Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator and Translator

Captain james Cook visited the Hawaiian islands in 1778. When he came ashore, the people mistook him for one of their gods. This illustration shows the Hawaiians offering gifts to the English captain.

On his first voyage of Pacific exploration Cook had the services of a Polynesian navigator, Tupaia, who drew a hand-drawn Chart of the islands within 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius (to the north and west) of his home island of Ra'iatea. Tupaia had knowledge of 130 islands and named 74 on his Chart. Tupaia had navigated from Ra'iatea in short voyages to 13 islands. He had not visited western Polynesia, as since his grandfather’s time the extent of voyaging by Raiateans had diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. His grandfather and father had passed to Tupaia the knowledge as to the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Tupaia took Taiata, a servant-boy, with him on HMS Endeavour. Taiata’s experiences were described in the officers’ journals only occasionally, but this engraving of him has survived, based on a lost sketch by Sydney Parkinson. "The Lad Taiyota, Native of Otaheite, in the Dress of his Country," engraved by R. B. Godfrey. S. Parkinson, A Voyage to the South Seas (1773), pl. IX, fp.66. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Tupaia was a respected figure in the Society Islands and something of a virtuoso. A member of the elite arioi society of travelers and performers for the god ‘Oro, he was a ritual specialist, skillful navigator, and negotiator. He had also witnessed in 1767 the extraordinary visit of the first ship from beyond the Pacific: Samuel Wallis’s Dolphin. He knew something of what to expect from these visitors. He established a friendship with the naturalist Joseph Banks, helped Cook in relations with chiefs and learned from the ship’s artists how to draw in European style. Near the end of the Endeavour’s stay he announced he was going to accompany them to England. Cook and Banks, on the lookout for a guide, felt he "was the likeliest person to answer our purpose."

Polynesian war canoes at Tahiti sketched by Cook's artist

After leaving Tahiti, the Endeavour made several stops among the Society Island archipelago. In each place Tupaia used the correct ceremonial forms when greeting the chiefs, easing some of the tensions of these early meetings across cultural divides. In August they departed, as Banks said, "in search of what chance and Tupaia might direct us to."

They steered southward towards New Zealand, to try to determine if it was the northern tip of a great southern continent. Tupaia drew maps and read the currents, weather, and sky. On reaching New Zealand, Tupaia helped establish working relationships between the Maori people and the European visitors. He was able to translate, as the language of the Society Islands was the original basis of the language of the Maori. His lineage was important: he was from the Maori’s ancestral homeland, Hawaiki (Ra’iatea), and was seen to hold substantial spiritual power (mana). There were still violent clashes and misunderstandings. Tupaia, though, created a lasting impression on Maori communities and it was the great priest, rather than Cook or Banks, who was most persistently asked after when voyagers stopped by.

After establishing that the two islands of New Zealand were not the bountiful continent they sought, Cook and his men departed for the east coast of Australia. In April 1770, Cook tried to land with a few officers, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, and Tupaia in a bay that would later form part of Sydney. Two men (of the Gweagal or Eora people) met them with shouts and spears. Tupaia tried in vain to find any words in common and Cook offered gifts, but the visitors only managed to get ashore after firing on the men. Without the ability to obtain food and information from the locals, Cook had to continue on up the coast. Tupaia was of help in northern Australia, when he was able to establish a trusting relationship with the Guugu-Yimithirr people.

From Australia, the voyagers made their way to Dutch Batavia (present-day Jakarta). There, in December 1770, Tupaia and his servant Taiata fell ill. Dismayed at ever having left Tahiti, Tupaia died a few days after Taiata.

1 comment:

  1. The course starts at the very basic levels of language learning prior to language acquisition. Most practical usages of common phrases, words, and terms are the primary things I learned from the first module online translation. The second one taught me the German alphabet and the basic sounds of the German language.