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Tupaia (c1725–1770)

The extraordinary story of Tupaia — and his remarkable contribution to the HMB Endeavour voyage — waited a long time to be told.
For more than two centuries, despite the significant role he played, Tupaia was largely left off the public record, relegated to journal entries and the occasional mention or footnote. 

With no personal records to draw on, the story of Tupaia’s life has slowly been pieced together from fragments — including the years 1769–70, which he spent on board the HMB Endeavour.  


Over the last 50 or so years the story of Tupaia has bit by bit added another voice to the story of exploration in the South Pacific.

Born into the elite of Raiatea

Tupaia was born into local nobility at Ha’amanino Bay, Raiatea in the Society Islands where his family had extensive landholdings. 

His birthright, athleticism and intelligence assured him a place at the greatest marae in Polynesia, Taputapuatea at Opoa, on Raiatea’s southern coast. 

During his early years Tupaia trained in the origin of the cosmos, genealogies, the calendar, proverbs and histories and finally specialised in star navigation. 

After his consecration as a tahua (priest) he completed a three-year cadetship with the arioi society — an ancient guild of travelling entertainers — graduating as an honoured wayfinder.

Tupaia led a charmed life until the late 1750s when Raiatea was invaded by warriors from Bora Bora. He was seriously wounded in battle and fled to Tahiti where he had to rebuild a life for himself. 

It has been suggested it was here, in Papara, that he took on the name ‘Tupaia’, meaning ‘beaten’, to remind himself of this time.

The arrival of the British in Tahiti

By the late 1760s, when the first European visitors started arriving in Tahiti, Tupaia had managed to change his circumstances for the better. 

He had proved his worth as a political adviser to the high chiefs of Papara including Chief Amo and Queen Purea and became the high priest of all Tahiti. 

In 1767, Tupaia came face-to-face with British explorers for the first time, playing a significant role in first contact negotiations between the Tahitians and the British frigate HMS Dolphin commanded by Captain Samuel Wallis. 

By the time the HMB Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in April 1769, things in Papara had deteriorated. Warriors from the south had ravaged the district and the high chiefs and Tupaia had fled to the mountains.

The earlier bond forged between the Papara chiefs and Wallis translated into the new British arrivals being their allies and it was this relationship that opened the door to a different future for Tupaia. 

During the three months Captain James Cook was in Tahiti to chart the Transit of Venus, Tupaia showed great loyalty to the HMB Endeavour and its crew.

He cultivated a strong friendship with naturalist Joseph Banks who was impressed with his navigation expertise and knowledge of the islands.  

Banks wrote in his journal:

‘Tupia... is certainly a most proper man, well born, cheif Tahowa (tahu’a) or preist of this Island, consequently more skilld in the mysteries of their religion; but what makes him more than any thing else desireable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the Islands in these seas; he has told us the names of above 70, the most of which he has been at.’

Banks subsequently agreed to pay for Tupaia to join the ship’s crew for the remainder of the voyage:

‘The Captn. refuses to take him on his own account, in my opinion sensibly enough, the government will never in all human probability take any notice of him; I therefore have resolvd to take him. Thank heaven I have a sufficiency...’

Although he did not want to cover the cost of Tupaia, Cook too agreed he would be a valuable addition to the crew:

‘This man had been with us most part of the time we had been upon the Island which gave us an oppertunity to know some thing of him: we found him to be 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 and was the likeliest person to answer our purpose; for these reasons and at the request of Mr Banks I received him on board together with a young boy his servant.’

Leaving Tahiti on the HMB Endeavour

With no personal records to draw on, there can only be speculation about why Tupaia chose to join the crew of the HMB Endeavour accompanied by his young apprentice, Taiata. 

Did he think a return to the high life in Papara was unlikely? Would his life be in jeopardy because of his perceived treachery with the British visitors? Or did he hope to procure firearms or enlist the help of Cook to free his home island from the Bora Bora invaders? 


Whatever the reason, there is no question Tupaia’s knowledge of local customs, and expertise as a navigator and interpreter were invaluable.

image of a portrait of Taiata.
The Lad Taiyota, Native of Otaheite, in the dress of his Country. Plate 9. From the book: A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty's ship the Endeavour. Engraved by R.B. Godfrey, based on a lost sketch by Sydney Parkinson. Engraved print, 1773. Source: The Museum of New Zealand


There are no known pictures or representations of Tupaia and only one of young Taiata based on a lost sketch by Sydney Parkinson. 

Tupaia’s legacy 

Tupaia imparted knowledge about Tahitian traditions, acted as an interpreter of language, helped navigate the Polynesian islands and, at times, even piloted the HMB Endeavour — such was Cook’s confidence in his navigational abilities. 

Between August 1769 and February 1770, during the voyage from the Society Islands to Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia and the officers, scientists and draftsmen aboard the ship participated in a series of discussions and exchange of knowledge. 

Most notably, they produced a joint drawing of a chart of almost all major Polynesian island groups in Oceania, known as ‘Tupaia’s Map’. 

The islands depicted extend for more than 7,000 km, from Rapa Nui in the east, to Rotuma in the west, and for more than 5,000 km from Hawai‘i in the north to Rapa Iti in the south. 

Tupaia’s knowledge of the topography, coastline and environmental features of South Pacific islands proved indispensable to the British and showed the depth of knowledge the Polynesian wayfinders had of the Pacific region. 

Tupaia translated the complexities of his oceanic knowledge into conceptual and representational models he thought the British would understand.

 

image of a copy of Tupaia’s map drawn by James Cook.
Chart of the Society Islands. James Cook after the original by Tupaia. Pen and ink on paper, 1769. Source: The British Library

 

Revered in Aotearoa, rejected in Australia

When the HMB Endeavour arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia quickly proved his worth as an interpreter.

A young Māori chief was shot and killed by the British crew on their first day in Poverty Bay when Tupaia did not go ashore with them.

The next day Tupaia accompanied the crew ashore, discovered he could understand the local people and was able to diffuse a potentially explosive situation after the previous day’s shooting.

Some of the Māori believed the HMB Endeavour was Tupaia’s ship because he was the only one who could communicate with them. Tupaia was also at liberty to say what he wanted so he may well have encouraged such speculation.

During their time in Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia was increasingly recognised as a tahunga (expert), and was sought out to preach, share discussions with Māori priests, and to act as a trusted mediator.

‘We never suspected him to have had so much influence’, Banks wrote in his journal on 19 November 1769.

Similarly, Cook wrote of Tupaia’s value during this part of the voyage:

‘But, should it be thought proper to send a ship out upon this service some while Tupia lieves and he to come out in her, in that case she would have a prodigious advantage over every ship that have been upon disc discoveries in those seas before; for my [by] means of Tupia, supposeing he did not accompany you himself, you would always get people to direct you from Island to Island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly reseption and refreshments at every Island ^you came to; this would inable the Navigator to make his discoveries the more perfect and compleat …’

Over the many months the HMB Endeavour was in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Tupaia’s presence contributed to an invaluable transfer of knowledge and, although there were still hostilities, almost certainly reduced the number of clashes and deaths.

Unfortunately for Tupaia a very different situation emerged when the HMB Endeavour reached the east coast of Australia. When it was discovered he was unable to communicate with the Aboriginal people, he lost favour and influence on the ship just as quickly as he had previously gained it.

Tupaia the artist

In the late 1990s, the discovery of a letter written by Joseph Banks to Dawson Turner in 1812 — which described Tupaia drawing in New Zealand — led to the attribution of a series of artworks to him.  

image of a Maori trading a crawfish to Joseph Banks drawn by Tupaia.
Maori trading a crawfish with Joseph Banks. Tupaia. Watercolour on paper, 1769. Source: The British Library

Tupaia’s only known drawing of New Zealand 1769 — depicting a crayfish exchange between a Māori person and Banks.

 

image of three aboriginal people, two rowing in one canoe and the third spear fishing in a second canoe, drawn by Tupaia.
Australian aborigines in bark canoes. Tupaia, watercolour on paper, 1770. Source: The British Library

The drawing shows two canoes, in one of which a man is using a three-pronged spear to catch a fish. Banks described how, as the HMB Endeavour entered Botany Bay, he observed ‘four small canoes’ under the southern headland: 

‘In each of these was one man who held in his hand a long pole with which he struck fish, venturing with his little imbarkation almost into the surf. These people seem’d to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment.

Never to return home

Tupaia and Taiata did not survive the voyage back to England. Both were to die — with many others from the HMB Endeavour — in Batavia (Jakarta) where the ship was getting much needed repairs.

Tupaia and Taiata were fascinated by Batavia — described by Banks as ‘extreme[ly] unwholesome’ — having never seen a place like it:

‘On his [Tupaia’s] arrival his spirits which had long been very low were instantly raisd by the sights which he saw, and his boy Tayeto who had always been perfectly well was allmost ready to run mad. Houses, Carriages, streets, in short every thing were to him sights which he had often heard describd but never well understood, so he lookd upon them all with more than wonder, almost made with the numberless novelties which diverted his attention from one to the other he danc'd about the streets examining every thing to the best of his abilities.

Banks believed the illness that beset the crew — including Tupaia and Taiata — was likely due to the ‘lowness of the countrey and the numberless dirty Canals which intersect the town in all directions’.

A severe outbreak of dysentery and malaria took hold on the ship, so at Tupaia’s request, Banks had a tent pitched for the feverish pair where they could get some relief from the sea and land breezes. 

From his own bed, and ill himself, Banks recorded the death first of Taiata [Tayeto] on 9 November 1770 — possibly of pneumonia following ‘a cold and i[n]flammation on his lungs’ — and of Tupaia two days later, noting Tupaia’s deep bond for his young friend: 

‘We receivd the news of Tupias death. I had given him quite over ever since his boy died whoom I well knew he sincerely lovd, tho he usd to find much fault with him during his life time.

Tupaia and Taiato were buried next to each other on Eadan [Damar-Besar] Island in Batavia harbour.

Cook records Tupaia and Taiata’s deaths, along with five others, in his journal on 26 December 1770. His final words about Tupaia have subsequently been described as ungenerous by some:

‘He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreable to himself and those about him and tended much to promote the deceases which put a period to his life.’

When Cook subsequently returned to Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Māori called for Tupaia thinking he had returned in his ship — and wept and lamented when they heard of his death.

‘A koe mate aue Tupaia’ – ‘You have died – alas, Tupaia!’