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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman sets sail with Tupaia

Review in New Zealand Books

"One of the great virtues of Joan Druett's style of historical writing in this extensive reassenssment of Tupaia's role in Pacific history, is her ability to make poetry from maritime history, to evoke the world of 18th century sailors and their ships with a lyrical delight," writes Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, who goes on to say, "With a novelist's narrative muscle, she has crafted a readable and convincing tale of a wronged and forgotten Raiatean hero to whom the record has given precious little credit for the success of Cook's first voyage to New Zealand from Tahiti and his subsequent circumnavigation of these islands."

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (this year's University of Waikato Writer in Residence) may not agree with some of the conclusions I drew from detailed study of the logs and journals, but had much that is good to say.  "What is exciting about this necessary and fascinating study," he writes, "is the picture that emerges of Tupaia as a kind of co-ethnographer with the Europeans, clearly seen in the imaginative placement of his artwork alongside the better-known images of Parkinson ...

"Certainly, his role as a translator and explainer of Europeans to Maori and vice versa in the early and later New Zealand encounters rank him along with Cook as our first genuine ethnographer of Maori.  For this insight alone, Druett's retelling of his life has a value beyond its reiterations of how badly he was wronged: without him, such encounters would have shown up in far less sharp focus in the record of our earliest meetings.

"As is typical of recent Random House New Zealand history titles, the book is beautifully presented and competitively priced: sumptuous would be a fair description.  Lavishly illustrated in colour, with charts and maps, it is a pleasure to behold and explore.  There are no page references in the text (the typical scholarly apparatus), but this is cleverly circumnavigated with all citations listed and discussed in a commentary section, divided into chapters, at the end of the book.  I found it quite simple to skim through these after reading each chapter.  It's a good compromise between the Michael King Penguin History of New Zealand model (no references given at all) and the rather more pointy-headed footnote system (a la Judith Binney et al). ...

"I'm no great fan of inflated book titles that tell me I'm about to read "a remarkable story": if it is one, the reading of it will let me know.  Yet this truly is, and we're the richer for Druett's being captured by its potential, and her dogged persistence in doing the hard yards tha have given us a readable and thoughtful portrait of Tupaia and his times. ..[T]he historiography of Pacific exploration needs many more hands on deck like hers."

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