No portraits exist of one of the most important people in Pacific history. Tupaia was a man of many talents: high priest, artist, diplomat, politician, orator and celestial navigator. After fleeing conflict on his home island of Ra’iātea for Tahiti, he befriended botanist Joseph Banks, and joined the onward voyage of James Cook’s Endeavour. Arriving in New Zealand in 1769, Tupaia discovered he could converse with Māori. He became an interpreter, cultural advisor and bringer of news from islands that Māori had left long ago.
250 years on, we are barely beginning to know who he was.
Something large and strange had risen up over the blue horizon at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa on that spring morning, and in light and shifting winds, it entered the bay. Towards evening, two small craft, steered by strange creatures, detached from the thing and drew close to the shore, causing people to flee from their fishing settlements on the Tūranganui River for the safety of the forest.
Up on Titirangi Hill, Te Maro grasped his throwing spear and, accompanied by three Ngāti Oneone warriors, strode down to offer a challenge. When the craft arrived at the river mouth, the creatures raised their weapons and two sharp cracks rang out, one after the other, scattering birds from the trees. Te Maro looked around in surprise, then raised his spear to begin the wero. As he did so, a third report cut him down.
The rangatira’s body was still there early the next morning when the strange creatures once more came ashore. This time, about 50 warriors awaited them on the other side of the river—Rongowhakaata men, from an inland village to the west. One of the creatures—although they now looked to be mere men, dressed in red—shouted something incomprehensible across the water. The warriors answered him with an energetic haka. The men in red held high a patterned cloth on a pole, and to the beat of a drum marched with great show to a
Then seven other men came forward from among the strangers, and one began to address the warriors across the river. To the astonishment of the Rongowhakaata men, his meaning was perfectly clear. Despite his unfamiliar garb, and the otherworldly manner of his arrival at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, the warriors understood every word. How could this be? They broke ranks and drew closer to the bank of the river.
“Ko wai koe? Nō hea koe?” they asked. Who are you? Where do you come from?
This, more or less, is how events unfolded on October 8 and 9, 1769—a story pieced together from scattered, often contradictory accounts—when, arriving in Poverty Bay, the men of HM Bark Endeavour became the first Europeans to set foot in
The first to witness a haka. The first to kill. And the first to converse with Māori and be understood.
That such communication was possible at all was down to one man, Tupaia, a Polynesian in his mid-40s who had joined James Cook’s expedition at Tahiti three months earlier. It was Tupaia, in breeches, coat, and leather boots, who had come forward to offer a formal greeting, to draw the sting out of Te Maro’s death, and to make gestures of goodwill.
The Endeavour’s men were surprised by what they witnessed, and they were not alone in their incredulity. Reading of the encounter in writer John Hawkesworth’s official account of Cook’s voyages four years later in London, the firebrand Methodist preacher John Wesley was provoked by the tale’s impossibility.
“A native of Otaheite [Tahiti] is said to understand the language of an island 1100 miles distant from it in latitude; besides I know not how many hundreds in longitude : so that I cannot but rank this narrative with that of Robinson Crusoe : and account Tupia [sic] to be, in several respects, a-kin to his man Friday,” he scratched in his journal.
But the flesh-and-blood Tupaia could not have been further from a fictional character. He was a high priest of Oro, the Tahitian god of war, whose marae at Taputapuatea on Ra’iātea —his home island—was the most prestigious in Polynesia. As such, he was a custodian of esoteric knowledge, well versed in sacred rituals, but also in medicine, astronomy, and ocean navigation. During those months at sea, Tupaia had revealed himself to possess an inquiring mind and experimental inclinations.
The Endeavour was not the first European ship that he had encountered. That honour fell to HMS Dolphin, under Captain Samuel Wallis, which had made landfall in Tahiti two years earlier, in June 1767.
The ‘discovery’ of Tahiti by Europeans profoundly affected the trajectory of Tupaia’s life—and Cook’s voyage—in several ways. The Dolphin returned to London in May 1768, a few months before the Endeavour was due to sail. As a result, Cook’s orders were quickly amended: he was now to observe the transit of Venus from the newly found island, which was more suitably located. Providentially, a number of the Dolphin’s veterans signed up for the new voyage. Then there were Wallis’s attempts at justifying his lethal use of cannon and muskets against the Tahitians, which made for grim reading. Perhaps pricked by this, the Admiralty instructed Cook to cultivate friendship and an alliance with indigenous peoples, and to show civility in his dealings with them. The Earl of Morton, the president of the Royal Society, went further, advising Cook to “restrain from the wanton use of Fire Arms” and to remember that the shedding of native blood was “a crime of the highest nature”.
Tupaia was therefore destined to meet Cook. And Cook, for his part, was primed to see utility in the Tahitian’s linguistic skills and status.
During the Endeavour’s stay in Tahiti, Tupaia acted as an advisor and guide to its scientists, and formed a friendship with naturalist Joseph Banks. Cook thought him “a very intelligent person and to know more of the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religion laws and customs of the inhabitants than any one we had met with”.
When the Endeavour sailed, Tupaia and his young acolyte Taiato, a boy of no more than 12, left with them. But what prompted Tupaia to make an ocean voyage, when he had not been tempted by the Dolphin or other ships? Eight months after Wallis’s visit, a fellow Tahitian, Ahutoru, sailed with Louis-Antoine de Bougainville for France, but Tupaia had shown no interest in shipping aboard either the Boudeuse or the Étoile. The most likely explanation for Tupaia’s change of heart is that by the time Cook arrived, the political winds on the island had turned against him.
Tupaia had been living on Tahiti as a refugee under the patronage of the chieftainess Purea. The power of Purea, whose high priest and lover Tupaia had become, was now in decline, and Tupaia may have seen passage to London aboard the Endeavour as a means of garnering mana and restoring his social standing on the island. Evidently, he also hoped to persuade Cook to use the Endeavour’s firepower against the Boraborans, who had evicted him from his ancestral island of Ra’iātea.
In that last aim Tupaia failed—Cook was not to be drawn into score-settling—but Tupaia did achieve things of more lasting value. Ashore, he proved his skill as a diplomat, advising on protocol and smoothing out language difficulties. And at sea, he demonstrated his impressive wayfinding ability.
On the Endeavour’s voyage north to survey his home waters, the Leeward Islands, Tupaia accurately predicted where and when each island would appear on the horizon. He was able to recite the names and descriptions of some 57 islands, along with the time it took to reach each of them, which Robert Molineux, Cook’s sailing master, duly noted.
When the survey work was done, the Endeavour turned its bluff prow from land and, in the words of Banks, “Launched out into the Ocean in search of what chance and Tupia might direct us to.”
Tupaia attempted to direct Cook westward, assuring him that in that direction lay many islands with which he was familiar. It was to no avail. Perhaps assuming that Tupaia was referring to the tiny volcanic outcrops of Tafahi and Niuatobutabu, recorded by a Dutch expedition and later sighted by Wallis, and only too aware of how his predecessor’s career had been damaged by waywardness, Cook instead stood to the south, in search of the hypothetical continent Terra Australis Incognita.
On that tedious grind to higher latitudes, Banks turned his attention to linguistics, comparing word lists supplied by Tupaia with vocabularies compiled by Dutch East India Company employees and others. Banks was immediately struck by linguistic similarities among societies as widely separated as Tahiti and Madagascar, which suggested a common origin. Cook, too, speculated that the Polynesians originated far to the west and had gradually spread east, peopling the vast Pacific in a succession of migratory waves, “the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night”.
The Endeavour carried a full complement of scientists, and its widely publicised first objective had been to observe the transit of Venus. It would be reasonable, therefore, to expect scientific curiosity to have drawn the expedition towards the western Pacific.
But the prime motivation for the voyage was not science, but commerce—and this was confirmed when Cook opened his sealed orders from the Admiralty in Tahiti. The orders prodded him south, instructing him, if land was found, to “observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found”.
In Europe, the resource-sapping Seven Years’ War—called by some the ‘first world war’—had recently drawn to a close and Britain, like other European nations, was keen to find and exploit distant new lands.
“No subject can be more interesting, to a commercial state,” wrote British cartographer Alexander Dalrymple, “than the discovery of new countries and people, to invigorate the hand of industry, by opening new vents for manufacturers.”
Dalrymple’s book, An Account of the Discoveries made in the South Pacifick Ocean, was published just a year before the Endeavour set out. But there was also a moral motivation to exploration not touched on by Dalrymple: a belief in trade’s civilising influence.
In weighing such things, the balance tilted away from Tupaia’s meagre mid-Pacific isles, and in favour of whatever the great “unknown south land” could offer.
On the long voyage from Tahiti, Tupaia produced perhaps the most astonishing—certainly the most enigmatic—document in all Pacific history. Cook referred to it in his journal without elaboration as “a Chart of the Islands Drawn by Tupia’s own hands”. This chart depicted 74 distinctively shaped islands—most of them new to Cook—centred on Ra’iātea, and seeming to spiral out across a great 4000-kilometre sweep of ocean. It was the Tahitian navigator’s last attempt to persuade the Europeans to sail west. Cook said nothing more about the chart, and it was never mentioned by anyone else aboard the Endeavour. Very likely this was because, on close examination, it seemed not to make sense. Those islands whose coordinates were known to the Europeans appeared dislocated on Tupaia’s sheet, or their relative positions inverted, divorced from any proper relationship with each other.
The real problem with this, the very first attempt to capture the geographic knowledge of a Polynesian master navigator using Enlightenment tools and cartographic techniques, was that it involved incompatible ways of seeing the world.
The Europeans fixed geographic features on a flat plane according to unchanging coordinates of latitude and longitude, and studied them with the detachment of a collector who scrutinises Lepidoptera pinned to a board. The Polynesian navigator, however, dwelt in the process itself: islands appeared on the horizon, or fell away astern as time unfolded, while in the heavens above, sun, moon and stars majestically followed their courses. All were bound together in a shifting web of relationships that extended to ancestors and to the gods. The wayfinder’s skill lay in experiencing and manipulating these known processes, while being attuned to the signs—from reflected colour on a cloud’s belly to the behaviour of sea swells—announcing all that lay ahead.
When Tupaia began marking up his sheet of watercolour paper, then, he was attempting to meld two contradictory mindsets, or rather, to make one intelligible in terms of the other. It was a forlorn task.
Over the years, many well-intentioned people have come to Tupaia’s aid. One of the first was Horatio Hale, a philologist with an American expedition that surveyed much of the Pacific some 70 years after Cook. Hale argued that the cardinal points on Tupaia’s chart had been mislabelled. ‘Apatoerau’, for example, did not signify ‘north’, but the direction in which the north wind blew. In other words, the map had been printed upside down. To explain the remaining difficulties, Hale conjectured that Cook himself had meddled with the positioning—and, indeed, the islands that appear largely where expected are the ones that Cook knew.
In 2018, two Potsdam University researchers, Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz, offered a different explanation. Tupaia was familiar with European cartographic method, they said, but nevertheless, he invented a sophisticated new representational model on-the-fly—not a picture of where certain islands lay but a notation of what it would take to reach them. Calling the chart “a remarkable feat of translation”, the researchers argued that the key to interpretation lay in the Tahitian word ‘avatea’, or ‘noon’, which Tupaia placed at the centre of the chart. Noon was likely chosen, they suggested, because of its importance in the navigation routines he had witnessed aboard
According to Eckstein and Schwarz, all routes on Tupaia’s chart are oriented towards avatea. To use the chart, the viewer traces two imaginary lines, one to this positional north and the other to the target island. The angle, measured clockwise from the first to the second, is the bearing Tupaia used to place the islands, “either radiating out from one island of departure, or, more frequently, set in sequence on a voyaging path”. It is therefore vital to know which of the depicted islands are on a chosen path, and which are not. Using the chart this way, the researchers found it to be “amazingly precise” when tested against the Mercator projection.
Tupaia’s shipmates were without such insights, of course, and very likely would have agreed with the German naturalist Georg Forster, who sailed on Cook’s second expedition aboard HMS Resolution. Forster thought it probable that “the vanity of appearing more intelligent than he really was, had prompted [Tupaia] to produce this fancied chart of the South Sea, and perhaps to invent many of the names of islands in it”.
But if the chart damaged Tupaia’s reputation, the same cannot be said about his interactions with Māori. According to the Endeavour’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, during the encounter at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, “Topia’s [sic] name was now ecchoed incessantly.”
This was the prelude to increasingly warm relations between various iwi and Cook’s men. After a faltering start—several more killings, largely caused by overreactions and poor judgement on the part of Cook and his crew—tensions lessened. Waka often paddled out to challenge the ship as it made its way along the east coast of the North Island, and were met by Tupaia’s eloquent tongue. Banks records one instance in mid-November 1769: “Tupia who I believe guessd that they were coming to attack us immediately went upon the poop and talked to them a good deal, telling them what if they provoked us we should do and how easily we could in a moment destroy them all. They answered him in their usual cant ‘come ashore only and we will kill you all’. Well, said Tupia, but while we are at sea you have no manner of Business with us, the Sea is our property as much as yours.”
By the time the Endeavour anchored at Uawa, or Tolaga Bay, in late October, Tupaia’s reputation as a high-born Ra’iātean priest and star navigator was widely known among Māori. He spent much of one day in conversation with the head priest of Te Rawheoro, a widely respected school of learning at Uawa, tracing genealogical ties, discussing cosmology, and going over local customs and beliefs. Days earlier, at Anaura Bay, Tupaia had spoken with the paramount chief of the district, Te Whakatatare, who had himself trained at Te Rawheoro. They must have been extraordinary meetings. For the first time in perhaps 400 years, Māori were able to reconnect with their cultural roots through a living emissary from the ancestral whare ‘aira’a-upu, or school of learning, in the Society Islands. (Ra’iātea was one of their homelands—its ancient name being Havai’i.) Banks noted of the Uawa meeting that “they seemed to agree very well in their notions of religion only Tupia was much more learned than the other and all his discourse was heard with much attention”.
Tupaia was ambivalent about much of what he saw and heard—he disapproved of the practice of cannibalism, which Māori freely spoke about, and, if Banks is to be believed, complained more than once that they were “given to lying”. Nevertheless, he made such an impression on local Māori that they called the rock shelter where he sometimes spoke during downpours Te Ana-o-Tupaia, or Tupaia’s Cave. And when, three years later, Cook returned to the coast aboard the Resolution, it was Tupaia whom they longed to see. According to Forster, news of his death was greeted everywhere with heartfelt mourning: “Aue, mate aue Tupaia!”
For Tupaia did not live long after the Endeavour left New Zealand waters. As the ship sailed on, across the Tasman Sea and up the coast of Australia, he became increasingly despondent. In unfamiliar seas and unable to communicate with the Aboriginal Australians, he found himself superfluous for the first time. To make matters worse, he came down with scurvy. When the Endeavour reached the port city of Batavia, at the heart of the Dutch East Indies, the ship’s crew soon began falling to disease. Taiato, the teenager in whom Tupaia had invested all his learning, succumbed to fever on November 9, 1770. His death profoundly affected the ailing Tupaia, who himself died some time later—the exact date is unclear—having endured days of physical and mental anguish.
Tupaia then all but disappeared from history. The valuable gifts showered on him by Māori found their way into Banks’s collection, and Cook wrote, with great injustice: “He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him, and tended much to promote the deceases which put a period to his life.”
But then Cook, bruised and frustrated by the voyage, was no easier on himself, reporting to the Admiralty from Batavia that “the discoveries made in this Voyage are not great”, particularly as he had failed to find “the so much talk’d of southern continent (which perhaps do not exist)”.
How differently that official letter might have read if, instead of striking south all those months ago in mid-Pacific, he had followed the advice of the man from Havai’i and voyaged west.
For more about Tupaia, visit an exhibition on now at Auckland Museum which delves into the Tahitian navigator and life as it was 250 years ago. Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour is on until March 15, 2020.