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Tupaia, Polynesian navigator and translator, biography by Joan Druett

This post is about an excellent book that I read recently, Tupaia, by Joan Druett, that tells the story of the life of Tupaia, a Polynesian master navigator and priest who lived in the 1700s. Tupaia navigated by sail across the islands of the Pacific, finding the way over weeks of travel on the enormous blue ocean using patterns in the stars, clouds, ocean currents, the flight paths of birds, and all the traditional expertise of Polynesian voyagers.

Tupaia was born on the island of Ra’iatea around 1725, and was trained in navigation at the fare-‘ai-ra’a-upu schools of learning. When he was about 30, he was badly injured fighting invaders from the island of Bora Bora, stabbed in the back by a spear with a stingray barb point, nearly died, and fled to Tahiti. There, Tupaiai was a priest of the god ‘Oro, and consort of a noblewoman called Purea. In 1769, in Tahiti, Tupaia joined the Endeavour voyage with Captain James Cook and sailed to New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia. During that voyage he painted several remarkable pictures, including the first known picture to show a meeting between Maori and Europeans – a Maori man and a British man trading a lobster for a piece of cloth. The picture is reproduced on the book cover:


It is an extraordinary story, which is full of events and moments that I find myself thinking about again and again, trying to imagine as different people in the story, and wondering what it would have been like to be there.

For example, imagine being on the beach at Te Kuri o Paoa on New Zealand’s North Island in October 1769, for the first formal meeting between Maori and the crew of the Endeavour, a few days after the Endeavour had first sighted the land. The Maori and the Europeans faced each other on the beach, the Maori in flax and fur cloaks, the British officers in red and navy jackets. The mood would have had tension, curiosity, anger, apprehension. The day before, there had been an encounter between a smaller group of Europeans and four Maori men, which had led to threats, confrontation and fighting. A Maori man named Te Maro had been shot and killed by a British man named Samuel Evans, the coxswain on the Endeavour. The next day, during this more formal meeting, Te Maro’s dead body still lay there on the beach between the two groups. The British marines marched in formation to the beat of a drum, presented arms. The Maori performed a haka, with ritualistic chants and challenges. Captain Cook announced in English who they were and what they were doing. Neither the Maori or the British understood the language of the other.

And then, Tupaia stepped out from amongst the British group, and spoke to the Maori in his own language, and amazingly, he and the Maori could understand each other well, and spoke almost the same language. Nobody there had expected this. Tupaia and the Polynesians had no knowledge about Maori people and the land of New Zealand, and while the Maori had legends about their migration from islands a long time ago, there had been no contact for hundreds of years, and no expectation that anyone from those now mythical islands would one day appear.

Or imagine the friends of Te Maro, the three young men, sitting in their village on the evening after he was shot, the day before the formal meeting, grieving for their friend. Eating kumara, palm root and fish – familiar foods in the familiar place they had known all their lives. Wondering about the strange men, in the strange clothes, with the strange language, from the strange ship, with strange and deadly weapons. What did they want? What would happen next?

When Tupaia spoke in an understandable language the next day, the .The Endeavour sailed all around the North Island and South Island, and throughout the voyage Tupaia acted as negotiator and translator. He made possible meetings and trades that went much better for everyone than had he not been there. Episodes of bad faith, mistrust, and violence did occur, but there can be no doubt it would have been different and certainly worse without Tupaia. Tupaia was honored by the Maori for his learning and culture, including new legends they had not yet heard. When the Endeavour returned for a second voyage of New Zealand, Tupaia’s fame had spread, and across the land, Maori people asked for him and were sad to learn that he had died.

The book Tupaia tells a fascinating history. It is complicated and sad in many places. I really know very little of this history, and I should learn more, and also acknowledge the privilege and remoteness I have from it. The author Joan Dreutt has done what seems to me an excellent job in researching as many sources as exist today, but of course there is still much left unknown about Tupaia, that is uncertain and must be imagined. Tupaia is not nearly as well known as he should be – I had never heard of him before reading the book. It is a story worth knowing, and I highly recommend the book.


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