Tupaia, [A Scene in Tahiti], 1769, British Library, Add MS 15508, f. 14
Tupaia, [A Scene in Tahiti], 1769, British Library, Add MS 15508, f. 14


Who was Tupaia?

Tupaia was a high priest and navigator who joined James Cook’s first voyage at Tahiti.

Tupaia was born on the island of Ra‘iatea in the Society Islands in about 1725. He was educated as a high priest, or tuhuna of Oro – the god of war – whose main temple was at Taputapuatea in Ra‘iatea. As a young man he also joined the Arioi, a cult group distinguished by particular tattoos. As well as officiating in religious ceremonies, priests acted as custodians of knowledge, including medicine, astronomy and navigation.

When Ra‘iatea was conquered by men from the island of Bora Bora, led by their chief Puni, Tupaia fled to Tahiti. There he became an advisor to Purea, a high-born woman, and her husband Amo, the chief of Papara.

Tupaia and the British

The first European ship known to have visited Tahiti was HMS Dolphin, which arrived at Matavai Bay in 1767. Tupaia is believed to have met the British with Purea, who the visitors wrongly thought was the Queen of Tahiti.

When the Endeavour arrived in 1769 Tupaia formed a friendship with the naturalist Joseph Banks, and acted as an advisor and guide to the visitors. James Cook described him as 'a very intelligent person, and to know more of the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religion, laws and customs of the inhabitants than any one we had met with'.

The journals of both Banks and Cook include long descriptions of Tahitian society and customs, which are believed to be based on conversations with Tupaia, and a manuscript chart survives depicting his knowledge of the islands of the Pacific.

Why did Tupaia join James Cook’s voyage?

When the Endeavour left Tahiti, Tupaia and his servant Taiato, a boy of 10 or 12 years of age, joined the voyage with the intention of travelling to Britain.

At the island of Huahine, Tupaia acted as both interpreter and intermediary, ensuring that the new arrivals observed the correct social and religious norms. Under his guidance, William Monkhouse, the surgeon, took part in the welcoming ritual as the nearest British equivalent of a priest and healer in Polynesian society.

The Endeavour also visited Ra‘iatea, Tupaia’s home island, which was still under occupation by men from Bora Bora. One of Tupaia’s motives in allying with the British may have been the hope that the Endeavour’s guns could be used to help oust the invaders.

Where else did Tupaia travel to with James Cook?

Tupaia sailed on the Endeavour to New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand had been settled during the Polynesian exploration of the Pacific, and Tupaia’s ability to communicate with the Māori people in a language similar to their own made his role critical. He acted as interpreter and intermediary, sometimes being called on to resolve disputes, and became famous in the places the Endeavour visited.

Tupaia died from fever at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1770.

In the 1990s, the discovery of a letter from Joseph Banks describing Tupaia drawing in New Zealand led to the attribution of a series of artworks to him. These included several drawings from the Society Islands and one each from New Zealand and Australia.

Book now for our James Cook: The Voyages exhibition, open until 28 August 2018.

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