Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian NavigatorOriginally published on the The Old Salt Blog

Joan Druett’s new book, Tupaia – Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator, fills an important blank space in the history, as well as the legend, of Captain Cook. On his first voyage to the Pacific in HMS Endeavour, during a stop in Tahiti, Cook took aboard a Polynesian high priest named Tupaia.   Tupaia was also a skilled navigator and would serve as translator and diplomat for Cook when he encountered the warlike Maoris of New Zealand.

While Tupaia played a critical role in the success of Cook’s first voyage, he died of complications from scurvy in Batavia and was never given the credit he was due by either Captain Cook or Josephs Banks in their accounts of the expedition. Finally Tupaia’s story is being told, in this, the first full biography of the remarkable navigator, linguist, artist and priest.  It is a fascinating tale, well told. 


When I read Tupaia – Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator, I was reminded, rather incongruously, of science fiction movies from the 1950s, where a spaceship lands on Earth from another planet carrying humanoids who possess advanced technology. Invariably there are cultural misunderstandings, resulting in the occasional use of the alien technology, often a death ray, until the cooler heads on both sides prevail and communication is established.

When Captain Wallis, in command of HMS Dolphin, anchored in Matavai Bay on Tahiti in 1767, the collision of the two complex cultures played out a bit like these science fiction films, ending initially in grapeshot and musket fire, no doubt more horrible and mystifying to the Tahitians than any fictional death ray could have appeared to 1950s movie-goers.

The arrival of the strange people in the “canoe without an outrigger” had been long foretold in local prophesy. Now these strange men had finally arrived with their fearsome weapons and wondrous materials, specifically, iron.  One of the chief agents of diplomacy on behalf of the Tahitians was a high-priest from Raiatea named Tupaia.

When the English returned to Tahiti in 1769 with Captain Cook in command of HMS Endeavour, Tupaia was there to greet them. In the two years since HMS Dolphin departed, Tupaia’s fortunes had diminished. While still a member of the nobility and honored as a high priest, he had found himself on the losing side of a tribal war and his status in Tahitian society was tenuous. When offered a place aboard HMS Endeavour, he accepted.

When Cook sailed from Tahiti, Tupaia served as pilot, navigating to his home island of Raiatea and other nearby islands.   He also drew a remarkable map which covered over 2,500 square miles and showed myriads of islands to the west, which where wholly unknown to Europeans. Tupaia wanted Cook to sail westward but Cook followed his orders and sailed south in an attempt to discover the mythical “Terra Australis Incognita,” the vast southern continent which had appeared on western charts for centuries. Tupaia new nothing of this continent, as it did not exist.

After sailing to 40 degrees South latitude without locating land, Cook, sailed to chart the coast of New Zealand. Here, Tupaia proved invaluable as translator and diplomat to the often warlike Maoris.  Tupaia, understood their language and was a high priest in a religion that they recognized as a more developed form of their own.  The Maoris were far more impressed by Tupaia than by Captain Cook.

In addition to serving as navigator and translator, Tupaia also acted as anthropologist and ship’s artist. When Alexander Buchan, the artist/draftsman assigned to sketch daily life in Tahiti, died early during the expedition, Tupaia began making his own sketches. While primitive, they were quite detailed and captured the only record of life in Tahiti made during the voyage. Likewise much of what both Banks and Cook learned of Polynesian culture likely came from Tupaia, though neither saw fit to acknowledge Tuapai’s contribution in their journals. When Tupaia died in Batavia, he largely disappeared from history, which is one reason why Joan Druett’s new book is so welcome.

Joan Druett has written nineteen books, both novels and non-fiction, all with a nautical focus. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the John Lyman Award for Best Book of American Maritime History for Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820-1920, the New York Public Library’s 25 Best Books to Remember for Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail, and the L. Byrne Waterman Award, for contributions to maritime history and women’s history. She was also a John David Stout Fellow, at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.

What this translates to on the printed page is that Druett is both an excellent historian and a highly skilled writer. (This combination of skills is not unknown, but it is too often rare.)  Tupaia – Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator is fascinating and engrossing history.   Highly recommended.

Description of: Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator

Author: Joan Druett





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