|Bora Bora from Raiatea. Ron Druett photo|
When did Tupaia change his name?
It is currently believed that it was when warriors from Bora Bora invaded Tupaia's home island, Raiatea, and Tupaia was forced to flee to Tahiti, that the high priest changed his name.
The story originally came from the scientist on the Resolution on Captain Cook's second discovery voyage, Johann Forster, who copied down gossip that Tupaia was originally called ‘Parooa’ (Paroa). Humiliated after the battle where the Raiatean forces were routed, he changed his name to Tupaia, meaning ‘beaten’ -- or so Forster claimed. This is also mentioned by Forster's assistant, Dr. Sparrman, but this is probably because he heard it from his employer, secondhand.
So, how true might the legend be? It was common enough for Polynesians to change their name following some life-changing event, but 'beaten'? It seems a strange choice for a man who was as talented and proud as the man who called himself Tupaia, whose considerable talents as a politician and strategist were quickly recognized after he arrived in Tahiti.
There is a chance that the name-change came about later, after the 'discovery' of Tahiti by Captain Wallis of HMS Dolphin in 1767, when the clever high priest proved his value yet again. Demonstrating a gift for languages, the high priest picked up English fast enough to act as intermediary between the British sailors and his mistress, the glamorous high chief Purea, negotiate with Wallis himself, and communicate Wallis's needs to the Tahitian noblity. Two years later, when the Endeavour arrived, Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks found this gift for translation even more useful -- so useful, indeed, that they carried the talented linguist with them when the ship left Tahiti on 13 July 1769.
I am informed by Sri Lankan scholar Somasiri Devendra that the Tahitian name ‘Tupaia’ most probably has its root in the Sanskrit word ‘Thuprasis’, since evolved into the word ‘Thuppaiah’, which means . . . wait for it . . . ‘translator’.