings were ransacked, and the precious taonga - treasures - that had been entrusted to him by Polynesian nobility were appropriated as presents for royalty and museums, their origin forgotten.

The story of this remarkable man, who was aptly called "an extraordinary genius", was published in the United States by Praeger Books (a division of ABC-Clio), while a splendidly illustrated edition was produced by Random House, in New Zealand.

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The first contacts between European navigators and Pacific islanders were often marked by suspicion and animosity. The islanders were usually under threat from raiders from neighbouring islands or rival tribes. the Europeans, facing threats and hostility, were equally on the defensive. Clashes were common, and a mixture of tact and firmness was required in situations where the difference in languaes made communication almost impossible.

Anyone who gave the impression of being a person of high status and having a gift for interpereting gestures and language was a real blessing to the voyagers.

Samuel Wallis, whose Dolphin was the first English ship to reach Tahiti, was fortunate to come upon Tupaia ... And James Cook, who followed in the Endeavour, was able to establish an observatory for his scientists and carry out a detailed survey of the island in safety.

When Cook left, he took Tupaia with him ...

Tupaia deserved a full biography, and thanks to Joan Druett's meticulous research, he now has one, comprehensive, highly readable, and attractively produced. Plentiful illustrations are perfectly presented, and reveal Tupaia's astonishing ability as a sketch artist, using drawing material that had been totally unknown to him ...

Druett's biography restores Tupaia's place in Pacific history and defines his role on the Endeavour. Avoiding the use of footnotes, common in academic works but which interfere in the narrative flow, she provides a detailed analysis of her sources in a series of detailed chapter "commentaries" and adds a reliable bibliography as well as a detailed index. She also avoids what would have been the tiresome use of "the men of the Dolphin and "the crew of the Endeavour by resorting to the rather endearing terms "the Dolphins" and "the Endeavours."

This reflects the originality and talent of one of New Zealand's most gifted authors.

John Dunmore, The Listener


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Author of maritime histories and the Wiki Coffin nautical mysteries, Druett resurrects a figure encountered on Tahiti by eighteenth-century British explorers Samuel Wallis, James Cook, and botanist Joseph Banks. Named Tupaia, he was recorded in the visitors' journals and in several self-portraits reproduced in this book, sources that Druett reinforces with Polynesian oral tradition to portray what manner of man he was. About 40 years old, he had fled to Tahiti after a war between his native island of Raiatea and attackers from Bora Bora. When Wallis dropped anchor in 1767, he gradually grasped Tupaia's significant status in incidents of parlay between the British and Tahitians, in which Tupaia emerged as intermediary, translator, and explicator of Polynesian society. At Cook's arrival in 1769, Tupaia's talents were remembered. Druett recounts the advantage the British took of them, even taking Tupaia on board for the continuation of Cook's voyage to New Zealand, Australia, and Java, where Tupaia died after falling ill. The only biography of Tupaia, Druett's astute portrait vitally contributes to annals of exploration and cultural contact."

-- Gilbert Taylor, BOOKLIST.


Many accounts of James Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific (1768-71) make scant mention of the Tahitian high priest Tupaia who became an invaluable navigator and translator on Cook's ship Endeavour for the latter part of the voyage. Maritime historian Druett's (Island of the Lost) refreshing, detailed, and insightful biographical history redresses that lack.

Much of what is known about Tupaia comes from the journals of the officers, scientists, and seamen with whom he shared the voyage, and Druett has drawn heavily upon thse sources, showing Tupaia to have had extensive knowledge of South Pacific island locations beyond Tahiti and outstanding skill in celestial navigation. He also helped the Endeavour's crew in translating the language and interpreting local culture on other Polynesian islands where Cook conducted extensive explorations.

Tupaia's legacy is apparent in his fascinating drawings made during the ship's voyage, reproduced here, which provide a glimpse into his perceptions of the world around him.

VERDICT Druett's narrative beautifully captures the essence of Tupaia's world and brings it alive for readers. her excellent study of an extraordinary and nearly forgotten Tahitian should be enjoyed by readers interested in British maritime history and Polynesian history and culture.

--Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH. LIBRARY JOURNAL Copyright 2010.

Joan in Beaglehole Library with a reproduction of Tupaia's chart

I am very grateful to Creative New Zealand and the Stout Trust for their generous support of this project.




Video designed and created by Rick Spilman