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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tupaia and North & South

The full review

Tupaia: the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator. Random House NZ: $55

Muster roll of the Endeavour April 18, 1769, when Tupaia -- "Tobia" -- joined the crew.
Reviewed by Paul Little

Tupaia is the noble Tahitian priest who facilitated contact with early European explorers of the Pacific.  Today, we would call him a skilled networker.  He was certainly a skilled politician, linguist and, above all, navigator.

Tupaia and Tahiti first encountered Europeans in the form of the 1767 Dolphin expedition.  Like that of the Captain Cook's Endeavour a short time later, it followed the all too familiar first-contact sequence of culture clash, gunfire and death.

There is a lot that will be familiar to readers of Anne Salmond's masterpiece The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, which covers much of this territory in considerably less detail.  Both books, for instance, provide head-spinning accounts of the intricacies of Tahitian society and politics, which make day-to-day affairs in Byzantium look like a Playcentre committee meeting.

History, of course, is often about retelling tales and it's contending interpretations rather than narratives that have to slug it out.  Druett has a very different view of Tupaia from Salmond's.  In particular, as her title suggests, she emphasises his skill at navigation, which was largely spurned by Cook when the Tahitian joined the Endeavour to sail from Tahiti to New Zealand and Australia.  We are often told what great navigators ancient Polynesians were but we've seldom had it demonstrated so convincingly or with such clarity.

Druett also accuses Cook of fudging details of Tupaia's death because he was determined to go down in history as the captain who kept his crew alive.  This charge is not made by Salmond, whose work tends to apotheosise the explorer.

This is a stimulating read, and challenging in a good way.  And additional pleasure is the inclusion of several of Tupaia's own watercolours, some familiar, representing several key events, from Joseph Banks attempting to trade a lobster to a battle between Tahitians at sea and Aboriginals fishing.  This addition to Tupaia's other undoubted skills emphasises the tragedy of his premature death on Batavia.

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