Professor of Social Anthropology and Māori Studies at Auckland University, Dame Anne Salmond shares the tale of Tupaia, a little-known Polynesian polymath whose assistance to the British is remembered with mixed feelings.
'I first encountered Tupaia while researching Captain Samuel Wallis and the European discovery of Tahiti, and the subsequent voyages of James Cook and William Bligh,' Anne explains.
'In both Wallis's and Cook's diaries, Tupaia emerges as an extraordinary figure in this hotbed of clashes and exchanges with people in the Pacific.'
Who was Tupaia?
Born around 1725, Tupaia was a Polynesian aristocrat and star navigator from Ra'iātea, one of the Society Islands in the South Pacific Ocean.
As a high priest of 'Oro, the god of fertility and war, he officiated at religious ceremonies and was a chief custodian of important ancestral, astronomical and navigational knowledge.
When his home of Ra'iātea was conquered by men from the island of Bora Bora, Tupaia was forced to flee to Tahiti, where he became advisor to the chief of Papara and lover or consort to Purea (who at one point was regarded by the British as the Queen of Tahiti).
Anne adds, 'Although we don't know what Tupaia looked like, it's possible that one of Sydney Parkinson's unnamed portraits is of him. We do know that he had black tattoos on his legs, from thigh to heel, marking him as a high-ranking member of the 'Arioi cult (the followers of 'Oro).'
Tupaia joined Captain Cook's first voyage at Tahiti in July 1769, acting as guide, interpreter and diplomat until his death in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 11 November 1770.
According to Anne, Tupaia had a profound effect on the Endeavour voyage.
'There's no other relationship quite like it,' she says. 'He wasn't just any interpreter. Tupaia was an artist, high priest and star navigator, and was very well travelled - he had been as far as Tonga.
'It's possible he joined the crew partly out of curiosity but also to get access to guns. He even turned part of Cook's journey into his own ceremonial voyage.'
Helping the British
Without Tupaia, the British crew may not have survived their early encounters with Māori warriors, nor would they have made nearly as many discoveries as they did.
Eminent eighteenth-century naturalist George Forster went so far as to describe Tupaia as a genius.
When HMS Endeavour departed Tahiti on its secret mission to find and map Terra Australis, Tupaia and his young male servant Taiata joined Cook, the plan being to remain on the ship when it returned to Britain.
Tupaia was an important conduit of local knowledge and hospitality in the early part of the voyage.
In those days, long ship voyages were no culinary delight. 'Joseph Banks would knock biscuits on the table and count the different species of weevil,' says Anne.
'One of the things that European vessels wanted immediately when they came ashore in the islands was fresh water and fruit, because all the food they had on board was dried or salted and horribly unpalatable.'
Luckily for the crew of Endeavour, the Polynesians were very hospitable, offering frequent feasts and freely sharing their knowledge of edible plants.
Navigation and diplomacy
Tupaia piloted the ship around the Society Islands and showed Cook the passes through the reefs.
Anne explains, 'He had men dive down to measure the depth of Endeavour's hull so he could advise which passes were not safe.'
When they came to New Zealand and its unfamiliar coastlines, Tupaia became an interpreter and mediator for the British. He wasn't with Cook at the first landing at Tūranga-nui (Poverty Bay), an event which resulted in the shooting of a Māori chief, Te Maro. From that time Tupaia became their principal negotiator, managing to de-escalate clashes with Māori warriors on many occasions.
'No doubt Tupaia claimed credit for the power of Cook's muskets and cannon, especially when Māori challenged the vessel,' says Anne. 'As a high priest from the ancestral homeland, Ra'iātea, he was a fascinating figure, and his powers must have seemed uncanny.'
When Endeavour reached the east coast of Australia, Cook realised Tupaia was unable to communicate with the area's indigenous population. As he suddenly became less useful to the British, Tuapaia's influence and popularity onboard diminished rapidly.
As an exiled leader, Tupaia had much to gain from new allies with guns, and made the most of an opportunity to build his own reputation.
'It's highly likely that Tupaia forged an alliance with the British in the hope their guns could be used to expel the invaders on his home island of Ra'iātea,' Anne explains. 'However, Cook had no intention of doing this.'
But Tupaia was able to influence others.
'When this high priest showed up off the coast of New Zealand with an extraordinary vessel and entourage, no one knew whether it was a great bird or a floating island with ancestors on board.'
Tupaia was the only person aboard who could speak with Māori, so he could say whatever he liked to the locals.
'He took the British ashore and performed rituals, effectively turning the Endeavour into his own 'Arioi voyage,' she explains.
'It's clear from oral histories that survive in New Zealand that Māori thought Tupaia was captain of the vessel and that the weird-looking goblin-creatures were under his command.
'It's quite a different take on Endeavour, though it makes sense when you see it from a Polynesian point of view.'
When Cook returned to these areas on subsequent voyages, local people came out asking for Tupaia and singing a special lament composed in his honour.
Anne adds, 'If he had made it to Britain, Tupaia would have been a very impressive figure in British society. He would have been lionised.'
Like other indigenous figures who worked alongside the colonisers, Tupaia's legacy is mixed.
Though he never reached Britain or reclaimed his island (he died in Jakarta of a ship-borne illness), his patrons were successful in their mission to discover viable lands for the crown, his charisma is remembered by both sides of history and breadfruit still grows in the Caribbean.
Professor Dame Anne Salmond, DBE, CBE, FANAS, FRSNZ, FBA, FNZAH, PhD (Penn) is Professor of Social Anthropology and Māori Studies at Auckland University, and a celebrated author who has spent her life documenting shared cultural history in the Pacific and New Zealand. She is a Dame Commander of the British Empire, and her work has been acknowledged through many awards including fellowships of the US National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, and New Zealand's highest scientific award, the Rutherford Medal.
The 250th anniversary of the Endeavour's circumnavigation of Aotearoa (the Māori name for 'New Zealand') saw the story of Tupaia being rediscovered.
In September 2019, a va'a tipaerua (voyaging canoe), dedicated to his memory, sailed by the stars from Tahiti to New Zealand. Commanded by a young Tahitian woman navigator, the Fa'afaite made a rapid and safe journey, averaging eight knots.
The Fa'afaite accompanied a flotilla of two waka hourua (Māori voyaging canoes), two tall ships and the Endeavour replica as they sailed around the New Zealand coastline in October 2019. An exhibition celebrating Tupaia was held at Auckland War Memorial Museum until March 2020, and a graphic novel about his life has been published.