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Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Death of Tupaia

Sinking in spirits, sinking in frame, that admired patriot Tubiah came to Cooper’s Isle,
but came to die.

-- William Perry, surgeon of the Endeavour, writing to the Gentleman's Magazine, 1808

Through the kindness of James Cook scholar, John Robson, a new eye-witness account of the death of Tupaia, the great Tahitian priest and navigator who sailed with Captain Cook on his first expedition, has come to light.

It is in a short series of letters written to the Gentleman's Magazine of London by William Perry, surgeon's mate to William Munkhouse, who replaced Munkhouse as the surgeon of the Endeavour after his superior died in Batavia (Jakarta, Java) in November 1770.

He signed himself "W. P." but, as John Robson observes, it is plain that the writer was Dr. Perry.

Evidently, Dr. Perry was stationed at the seamen's camp at Kuyper Island, close to the island of Onrust, where the Endeavour was being repaired.

First, he confirmed that Tupaia's reason for agreeing to sail on the Endeavour was to go to Britain to procure arms to fight against Puni, the Boraboran chieftain who led the forces that conquered Tupaia's home island, Raiatea:

Tubiah dared an enterprise no less. He saw far-come strangers, who, in his ideas, had enslaved the winds; who could destroy, while yet unseen; against whom distance offered little safety, and armour opposed no defence. To these mysterious wanderers on the ocean, he, without fear, entrusted himself – entrusted a glorious hope, one day to deliver his dear Country from the fangs of Opuni, a neighbouring despot, by means only to be acquired in Britain, - means that appalled those unhurt, resembling the agency of superior beings, and irresistible as lightning.

Then, he described the manner of Tupaia's death, confirming what artist Sydney Parkinson wrote about Tupaia's mortal grief after the passing of his young acolyte, Taiata.

Tubiah came drooping from Batavia, gradually got weaker; and the death, unexpected, of a lively boy he had brought as a servant, hastened his own. The lad’s name was Tayatto of the Tow-tow or slave cast, and of such ingenuity and manners to deserve all his master’s regard. A short illness hurried him off, and he died like a Patriarch, taking leave of us pathetically, each by his name. Tayatto had been received in our large tent but Tubiah would have the corpse removed into his own that he might chant a certain funeral or death-song in his country fashion. The next, or the day after, joined master and man.

That he died one or two days after Taiata also confirms that Tupaia died on about 11 November, as the official logbook, kept by the first officer, logs Taiata's death on the ninth.

A new aspect of Tupaia's voyage is also revealed.  Apparently, when he was persuaded to sail, he was assured that the Endeavour would be back in Britain in ten months' time. That the voyage dragged on (the Endeavour finally arriving home exactly two years after leaving Tahiti) contributed to the deep depression that ravaged the great navigator-priest's health and spirits.

The reported conversation also confirms something that I became more and more convinced of as I researched the strange voyage of this astonishing man -- that his grasp of English was excellent.

It was unfortunate, that the answer to Tubiah’s first enquiries about our future absence from England was “ten Months.” He believed implicitly, moon after moon was reckoned, still with blooming hope up to that period; - but then came all the bitter disappointment. His farther enquiry got ever an uncertain answer, and this made the former mistake infinitely worse. We could all see considerable alteration both in his temper and looks, before we knew, from his various discourses, what the article was so oppressing.

To me he said one day, “Your account about Britain being the ship’s country is a mere story; in fact, you have risen from the bottom of the Sea.” I smiled at the notion and asked, “Which of the many strange sailing canoes he had seen at Otaheite he had known to grow in the Sea?” – He paused, and seemed vexed; but presently finished the conversation with these words: “If not so, you have however lost your way and can never find out Britain again.” This last opinion of Tubiah had more force than he was aware of, at the time I speak of, my own expectation of ever returning to England was very feint.

Similar were the enquiries of our Islander through the ship; and it was too clear that his high-flown hopes had sunk to a very low ebb, long before we reached Batavia. In this Dutch colony so many things presented to confirm every report about Britain, that he lived many days in a state of pleasing wonder. The precious loss of month after month, however, could never be repaired, and his first indisposition brought with it a despondency about conquering Opuni &c.  How distress of mind gives the most trifling complaint in India its most aggravated symptoms! Tabiah declined so fast, that a removal from the City of Batavia was directed. He was conveyed to Cooper’s Isle, where his last sigh was breathed over Tayatto lying dead at his feet. W.P.


Shayne Parkinson said...

What a moving addition this is to the already fascinating story of Tupaia. I imagine it makes you wonder what other details are still hidden away, and may yet be uncovered!

Joan Druett said...

There must also be much that is untold about the other members of the crew -- the histories are so focused on James Cook and Joseph Banks that the rest have become shadowy figures, a mere background to the story of the voyage. Dr. Perry's letters to the magazine also include a new view of the cropping of the ears of Cook's drunken clerk, Orton -- one that opens a little window into the character of John Gore.

Good to hear from you again, Shayne. You've been quiet!

Shayne Parkinson said...

Yes, the "ordinary" people's stories are so often overlooked, which must make it all the more pleasing to have this glimpse into Dr Perry's view of the voyage.

I've been faithfully reading your blog - it's one of my favourites - but have been too busy to comment recently! Now that my new book's out, things are a little quieter, and I'm catching up on quite a few neglected matters.

Dale said...

Makes one wonder whether, at the end, Taiata contracted a rapid-onset contagious tropical disease and Tupaia caught it from him.

Joan Druett said...

But Perry said he was "sinking in spirits" and "sinking in frame" when he arrived on the island, so it seems he was ill already. Still suffering from scurvy? It's possible, as one of the symptoms is depression, though that the voyage was so much longer than promised would have been a factor.

It's certainly a new little window into the story of Tupaia. I was surprised that Perry was so definite that Taiata was "teu teu" meaning the lowest slave class. Paul Tapsell told me that he thought Taiata was possibly Tupaia's nephew, but that does not seem to be likely at all, in view of this.

Many thanks for your input, Dale. It is really thought-provoking.