Home > History of an Idea about Tupaia’s Chart

History of an Idea about Tupaia’s Chart


Exploring the Pacific in 1769 Captain Cook dropped anchor in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, where he debarked with several members of his company.  One of the islanders they encountered was Tupaia, a high priest originally from the island of Raiatea.  Some weeks later Banks was able to convince Cook to take Tupaia aboard because of “his experience in the navigation of these people”.1  He was listed as a supernumerary.  Cook made Tupaia understand that he wished to know the geography of the Pacific.  Indeed his written instructions from the Admiralty were to verify the positions of earlier discoveries and to search for new lands, particularly “Terra Australis”.  Tupaia, while in Endeavour undertook to name, comment on and indicate the location of “near 130 islands”,2 and would eventually draw a map of the Pacific centered on his home island of Raiatea.  During the return voyage westward toward England, the traditional route of the circumnavigators, somewhere between Tahiti and New Zealand, was born one of the most intriguing artefacts collected on this scientific expedition: the famous Chart of Tupaia. 


This document, today in the Manuscript collection of the British Library, is cataloged under the title “Chart of the Society Islands with Otaheite in the center July-Aug 1769”.3  This chart leaves no doubt of the number of islands scattered across the South Sea.  Cook however, continuing his research for Terra Australis, never attempted to verify these geographic facts.4  Still the episode of Tupaia’s chart would become famous, through J.R. Forster, H. Hale, P-A Lesson, P. Smith, J. Beaglehole and many others,5 and would become the subject of a debate about the extent of the Polynesian geographical knowledge in the 1960s,6 as well as about how to ‘read’ this chart that seemed to have recognizable islands and archipelagos scattered far and wide in the “wrong” quarters. 


During the course of earlier studies, we have tried to show that the Chart of Tupaia can be “read” only by an accommodation that consists of disentangling the parts contributed by each of its two authors: Tupaia and Cook.  This document mixes two different geographies, one Polynesian and the other Western.  The chart of Tupaia is in reality made up of a mosaic of several “island compasses”, derived from a more general “star compass”,7 to which cardinal points, a meridian and a parallel have been added, giving it the appearance of a western chart.8

Recently we received a message from Ian Boreham asking us “What made you decide to look at the chart and what it meant?  Would you care to write a piece for me to publish about your interests and how they led you from archaeology to historical research, and how your answering of some questions has led you to ask many more?”  This article is, therefore, a rather singular document.  Different bits of texts, some published, some not, have been reassembled here with sometimes a little rewriting and adjustment, to attempt to retrace in a coherent manner the progress of an idea: that Tupaia’s Chart embodies two different ways to order space, one Polynesian, one European. 


Polynesian Navigational Knowledge


In 1996, we began to look into “first contacts” and, more specifically, at the maritime knowledge that was exchanged during these encounters, a path somewhat removed from our original orientation and which led us into the rather unknown territory of the 18th century.  Until then we had concentrated on the archaeology of the pre-European period and marine and navigational issues. 


Although one cannot really qualify the encounter between Cook and Tupaia as a “first contact” in the strictest sense of the term, it does raise the question of the Other: “The Other whom one wants to understand, with a complexity equivalent to that reserved for Europeans, the activities, the visions, the motivations, the specific constraints, the domain of what is possible or not… The Other, who is beyond [our] knowledge as long as there is no foreign observer to collect the information and to transform it into a corpus useable to a historian”.9  Or as Dening said, “the historical reality of traditional societies is locked together for the rest of time with the historical reality of the intruders who saw them, changed them, destroyed them”.10  Neither Cook, nor Banks the naturalist, nor Molyneux the sailing master, nor Parkinson the painter had much to say about Tupaia and his activities in Endeavour, even though they rubbed shoulders for more than a year, as far as Batavia where the high priest would die. 


We also knew of the wonderful monographs of Gladwin, Lewis, Thomas and others, that reveal the art and science of navigation in Oceania; where one can deduce the close relations between the islands and the stars, the ocean swells, the winds, the currents and the cultural heroes, between astronomy and cosmology, between geography and local perception of space, between navigation and state of receptivity.11  “The captain of the canoe, navigator, astronomer, but also shaman must, says Nainoa Thompson, become an integral part of his canoe, chanting, dancing the voyage, sometimes stretching out along the deck to better feel and interpret the course of the canoe”.12  And, “Whereas Cook recorded the positions of the Endeavour in his journal from plots on charts and maps as was the European norm, and Joseph Banks kept extensive records of marine life and native flora and fauna in the Pacific, Polynesian navigators relied on memory, the night sky and the patterns of wind and sea-swells, a form of phenomenological engagement involving mentalistic algorithm and manipulation of physical referents augmented within ancestral narratives”.13  An understanding of navigation is not just the sum of this knowledge but rather a way of being and of conceiving the world. 


Experimental Navigation


Another thread of the story was the experimental voyages that we undertook between 1997 and 1999 in the central Pacific, aboard a “Tahitian” double canoe,14 built, among other reasons, to study and contextualize traditional navigation in Oceania.15  Voyaging on this canoe allowed us to measure the gulf between “cabin navigation”, fixed to one’s instruments (a compass, chronometer, sextant, charts, GPS) and navigation “under the sky”, fixed to the stars.  Their possible representations of maritime space are quite different and pretty closely reflect the different logics that govern western nautical charts and “island compasses”.  If, on a western chart the measure of distances (in order to determine the location of islands) is clearly “objective”, the constraints of navigation under sail are such — and all the more so in a sailing canoe— that these distances take no account of the difficulty of actually sailing that route.  On specialized pilot charts, one finds arrows or (wind) roses indicating direction and speed of the winds (or currents), sometimes the maximum force to be expected or percentages of calms, but these are in fact monthly or even annual averages and, while they give valuable information on habitual weather conditions, it is up to the navigator to mentally trace and retrace his route at sea and to evaluate the time necessary according to the conditions he actually encounters.  Seen this way, maritime space seems indeed a space to re-construct, a space to re-evaluate, as one progresses through it.  Alongside a static rational and scientific construction, there is also the dynamic dimension of movement, more complex and more subtle than that fixed in nautical charts and codified through their symbols. 


This perception of a marine space to construct, of a space “in movement”, is intrinsic to the Oceanic world.  It even constitutes its first principle.  Hence the pertinence of the idea, formulated by Hipour and other Micronesian navigators, of distant islands moving toward the navigator.16  The canoe is seen as stationary, a point of anchorage, a point from which the navigator needs to continually re-evaluate his position using the star compass.  The main function of this compass is therefore not to objectify the surrounding world, but in fact to subjectify it, to actualize it, to reconfigure it from day to day, in function of his relative position along the envisioned itinerary. 


Of course no navigator negates either the objectivity or the subjectivity of the world of the sea.  Still his or her navigational “tools”, whether nautical charts or island compasses, hide one or the other of these worlds, precisely because they offer no solution to the representation of both at once.  We ourselves encountered this same problem through our work in computer modeling.  For several years now, we have been working on the performance of traditional canoes and the sailing routes that such performance allows, so as to replicate settlement and migrations.  And we are still trying to find a way of mapping that can replicate the difficulties of sailing between islands.  The idea of a cartography not ordinated by latitude and longitude, a non-cartesian cartography, is gaining ground. 


Tupaia’s Chart


Neither of the authors can remember exactly when they “discovered” Tupaia’s chart; it is as if this document was “just part of the woodwork”.  But what makes it so remarkable?  From the very first contacts, Europeans were aided by the geographical knowledge of islanders.  Using signs, mimicry, the few words they knew, the captains tried to interrogate them.  In fact their instructions recommended that they collect this information.17  Islanders told them the direction to the islands, how many days sailing it took to get there, the level of hospitality of their inhabitants, the natural resources or food one could trade for (pearls, yams, taro, fresh water, etc.).  Tupaia, however, went even further: he accepted to transcribe his knowledge onto paper, and seemed to have drawn a western
style nautical chart. 


But why did Cook, himself a cartographer, not give more attention to Tupaia’s chart in his journal?  He was certainly fascinated by the extent of Tupaia’s knowledge, but he seems to have attached little importance to the chart although he mentions one “Drawn by Tupia’s own hands”.18  According to Beaglehole the extant copy — the one known as “Tupaia’s chart” today — was drawn by Cook himself, in reference to the annotation, perhaps by Banks, penciled in the margin.19  Could Cook’s lack of interest be because he had a part in its drafting? 


J.R. Forster, on the other hand, took another tack.  He, who never set foot in Endeavour, made use of the Chart and published a document in homage of Tupaia entitled: “A CHART representing the ISLES of the SOUTH-SEA according to the NOTIONS of the INHABITANTS of o-TAHEITEE and the Neighbouring Isles, chiefly collected from the accounts of TUPAYA” to illustrate his book Observations made during a Voyage round the World in 1778.20  In fact, Forster displaced the islands that he believed he had identified to their positions as known at that time by Europeans and as well added in the islands discovered during his own voyage.  In so doing, he in effect fixed a latitude and longitude grid on the “original” chart.  Tupaia’s chart was thus considered in the European tradition of the period as a document to be up-dated.  The idea of the authenticity of a document is anachronistic.  Kapil Raj reminds us that: “We often have the tendency to forget the fact that maps themselves have histories, incorporating the evolution of the social networks of the producers of the maps, of their patrons, of their users, as well as epistemological questions relative to their function as precise documents”.21


If, therefore, Tupaia’s chart seems to us more and more as the outcome of a collaboration, what remains to be determined is the part played by one or the other protagonist.  What maritime knowledge was Tupaia able to share with Cook?  The ethnographic observations allow us to reply that it consisted of the name of the islands, the number of days sailing between them (and not the true distance) and, more secretly, the star paths that allowed one to find them: their “star and island compasses”.  To reconstruct these hypothetical “compasses”, our method consisted of recording bearings on a modern nautical chart from different islands of departure to different target islands, then superimposing these “compasses” on Tupaia’s chart, allowing rotation since island compasses don’t have an absolute external reference, the equivalent of north on European nautical charts.  No less than nine “island compasses” were discovered, centered respectively on Raiatea, Tahiti, Mehetia, Pukapuka, Savaii, Mauke, Hao and Rapa.22  The extent of Tupaia’s geographical knowledge was truly immense and covered nearly one third of the Pacific Ocean (from Tonga and Samoa in the West to the Marquesas and Tuamotus in the East). 




In conclusion, thank you to Ian Boreham for inciting us to re-travel a path, contextualizing, in as linear a fashion as possible, the birth of a hypothesis that engaged us on a bi-polar history that can only be told from both viewpoints at once, that plays out on both sides of the confrontation, the European as well as on the islanders’ side.  Or as Surun wrote: “even if the voyage of exploration fits into the frame of a greater enterprise of the knowledge of the world the impulse of which comes from Europe, that knowledge can be constructed only through the negotiation of individuals with local realities, through the encounter and in interaction with other individuals, representatives of other societies”.23


Anne Di Piazza
and Erik Pearthree


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 18, volume 35, number 2 (2012)



  1. Beaglehole 1963.  Page 299. 
  2. Beaglehole 1955.  Page 294. 
  3. Add Ms 15508, no. 18. 
  4. It was not until 1955 when Beaglehole published an annotated edition of Cook’s journal from the first voyage that an original version of Tupaia’s chart became available, in the portfolio “Charts and Views” containing all the cartographic work carried out during the 1768-1771 circumnavigation. 
  5. See among others Dening 1963, Lewthwaite 1966, 1970, Adam 1982, Turnbull 1994, 1998, 2000, Williams 2003. 
  6. Golson 1963.
  7. A star compass is a mnemonic device that is taught using a circular or rectangular diagram where each “compass” point indicates the rising or setting position of guide stars (Alkire 1970, Gladwin 1970, Lewis 1972, Thomas 1987).  The 360° of the horizon is punctuated into 16, 28 or 32 points or bearings.  In reality each guide star is followed by a whole series of others that seem to rise (or set) at the same point.  Each of these series of stars is known as an (avei’a) or “star path” that, together, make up the “star compass”.  These “compasses”, drawn by the master navigator in the sand or laid out on mats with sticks and bits of coral, when completed by the islands lying under each star path, are known as “island compasses”.  Unlike European charts, the position of islands on these “compasses” is relative to their central point: the island or canoe on which the navigator is sitting.  They have no absolute or defined position (Gell 1985.  Page 278)
  8. Di Piazza and Pearthree 2007, 2008, Di Piazza 2010. 
  9. “L’Autre dont on voudrait éclairer, avec une complexité égale à celle réservée aux Européens, le répertoire des actions, les horizons d’attente, les motivations, les contraintes spécifiques, le domaine des possibles et des impossibles....  L’Autre, qui échappe à la connaissance tant qu'aucun observateur étranger n'est là pour recueillir l'information et la transformer en corpus utilisable par l'historien”.  Merle 2011.  Pages 5-6.  Author’s translation. 
  10. Dening 1980.  Page 42. 
  11. Lewis 1972, Gladwin 1970, Thomas 1987.
  12. Péteuil 2003.  Page 23. 
  13. Strongman 2008.  Page 14.
  14. Our double canoe, Ka Imi Ku’a, was built based on drawings of Tahitian canoes made by Webber, the artist on Cook’s Third Voyage and by Admiral Pâris, who participated in three expeditions to the Pacific during the early 19th century.  These voyages furnished the data that served as the main source for his monumental: “Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens…” (“An essay on the naval architecture of the non-European peoples…) in 1843. 
  15. Di Piazza and Pearthree 2004. 
  16. Gladwin 1970.  Pages 181-184. 
  17. For example in the 16th century the Spanish royalty instructed Quiros to “Learn from the natives whether there are other islands or extensive lands near, if they are inhabited, of what colour are the natives, whether they eat human flesh, if they are friendly or carry on war.  Enquire whether they have gold in dust… silver… metals, all kinds of pearls, spice and salt”.  Markham 1904.  Page 149. 
  18. Beaglehole 1955.  Page 294.
  19. Beaglehole 1955. Pages 294-295, note 1. 
  20. Thomas et al. 1996. 
  21. “Nous avons souvent tendance à négliger le fait que les cartes elles-mêmes ont une histoire, incorporant l’évolution des réseaux sociaux de producteurs de cartes, de leurs patrons, des utilisateurs de cartes, et aussi de questions épistémologiques relatives à leurs fonctions comme documents précis”.  Raj 2004.  Page 86.  Author’s translation. 
  22. Di Piazza 2010.  Pages 389-390. 
  23. “Même si le voyage d’exploration s’inscrit dans le cadre d’une entreprise globale de connaissance du monde dont l’impulsion vient d’Europe, le savoir ne se construit que dans la négociation d’individus avec des réalités locales, dans la rencontre et dans l’interaction avec d’autres individus, représentant d’autres sociétés”.  Surun 2006.  Page 223.  Author’s translation. 


Related Reading

Adam P.  “La culture polynésienne et la navigation” in Journal de la Société des Océanistes.  1982.  Vol. 38, nos. 74-75.  Pages 139-142. 

Alkire W.H.  “Systems of Measurement on Woleai Atoll, Caroline Islands” in Anthropos.  1970.  Vol. 65.  Pages 1-73. 

Beaglehole, J.C. (ed.).  The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol I: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771.  Hakluyt Society.  1955. 

Beaglehole, J.C. (ed.).  Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768 – 1771.  Angus and Robertson.  1963.  In an arrangement with CCS member Brian Sandford, the transcript is available on the web site of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, at www.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/series_03/03_view.cfm/

Dening, G.  “The Geographical Knowledge of the Polynesians and the Nature of Inter-Island contact” in J. Golson (ed.). Polynesian Navigation: A Symposium on Andrew Sharp’s Theory of Accidental Voyages.  Polynesian Society.  1963.  Pages 102-153. 

Dening, G.  Islands and beaches.  Discourse on a silent land, Marquesas, 1774-1880.  University Press of Hawai`i.  1980. 

Di Piazza, A. and E.  Pearthree.  Sailing Routes of old Polynesia. The prehistoric discovery, settlement and abandonment of the Phoenix Islands.  Bishop Museum Press.  2004. 

Di Piazza, A. and E. Pearthree.  “A new reading of Tupaia’s chart” in Journal of the Polynesian Society.  2007.  Vol. 116, no. 3.  Pages 321-340. 

Di Piazza, A. and E. Pearthree.  “Il cartografo Tupaia, James Cook e il confronto tra due saperi geografici” in Quaderni storici.  2008.  Vol. 129, no. 3.  Pages 575-592. 

Di Piazza, A.  “A Reconstruction of a Tahitian star compass based on Tupaia’s ‘Chart for the Society Islands with Otaheite in the center’” in Journal of the Polynesian Society.  2010.  Vol. 119, no. 4. 
Pages 377-392. 

Gell, A.  “How to read a Map: Remarks on the Practical Logic of Navigation” in Man.  1985.  Vol. 20, no. 2.  Pages 271-286.

Gladwin, T.  East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll.  Harvard University Press.  1970.  

Golson, J. (ed.).  Polynesian Navigation: A Symposium on Andrew Sharp’s Theory of Accidental Voyages.  Polynesian Society.  1963.  Pages 102-153.

Lewis D.  We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific.  University of Hawai‘i Press.  1972.  

Lewthwaite, G.R.  “Tupaia’s Map.  The horizon of a Polynesian geographer” in Association of Pacific Coast Geographies Yearbook   1966 Vol. 28.  Pages 41-53. 

Lewthwaite, G.R.  “The Puzzle of Tupaia’s Map” in New Zealand Geographer. 1970.  Vol. 26.  Pages 1-19. 

Markham, C. (ed.).  The Voyages of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, 1596 to 1606.  Vol. I, series II.  Hakluyt Society.  1904.  

Merle, I.  Rencontres: le Pacifique et l’Europe 16ème-18ème siècles.  Esquisses narratives et réflexives.  Documents et travaux pour l’habilitation à diriger les thèses.  Unpublished.  2010.  

Péteuil, M-F.  “Ciel d’îles” in Journal de la Société des Océanistes.  2003.  Vol. 116, no. 1.  Pages 13-24.

Raj, K.  “Connexions, croisements, circulations.  Le détour de la cartographie britannique par l’Inde, XVIIIe-e siècles” in M. Werner, B.  Zimmermann (eds.).  De la comparaison à l’histoire croisée.  Le Seuil.  2004.  Pages 73-98. 

Strongman, L.  “The Dolphin and the sextant:
Traditional knowledge and modernity in Polynesian navigation”.  International conference of the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth), the ASAANZ (Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand), and the AAS (Australian Anthropological Society).  2008.  

Surun, I.  “Du texte au terrain: reconstituer les pratiques des voyageurs d’Afrique occidentale, 1790-1880” in Sociétés et Représentations.  2006.  Vol. 21.  Pages 213-223. 

Thomas, S.  The Last Navigator.  Henry Holt and Company.  1987.  

Thomas, N, H. Guest and M. Dettelbach.  Observations Made during a Voyage round the World by Johann Reinhold Forster.  University of Hawai’i Press.  1996.  

Turnbull, D.  “Comparing Knowledge Systems: Pacific Navigation and Western Science” in L. Crowl (ed.).  Ocean and Coastal Studies.  Institute of Pacific Studies.  1994.  Pages 129-44. 

Turnbull, D.  “Cook and Tupaia, a tale of cartographic ‘méconnaissance’” in M. Lincoln (ed.). Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century.  Boydell Press in association with the National Maritime Museum.  1998.  Pages 117-131. 

Turnbull, D.  “(En)-countering knowledge tradi-tions.  The story of Cook and Tupaia” in Humanities Research.  2000.  Vol. 7, no. 1.  Pages 55-76.

Williams, G.  “Tupaia, Polynesian Warrior, Navigator, High Priest - and Artist”.  In F. A. Nussbaum (ed.).  The Global Eighteenth Century.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  2003.  Pages 38-51.

Sort by:
profile photo
Thank you for information received concerning "The Polynesian Navigator"-much appreciated.
I believe Tupaia's great ,great Ancestors had travelled back & forth from Tahitinui to Western Polynesia e.g ROTUMA Island.I'm still compiling DATA to 1400 AD etc...
By Mausio Mafai on 5/29/2016 9:59:06 AM Like:1 DisLike:0
profile photo
Glenn, thank you for your comments. Missing from the list of books at the end of the above article is Joan Druett's biography "Tupaia - Captain Cook's Polynesian Nevigator" published in 2010. There is a review of this book on the Society's website at
By Cliff Thornton on 8/12/2014 9:39:31 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
profile photo
excellent article. the more you did into Tupaia's story, the more fascinating and mysterious it
becomes. I am still puzzled at the shortage of information provided by the men of the Endeavour
about their illustrious passenger. Tupaia's contributions contined well after they moved out of
French Polynesia, particularly in New Zealand. Even odd how Cook gives Tupaia so few words
when the Polynesian died on the way to England. Even Tupaia's incredible sketches had to be
rescued from obscurity and given their proper creator. Anymore ideas to explain the strange
impressions presented above? Many thanks, Glenn.
By Glenn Kletke on 8/10/2014 11:44:35 PM Like:1 DisLike:0

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.