From The Listener
Joan Druett restores Polynesian intermediary Tupaia to his rightful place in Pacific history
Review of Tupaia, the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator by John Dunmore
The first contacts between European navigators and Pacific Islanders were often marked by suspicion and animosity. The islanders were usually under threat from raiders from neighbouring islands or rival tribes. The European, facing threats and hostility, were equally on the defensive. Clashes were common, and a mixture of tact and firmness was required in situations where the difference in languages made communication almost impossible.
Anyone who gave the impression of being a person of high status and having a gift for itnerpreting gestures and lanuage was a real blessing to the voyagers.
Samuel Wallis, whose Dolphin was the first English ship to reach Tahiti, was fortunate to come upon Tupaia, who played a major role in placating the Tahitians, so much so that the next European visitor, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, was made so welcome he tended to describe the island as a South Seas paradise. And James Cook, who followed in the Endeavour, was able to establish an observatory for his scientists and carry out a detailed survey of the island in safety.
When Cook left, he took Tupaia with him. This was not the first instance of a Polynesian travelling as a guest to visit Europe. Bougainville had taken Ahu-toru, who delighted the Parisians and became a favourite of the courtiers at Versailles. Tupaia, however, did not reach England. Weakened by scurvy, he died at Batavia, in what was then the Dutch East Indies.
He had proved an invaluable asset as the Endeavour sailed from Tahitit to New Zealand and on to Australia, but Cook undervalued him. It was Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist, who became his friend and admirer. He had a high regard for Tupaia's knowledge of astronomy and navigation, and appreciated his interest of botany. But Tupaia's role in establishing contact with the Maori, thanks in part of the similarities between the Tahitian and Maori languages and social customs, was of major importance in avoiding bloody clashes. When it came to Australia, the language barrier was insurmountable, but even there Tupaia's noble bearing and fearless but peaceable approach enabled him to make some contact and probably ease the Aborigines' concerns.
Tupaia deserved a full biography, and thanks to Joan Druett's meticulous research, he now has one, comprehensive, highly readable and attractively produced. Plentiful illustrations are perfectly presented, and reveal Tupaia's astonishing ability as a sketch artist, using drawing material that had been totally unknown to him.
He was not a Tahitian, but a Raiatean of high status, well educated and steeped in tradition. He had been forced to flee from Raiatea by invading raders from Bora Bora, but even in Tahiti local rivalries threatened to undermine him and required all his political and personal skills to survive and retain his status.
Druett suggests he and Banks recognised each other as belonging to the upper class, while Cook was essentially a talented commoner. Tupaia's behaviour reflected his background, enabling him to earn respect from the various islanders he met, although most of the Europeans still regarded him as a mere native.
Druett's biography restores Tupaia's place in Pacific history and defines his role on the Endeavour. Avoiding the use of footnotes, common in academic works but which interfere in the narrative flow, she provides a detailed analysis of her sources in a series of detailed chapter "commentaries" and adds a reliable bibliography as well as a detailed index. She also avoids what would have been the tiresome use of "the men of the Dolphin" and "the crew of the Endevour" by resorting to the rather endearing terms "the Dolphins" and "the Endeavours." This reflects the originality and talent of one of New Zealand's most gifted authors.
John Dunmore, CMNZ, Legion d'honneur, Palmes academique, HonDLitt, is a prominent and highly respected academic, historian, author, playwright and publisher. He is the author of Storms and Dreams: Louis de Bougainville, Soldier, Explorer, Statesman, and also the definitive French Explorers in the Pacific.