TUPAIA: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator. By Joan Druett. Random House, 440pp, $55
Tupaia almost sidles onto the stage, whispering into the ear of the imposing woman whom the men of a visiting British frigate assume to be the queen of Tahiti. It was 1767, Tupaia was about thirty years old, he was the advisor to a Tahitian chief and the lover of the chief’s wife, the stately Purea. He was a gifted politician with an impressive range of talents, and Joan Druett suggests that he was the Machiavelli of eighteenth century Tahiti.
Tupaia was already a seasoned traveller, the product of a long tradition of sailors and explorers of the South Pacific. He was a reader of stars and currents, able to sniff the winds for guidance, and understand the behaviour of birds and fish. He had studied history, geography, religion and astronomy. His tattoos reflected his noble and priestly status, and his special skills lay in ocean-going navigation; he could island-hop throughout the South Pacific using dead-reckoning alone if necessary. Soon he would be in the right place at the right time to meet Captain James Cook and the Endeavour when they arrived in Tahiti for the transit of Venus in June 1769. Just as well; Tupaia had found himself on the wrong side of a bloody tribal war that ended in a massacre and he was in hiding.
In this lively and sometimes lyrical biography of a forgotten man Joan Druett goes a long way towards righting a wrong. She goes so far as to say that the story of Endeavour’s first voyage to the South Pacific should be that of three extraordinary men instead of only two, namely James Cook and Joseph Banks. In this book she sets out to prove it, with meticulous research and an extensive knowledge of the ways of old-time sea-farers.
Without Tupaia’s help Cook and his team of scientifics would have found their dealings with the Tahitians hampered by ignorance and misunderstandings. He had status and influence. The visitors were sometimes too ready to fire muskets and even cannon when startled, but Tupaia was quick to learn enough English to act as interpreter, and he was intelligent, and wise enough to calm things down when difficulties between two cultures threatened. It is no wonder that Cook invited him to sail in Endeavour when she left Tahiti to visit other Pacific islands and then to search for the mythical Terra Australis Incognita.
Things did not always go well. On board Tupaia pined for the fresh fruit and vegetables to which he was accustomed and he developed the dreaded scurvy. He made few friends among the crew, and found it difficult to intervene when the Europeans blundered over the culture and customs of the islanders. Cook’s attitude towards him was somewhat ambivalent and mean-spirited. Having taken Tupaia on as a navigator Cook often ignored his advice and undervalued his skills, although he later reluctantly acknowledged the advantages of having him on board. He had the ability to pick up the basics of language, both in New Zealand and Australia, and work out the bits in between with intelligence and understanding so that free and friendly conversations could take place.
Banks was more appreciative of Tupaia’s talents, and more observant about how, for example, Tupaia was reverentially received by the Maori at Tolaga Bay. That didn’t stop Banks from seeing him as a trophy to be displayed like the specimens other explorers had captured and transported home: “I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers” he wrote. This was not the only insensitivity Banks displayed. He was inclined to put his foot in it sometimes, as when Maori at Ship Cove brought tattooed heads to him. Banks, having forced an old man to sell him a head (the first known instance of the trade in mokomokai), declared that the Maori clearly lived “entirely upon fish, dogs and Enemies”.
Captain Cook’s obituary of Tupaia was ungenerous, describing him as proud, obstinate and disagreeable, but Druett has balanced the scales with this absorbing story of a man who deserved better by rescuing him from obscurity and giving him the credit long overdue. It isn’t easy to meld a raw jumble of research material into a cohesive and lively narrative but Druett has managed it with both scholarship and flair. She steers a scrupulous course between fact and speculation, and employs her novelist’s instinct for a good story to augment her academic respect for history.
This handsome book is liberally illustrated with engravings and watercolour sketches, some executed by Tupaia himself, and you can almost hear the conch shells wailing eerily in the background.