Decoding Tupaia

How successful would Captain Cook have been without the Tahitian navigator and his mysterious map?
Story by Peter von Buol.

In 1769 Captain James Cook was in Tahiti on the first of his three major expeditions to the Pacific. He was in his mid-forties, a rising star in the ranks of the British Navy, and on this trip he was captaining the HMS Endeavour.

Had you visited the ship during the three months Cook was in Tahiti, you might well have found on board a tall and authoritative man close in age to Cook. His name was Tupaia, and he was a Polynesian born on the island of Ra‘iātea. 

Tupaia was, by every account, a remarkable man. The son and grandson of master navigators, he had been trained at Ra‘iātea’s Taputapuātea, perhaps the most renowned voyaging temple in Polynesia. Early on he had memorized star and sun paths and learned to make careful astronomical observations. He knew the directions of ocean currents and swells and the ways to analyze winds and cloud formations. He had also memorized long lists of information about numerous islands throughout the Pacific, information that included the name of the island, its size and whether it was a high or low island; whether it had a coral reef, the location of its good harbors and the types of food that could be found there; whether it was inhabited; whether its residents were friendly and the name of its high chief. 

Tupaia was a distinguished Polynesian navigator who sailed on the first voyage of Captain James Cook. The men were aboard the HMS Endeavour, a research vessel of the British Royal Navy originally built to haul coal in the North Sea.

Two years before Cook arrived in Tahiti, during the visit of HMS Dolphin, Tupaia had learned English. Now he proved himself indispensable to Cook and his crew as an interpreter and guide during their stay on Tahiti. In his journal, Cook was full of appreciation for Tupaia’s skill and help. “This man had been with us most part of the time we had been upon the Island which gave us an opportunity to know him,” Cook wrote. “We found him to be a very intelligent person and to know the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religion laws and customs of the inhabitants better than anyone we had met with.”

Robert Molyneux, the master of the Endeavour, who was responsible for navigation and sailing, also had high praise for Tupaia. “[He was] infinitely superiour in every Respect to any other Indian we have met with,” wrote Molyneux in his journal, “he has conceiv’d so strong a friendship with Mr. Banks that he is determined to Visit Britannia.” 

Mr. Banks was Joseph Banks, a 26-year-old naturalist and botanist aboard the Endeavour. Banks was passionate about the natural world and would go on to great renown as a botanist. He was also already a man of means, who had inherited significant wealth and studied at Oxford; on Cook’s voyage he had funded eight others to join him. Of all the men in Cook’s crew, Tupaia forged his closest relationship with Banks—likely a taio, or bond friendship, that would have freed Tupaia to share his wide knowledge of Tahitian life.

“He is certainly a most proper man,” wrote Banks of Tupaia, “well-born, a chief, a Tahu‘a, or priest of this Island, consequently skilled in the mysteries of their religion; but what makes him more than anything else desirable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the Islands in these seas; he has told us the names of above seventy, the most of which he has himself been at.” 

It became clear that Tupaia’s expertise could prove invaluable to Cook’s expedition. Throughout the Endeavour’s time in Tahiti, many islanders had expressed interest in joining the ship and traveling all the way to Great Britain, but Cook, who had no guarantees that the British government would pay for a visitor’s expenses, had been reluctant to accept a passenger. Now Banks offered to step in and cover Tupaia’s expenses. And so, just days before the Endeavour was scheduled to leave Tahiti, the renowned navigator from Ra‘iātea was asked to join the expedition. He agreed and came aboard, bringing with him a fellow Polynesian, a companion and assistant named Taiato. 

With Tupaia on board, Cook was eager to survey the islands of Huahine, Bora Bora and Ra‘iātea. Cook wanted to add more islands to his charts of the Pacific, and he thought that this part of the journey would also allow him to stock up on provisions before following orders to sail south and search for Terra Australis Incognita, the continent many believed existed in the Southern Hemisphere. 

As they sailed among the Society Islands, Tupaia continued to impress all aboard the ship. He knew the languages and customs wherever they landed, and he willingly served as Cook’s interpreter and intermediary. Generously and patiently, he shared what he knew. As the weeks passed, he became even more adept at English, and the exchange worked both ways: Banks and Cook improved their understanding of Tahitian vocabulary and grammar. 

On August 10, 1769, the Endeavour left Ra‘iātea and headed away from the Society Islands. Tupaia wanted to sail west, but Cook directed the ship to sail south, obeying the British Admiralty’s command to search for a southern continent. Had the Endeavour in fact sailed west, it would have reached Tonga, Sāmoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji—all places Cook would go on to visit on his second Pacific voyage. 

As they sailed south, Tupaia informed Cook that they were heading in the direction of Hiti-roa (known today as Rurutu), an island he had last visited more than two decades earlier. After a brief visit there, Cook continued south. Tupaia questioned the decision but nevertheless continued to share his knowledge. He told Cook he knew of only one more island to the south, about a two-day sail distant. He added that he knew from his ancestors that there were two other islands in that direction but said that he himself did not know how to locate them. Today it is believed Tupaia was describing the locations of Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa.

As the Endeavour sailed closer to the Antarctic Circle, the colder temperatures affected Tupaia’s health greatly, as did an intestinal disorder most likely caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. But despite his physical struggles, it was during this time that Tupaia worked with Cook, Molyneux and others to commit his extensive navigational knowledge to paper. Tupaia is now believed to have created three drafts of a chart of the Pacific during his time with the English sea captain. Though all three originals have been lost, copies of the first and third remain known, the first in Germany, the third in England. They are indeed extraordinary: The first includes fifty-eight named islands; the third, seventy-four named islands. They cover a distance east to west of nearly five thousand miles and a distance north to south of more than thirty-seven hundred miles.

This copy of the final chart Tupaia created while he was at sea on the Endeavour shows the extraordinary depth of knowledge the navigator possessed. The chart includes seventy-four named islands and spans a distance of more than thirty-seven hundred miles.

Much of the work of understanding Tupaia’s chart has been undertaken only in the last decade, by German researchers Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz. The pair first became interested in Tupaia’s chart six years ago, while they were teaching colonial-era travel writing at the University of Potsdam; their course materials included Cook’s journals, which contained a record of the third and final draft of Tupaia’s chart. In her new book Sea People, author Christina Thompson describes Tupaia’s chart as a translation of Tahitian geographical knowledge into European cartographic terms, a bringing together of two world-views. It was not an easy feat, as Eckstein and Schwarz realized. 

“The chart fascinated us,” Eckstein says. “We began using it as a key example of the encounter between different knowledge traditions. It was really helpful for explaining to students that a Eurocentric view of the world is just one way of seeing it and organizing it.” 

The two researchers began to investigate the differing island lists that the Polynesian had also provided to Cook and to Molyneux; Eckstein and Schwarz believed these word lists were key to understanding the knowledge Tupaia was offering. “The more research we did into Polynesian navigation, the clearer it became to us that the narratives, and thus sequences, must matter,” Eckstein says; it was the sequences, they believed, that indicated the routes. Another key to understanding what Tupaia was trying to share, they concluded, was his placement of the word avatea, the Tahitian word for noon, on the charts. Every day on the ship, Cook and his officers would record their astronomical observations at noon. “Our argument is that avatea marks a bearing to the north from whichever island or route you place yourself on,” says Schwarz.

Given all of the above, the pair believe that Tupaia described two epic long-distance voyaging routes within the third and final chart (the copy of which is now at the British Library in London). The first long-distance route connects Rotuma with Rapa Nui on a route that encompasses a fifth of the earth’s circumference and travels via Sāmoa and Tonga, the southern Cook Islands, the Austral Islands, Mangareva and Pitcairn. The second long-distance route connects Tahiti with O‘ahu. To sail to O‘ahu, Tupaia’s route begins in Ra‘iātea, guides the vessel through the Tuamotu Islands to reach Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas and from there heads northwest to O‘ahu. “The evidence that this is indeed O‘ahu really only follows from an understanding of the logic of Tupaia’s chart,” Eckstein says, “what we have called the ‘avatea system.’”

But in 1769, Cook was heading south, not east or north along one of Tupaia’s charted routes. On October 6, nearly three months after leaving Tahiti, the Endeavour arrived in Aotearoa, known as New Zealand. Two days after reaching the North Island, the ship sailed into Turanga-nui (Poverty Bay). There the poor decision was made to go ashore without Tupaia. The first encounter between the British and the Māori ended disastrously, with the death of Te Maro, a Māori warrior from Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti who most likely was simply engaging in a formal welcome and not threatening the British. The next day, escorted by a party of British Marines, Cook and Banks landed with Tupaia by their side. Shortly afterward the Māori performed a haka to protest the shooting of their comrade. Tupaia told the Māori that the British came in peace and simply sought fresh food and water. According to Aotearoa historian/anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond, “Cook and the others were surprised that Tupaia could make himself understood. When they went ashore for the first time at Turanga-nui, they thought they were landing on Terra Australis, the unknown southern continent. It wasn’t until the next day, when Tupaia came ashore with them, that they realized the local people were closely related to Tahitians—and they learned that from Tupaia.”

The Endeavour wound up spending six months circumnavigating the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Wherever the British sailed, Tupaia was respected by the Māori for his knowledge and wisdom and venerated as a high priest and high chief. “Tupaia would have told the local people that he and his companions had sailed from Ra‘iatea, a famed homeland of the Māori,” Salmond notes, “and from Tahiti-nui, another ancestral source.” Many Māori believed Tupaia was the leader of the expedition, not Cook, and time and again, the Tahitian helped the British to procure provisions and obtain vital geographical information. Throughout the visit he was showered with gifts of great prestige, including a pair of canoe paddles, a dog-skin cloak and a carved ancestral panel from a Māori meetinghouse. For his part Tupaia seems to have left a reminder of his visit, a painting of a square-rigged ship on the wall of a North Island cave. 

Work on the chart continued during this time; in February 1770 the Endeavour sailed to the South Island’s Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) for a brief respite, and Tupaia, Cook and Banks used the pause to complete work on the final version of the chart. Shortly afterward the Endeavour continued its circumnavigation of the South Island and confirmed that New Zealand was not the southern continent.

A scene in Tahiti: Tupaia created this India ink drawing in 1769. It shows a traditional longhouse in Tahiti on a beach with pandanus, breadfruit, banana, coconut and taro. In the foreground, three Tahitian canoes.

After leaving New Zealand the Endeavour sailed for the uncharted east coast of Australia. Tupaia continued to land with the others, but in Australia he did not have the same Polynesian links with the Aborigines that he had had with the Māori and he was disappointed that he was not able to communicate with them as easily. Fortunately, he was able to forage and hunt for recognizable food while in Australia, and his health began to recover. But it was not enough to save him. From Australia the next stop for the Endeavour was the city of Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, and here almost everyone on the ship, including Tupaia and Cook became ill.

Tupaia died in Batavia on December 26, 1770; days earlier his companion Taiato had preceded him in death. The Endeavour’s Sydney Parkinson wrote of their deaths, “When Taiyota [Taiato] was seized with the fatal disorder, as if certain of his approaching dissolution, he frequently said to those of us who were his intimates, Tyau mate oee, ‘My friends, I am dying.’ He took any medicines that were offered him; but Toobaiah [Tupaia], who was ill at the same time, and survived him but a few days, refused every thing of that kind, and gave himself up to grief; regretting, in the highest degree, that he had left his own country, and, when he heard of Taiyota’s death, he was quite inconsolable, crying out frequently, ‘Taiyota! Taiyota!’”

Tupaia and Taiato were buried side by side on an island in Batavia Harbor. When the Endeavour arrived home seven months later, Tupaia reached England only in the hearts of the men he’d sailed with and in the pages of their journals. But Cook remained always well aware of the great value of the distinguished Polynesian’s knowledge and presence. Any ship that had Tupaia onboard, he wrote, “would have a prodigious advantage over every ship that [had] been upon discoveries in those seas before.” HH