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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Capital Times and Tupaia

Writer falls into the past

The New Zealand literary scene is hot for history. Of the nine winners of New Zealand Post Book Awards this year, four are steeped in history and research and a bevy of the finalists also make art of past facts. Wellington’s Joan Druett won the General Nonfiction Award for Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator and tells Amanda Witherell how she got into writing about seaworthy characters.
Joan Druett literally stumbled into writing about maritime history – searching for shade in the lee of a downed tree on Rarotonga, she fell into a hole left by the roots. At the bottom was the 1850 grave of Mary Ann Sherman, the 23-year-old wife of a sea captain, who failed to finish the voyage.

“I wanted to find out what her life had been like on a whale ship and when I got home there was nothing written, only log books,” says Druett. “I realised I needed to go over to the US and visit the whaling museums.”

It was the day before the deadline for Fulbright applications, but Druett penned a quick letter explaining what she wanted to do. Her brevity trumped all the thick applications and heavy tomes of scholarship and she won a Cultural Grant in 1985.

More than 25 years later, Druett has a string of titles to her credit, all works of maritime history or historical fiction, and several awards from American institutions, including a place in the New York Public Library 1998 list of the twenty-five Best Books to Remember for Hen Frigates.

But, she says from the Auckland airport on her way back to Wellington after the Post Awards Ceremony, “This is the first prize I’ve won here in my home country [since a Best First Book of Prose Hubert Church award in 1984].”

Tupaia also has a unique origin story. Druett was aware of the navigator who joined the Endeavour voyage in Tahiti and travelled to New Zealand, but died before reaching England. Cook and Banks regifted Tupaia’s Maori taonga and one hei tiki landed in the British Museum, where Druett saw it in 2008 next to a sign attributing it as a gift from Cook to the King, with no mention of Tupaia.

“I decided this guy deserved a book. He’d been deliberately forgotten. I wanted to restore him to history,” says Druett, who traveled to Australia, London, Bonn, and the US to research, ultimately uncovering lost material in an uncatologued box at Yale University.

Druett’s page turner tells the story of the native of Raiatea who ended up a refugee in Tahiti but within seven years rose to the rank of priest before he met Cook. “He was worthy being written about whether or not he was on the Endeavour,” says Druett.

“He’s mentioned in lots of books and lots of papers and he’s been recognized by a few scholars, but not by ordinary people. I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for him and his diplomacy and tact Cook and Banks would have been killed. He changed history.”

Druett’s book changes history, too, by adding to the voluminous body of international research on Cook.

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