Home > Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator Druett, Joan. 2010

Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator Druett, Joan. 2010

Horwitz 2002 US
Front of book published in USA 2010
Horwitz 2002 US
Front of book published in New Zealand 2011

Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator
By Joan Druett. Published in 2010 by Praeger Books, USA. ISBN 978-313-38748-7.
Also published as Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator. Random House, New Zealand. 2011. ISBN 978-81869793869.

This book is the first biography of Tupaia, who, the author contends, is the greatest known Polynesian 18th century navigator. Druett's conclusion is that "The Endeavour voyage had been blessed with the most intelligent and eloquent Polynesian intermediary in the history of European discovery: That Cook's and Banks's Endeavour journals are great travel stories with remarkable insight, destined to be everlastingly popular, is directly due to Tupaia. The story of that voyage should be that of three extraordinary men, not just two, but Cook's moment of malice and the silence that followed have ensured that until very recent times Tupaia has been almost invisible."

Druett's "malice" refers to Cook's unflattering journal entry after Tupaia's death.

The author's book is organized into 18 chapters beginning with a very interesting description of Tupaia's early life and Polynesian navigation. The son of a Raiatean chief, he was destined for great things, including the best education, and to be a priest. Druett writes convincingly about Tupaia's navigational training, eventually ranking him as a master navigator. This included developing a complex mental navigational map, with knowledge of steering directions, weather, navigation by stars, and the sea: currents, ocean swells, winds, reflections of distant lagoons on the clouds, and flight patterns of birds. Tupaia presented an imposing appearance: handsome, tall, straight, dressing in flowing white robes, a high priest. Druett writes, "If Tupaia became haughty and arrogant later, it was because life made him that way."

Tupaia departed Raiatea when he lost his lands and position as a result of warfare by men from Bora-Bora. He then arrived on Tahiti, became the favored lover of, and advisor to, Queen Purea. Druett describes Tupaia as "the Machiavelli of Tahiti: not only did he greatly influence the policies at home, but he was an advisor in dealings with great warrior chiefs." Then the first European visitors arrived: Wallis in 1767, Bougainville in 1768 and Captain Cook in 1769.

Although the book is a biography of Tupaia, it is also a general narrative of the visitors to Polynesia. Tupaia is not always front and center in the narrative. He is viewed through the journal entries or other accounts by visitors, accounts written later by missionaries and others, or oral Polynesian traditions. The text relates the first meetings of the visitors and the Tahitians, the tentative exchanges, the apprehension, occasional violence, and eventual trading, personal relationships that developed, and the likely inevitable crises that arose when two cultures meet for the first times. Tupaia gradually moved from the shadows to a prominent position, along with Purea during Cook's visit.

The last half of the book deals with post-Tahitian events. One of the reasons advanced by the author is that by having Tupaia join Endeavour's voyage from Tahiti, Cook, Banks, and others could rely on a person familiar in dealing with other Polynesians, as well as his navigational knowledge. Tupaia, although apprehensive in leaving Tahiti, desired to return to Raiatea as well as the opportunity to eventually visit England and perhaps secure assistance in recovering his ancestral lands, however unlikely that might be. The author contends that neither Cook nor Banks (who encouraged Tupaia to join the voyage) fully thought through the implications of having him on board. Taiata, Tupaia's "acolyte and foster son," was also to sail with Endeavour.

When Endeavour departed Tahiti 13 July 1769 Tupaia wanted to sail north to visit other Polynesian islands. Cook, however, followed Admiralty instructions to search for the unknown southern continent, and then to proceed to New Zealand. The author acknowledges why Cook followed instructions but suggests that he should have followed Tupaia's advice, and that he later regretted not doing so. Moreover, Captain Cook infrequently sought Tupaia's advice about navigation. In general, Tupaia's navigational skills were either not recognized or went unused. Druett states his ambiguous position in the ship meant that he was essentially alone and friendless.

The author's two chapters on Endeavour's New Zealand circumnavigation are among her most interesting. It is here where Tupaia's value to the First Voyage is evident. Because Tupaia could converse with the Maori, whenever he was present relationships turned out positive. Tupaia, therefore, was not only a navigator but a skilled diplomat. Cook's most positive remarks about Tupaia were noted in New Zealand: "Tupaia always accompanies us in every excursion we make and proves of infinate service." While sailing, Tupaia's mental navigational map was recorded as a European style map by Cook, although the author criticizes Cook because he did not include all the islands identified by the Polynesian navigator.

After departing New Zealand and while encountering the eastern Australian coast, Tupaia developed signs of scurvy. By the time Endeavour struck the Great Barrier Reef, Tupaia was seriously ill. He recovered while Endeavour was careened for repairs, then suffered again from scurvy while sailing to Batavia. A partial recovery occurred but the unhealthy disease-ridden location was dangerous to everyone in Endeavour, including Cook who also fell ill.

The author contends that Tupaia died from scurvy, and that Captain Cook and others did not recognize this situation, ignored Tupaia, or deliberately obscured his illness. Her account of the deaths first of Taiata and then of Tupaia are particularly poignant. The author also suggests that Tupaia may have been affected by other diseases contracted at Batavia, but his system was so weakened by scurvy that he could not recover. Moreover, journal accounts provide varying dates for Tupaia's death, suggesting an effort to disguise the truth. Banks's date is 11 November 1770. Cook did not record Tupaia's death until 26 December, as Endeavour departed Batavia: his entry noted Tupaia's arrogance and unpopularity and that he did not take advice regarding diet and medicine. However, I think it an overstatement to infer that Cook conveniently obscured Tupaia's scurvy in order to achieve the Copley Gold Medal six years later.

Druett identifies another slight to Tupaia's memory in her conclusion that artifacts credited to Banks, once Endeavour returned to England, were originally gifts presented to Tupaia by Polynesians.

Joan Druett's book is very well written and reading it is enjoyable. She provides an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Tupaia's Map and his other drawings/paintings are included as illustrations. There are no footnotes. A chapter-by-chapter bibliographical essay at the end of the text identifies source material. Sometimes the text references the journal author cited for a particular matter.

It is a difficult task to write a biography about a person who left no personal papers, journal, or other records. Therefore, what is known about Tupaia is based on the writings or memories of others. At times the author's account or conclusions are conditioned: Tupaia may have been present, he might have suggested, he probably took or advised a particular action. It is understandable why this is necessary in order to write this particular biography but it also at times indicates conclusions based upon reasoned assumptions.

Along with Anne Salmond's recent Aphrodite's Island, Joan Druett's biography of Tupaia is well worth reading to gain an insight into Tahiti and Polynesia as well as Tupaia's contribution to Endeavour. Each reader will need to decide if one, two, or three extraordinary men navigated or directed Endeavour. Clearly, Tupaia's contribution to Cook's First Voyage and his historical visibility is enhanced through this useful biography.

Reviewer: James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 40, volume 34, number 3 (2011).

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John, thank you for that information about Endeavour and the Waka. I know that Cook took a great interest in the many types of canoes that he encountered throughout the Pacific. I feel sure that he would have known the speed that his blunt-bowed ship could sail at, and he would have known that it was much slower than that achieved by sea-going waka. I do not know the incident that you refer to, but I will check out Cook's journals to see if he recorded the incident. I will contact you directly if I find a reference to the incident.
By Cliff Thornton on 3/29/2021 8:26:00 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Much later there was a celebrated incident when Endeavour was travelling in the South Pacific and came upon some Polynesian waka travelling the same route. Cook (through his translator Tupaia) asked if they might travel together and the Polynesian sailors agreed – only to find that their twin hulled waka were significantly faster than the big British bark. After sailing in circles around Endeavour for a few days the Polynesians departed with a farewell that included “we’ll see you when you get there”. Sailing fast is in our blood.

Do you have any record corresponding to that?

By John Hurley on 3/28/2021 7:59:14 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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