Tupaia the navigator, priest and artist

Dame Anne Salmond and Huw Rowlands discuss the impact of the navigator-priest Tupaia on the Endeavour voyage of James Cook.

Tupaia, the navigator-priest who visited Aotearoa (also known as New Zealand) with Captain James Cook in 1769–70, was a remarkable man. He was a high priest, artist, scholar, warrior, linguist and navigator, whom George Forster described as a ‘genius’. He had travelled extensively, carrying the worship of the war god ‘Oro with him.

Tupaia’s life on the Endeavour

After joining Cook’s expedition, Tupaia piloted the Endeavour through the Society Islands, and handled many of the negotiations with Māori during their six-month circumnavigation of Aotearoa New Zealand. His presence on board the Endeavour transformed these early encounters, making this quite different from any other visit by a European ship during the contact period.

Tupaia’s story began in about 1725, with his birth at Haamanino Bay at Raiatea in the Society Islands. He was from an arii (high chiefly) family, with estates and titles, most notably at Taputapuatea and Tainuu marae on Raiatea. During his youth Tupaia joined the arioi, a society dedicated to the war and fertility god Oro whose members were greatly revered in the Society Islands.

Missionaries such as John Orsmond and William Ellis later recorded great detail about the arioi. Their impact on the Society Islands at this time through ceremonies and entertainments was profound. The arioi performed many different roles in their island societies. They could sing and dance, play music, and act; they might be artists who tattooed or painted on bark-cloth; and like Tupaia, some were also navigators, chiefs, priests and specialists in ancestral lore. Although their rituals were often stately and dignified, their skits and mimes could be hilarious, ridiculing those in power.

As the missionary Richard Thomson reported, Tupaia was ‘reputed by the people themselves... to have been one of the cleverest men of the islands,’ (Thomson, c. 1840) and he soon became a leading navigator, unrivalled in his knowledge of the islands around Raiatea. Joseph Banks was well aware of his abilities, noting in his journal that ‘what makes him more than any thing else desireable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the Islands in these seas.’

After the Endeavour left Tahiti, Tupaia guided the ship to Huahine, where he and the local high chief tried to persuade Cook to help them to drive the Porapora invaders from Raiatea. Cook refused to help him but Tupaia continued to guide him through the islands, and eventually to Haamanino harbour (his own birthplace), and Taputapuatea, (his home, marae), where the local ‘arioi gave them a formal welcome.

The search for Terra Australis

Although Tupaia was eager to sail west, Cook had other, secret orders from the Admiralty: to search for the anticipated continent of Terra Australis. This is not Australia, which was already known, but a new land mass which had long been proposed as a necessary counterbalance to the continents of the northern hemisphere. Tupaia had successfully navigated the ship for weeks, and acted as translator and diplomat between the mariners and the Islanders. But Aotearoa New Zealand was thousands of miles away, beyond his known horizons.

So as they sailed south, Tupaia eventually found himself in unfamiliar waters, and he began to work with Cook on a chart of the islands around Tahiti. In all, he referred to about 130 islands, locating 70 of these on this chart. Aotearoa New Zealand was not included, nor was it in the island lists that Tupaia dictated. This suggests that by 1769, the Society Islanders no longer had any sailing directions for Aotearoa New Zealand; and indeed, Tupaia told Cook that he knew of no great lands to the south.

The Society Islands

Copy Chart of the Society Islands, by James Cook after Tupai’a.

A copy by James Cook of a map by the Tahitian navigator and priest, Tupaia.

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Tupaia’s relationship with Māori people

Tupaia’s contribution to the Endeavour’s voyage, and his reputation, reached new heights during the six months they spent circumnavigating and surveying Aotearoa New Zealand. Tupaia wasn’t with Cook’s party on their first landing at Tūranga-nui, which Cook later called Poverty Bay. That encounter misfired, leaving one of the Māori chiefs, Te Maro, dead on the beach. On the second landing the next day, when his companions realised that Tupaia could speak and understand the local language, he became their chief negotiator with Māori. The local people at Tūranga-nui remained hostile and suspicious, however, and in the clashes that followed, more Māori were shot.

It was not until they arrived at Ūawa that Tupaia’s status was fully recognised by Māori, and he met and developed rich relationships with elders and priests. During their circumnavigation of Aotearoa New Zealand, Cook and his companions learned a great deal as a result of Tupaia’s skills, experience and diplomacy.

Tupaia’s death and legacy

Once in Australia, when it became apparent that Tupaia could not communicate with its indigenous peoples, his influence and status aboard waned. Tragically, Tupaia died at Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) from diseases contracted during Endeavour’s stay there. Many more of the crew would die before the ship returned to Britain.

After Tupaia’s death, Cook remarked on 26 December that ‘He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreable to himself and those about him, and tended much to promote the deceases which put a period to his life.’

James Cook's diary

A page from Captain Cook's logbook filled with writing in his hand.

This entry records his earliest account of a confrontation with two men armed with spears who opposed the British landing.

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Cook had also fallen ill at Batavia, which may explain his churlish comments, but Tupaia deserved a more generous epitaph.

He had guided the Endeavour safely through the Society Islands, freely sharing his navigational and ritual knowledge with Cook and his companions. After failing to persuade Cook to help him to free his homeland from the Porapora invaders, he had continued to act as a diplomat and interpreter in subsequent contacts between the British and island peoples.

He had also learned to execute watercolours in the European style, and to sketch charts, and many on board the ship acknowledged his formidable intellect. Considered by many in Aotearoa New Zealand as the leader of Cook’s voyage, Tupaia was remembered, revered and mourned across the land when the Europeans returned on Cook’s second voyage with news of his death.

Tupaia’s paintings

A series of ‘naïve’ water-colour paintings survive from the voyage; and although these had been previously attributed to Joseph Banks, a letter from Banks came to light in the late 1990s, which made it plain that one of these distinctive images (and, by implication, others in the series) was drawn by Tupaia:

Tupaia the Indian who came with me from Otaheite Learned to draw in a way not Quite unintelligible. The genius for Caricature which all wild people possess Led him to Caricature me & he drew me with a nail in my hand delivering to an Indian who sold me a Lobster... 
(Letter from Joseph Banks to Dawson Turner, 1812).

Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks

Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks

Tupaia’s only known drawing of New Zealand.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Joseph Banks collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of which were unknown in Europe, during the Endeavour voyage. Watch Sir David Attenborough’s account of the man who transformed Europe’s knowledge of science and botany.

Some male arioi were skilled in painting and dyeing bark-cloth, and it is likely that Tupaia was among them. It is suggestive that his images use red, brown and black, the predominant colours of bark-cloth painting, and it is said that arioi men sometimes made special bark-cloth capes adorned with ‘fantastic figures’. The motifs, however, are more likely to have come from Tahitian tattooing, where naturalistic images of plants and people were common. In his turn, Sydney Parkinson learned the names of the Tahitian dyes and the plants from which they were made, while Parkinson, Banks and others of his party acquired arioi tattoos – so the process of artistic instruction was mutual.

One of the reasons the images had been attributed to Banks is that the subjects can be linked to entries in Banks’ Endeavour Journal. For example, the dancing girl (3 August 1769):

In this dress they advancd sideways keeping excellent time to the drums which beat brisk and loud; they soon began to shake their hips giving the folds of cloth that lay upon them a very quick motion which was continued during the whole dance, they sometimes standing, sometimes sitting and sometimes resting on their knees and elbows and generaly moving their fingers with a quickness scarce to be imagind.

Otaheite: Dancing girl and Chief mourner

Otaheite: Dancing girl, and Chief mourner

A woman dancing wearing a traditional headdress and a Chief Mourner who officiated at Tahitian funeral ceremonies.

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And for the musicians (12 June 1769):

There was a large concourse of people round this band, which consisted of 2 flutes and three drums, the drummers acompanying their musick with their voices; they sang many songs generaly in praise of us, for these gentlemen like Homer of old must be poets as well as musicians.

Musicians of Tahiti

Musicians of Tahiti

Four Arioi musicians, including two nose flute players and two drummers.

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These paintings and the chart, now at the British Library, are the tangible legacies of a very remarkable man: Tupaia. They are physical traces of the much deeper, wider and long-lasting intangible influence that he had on his home Society Islands, in Aotearoa New Zealand, and among the people of the Endeavour.

As we have learned more about his life and influence in recent years, it is increasingly clear that he deserves to be celebrated in his own right, as navigator, priest, artist, and much else besides.

Find out more:

Banks, Joseph The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 17681771. Available online at the National Library of Australia.

Banks, Sir Joseph to Dawson Turner, F. R. S. 1812, Letter, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Banks Collection, MS 82, discovered by and quoted in Carter, Harold, ‘Notes of the Drawings by an Unknown Artist from the Voyage of HMS Endeavour’ in Margarette Lincoln, ed., 1998, Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press in association with the National Maritime Museum, pp. 134-5.

Banks, J. and Beaglehole, J.C., 1962. The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771 (Vol. 1). Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales in association with Angus and Robertson.

Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.). The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol I: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771. Hakluyt Society. 1955.

Di Piazza, A. and E. Pearthree. “A new reading of Tupaia’s chart” in Journal of the Polynesian Society. 2007. Vol. 116, no. 3. Pages 321–340. 

Ellis, W., 1832. Polynesian Researches, during a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. 2 Vols. London: William Ellis.

Forster, George, quoted in Beaglehole, J. C., ed., 1969, The Journals of Captain James Cook:

The Voyage of Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775, xxx.

Henry, Teuira and Orsmond, J. M., 1928. Ancient Tahiti... Based on Material Recorded by J. M. Orsmond. [With Portraits.]. Honolulu.

Parkinson, Sydney. and Kenrick, W., 1773. A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty's Ship, the Endeavour: Faithfully Transcribed from the Papers of the Late Sydney Parkinson, Draughtsman to Joseph Banks, Esq., on His Late Expedition with Dr. Solander, Round the World... S. Parkinson.

Salmond, Anne, 2003 The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. London: Allen Lane.

Salmond, Anne 2009 Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti. London: University of California Press.

Salmond, Anne 2012 Tupaia, the navigator-priest, In Mallon, S., Māhina-Tuai, K. U. and Salesa, D. I. eds., 2012. Tangata o le moana: New Zealand and the people of the Pacific. Wellington: Te Papa Press.

Thomson, Rev. Richard, c. 1840, unpublished History of Tahiti, Alexander Turnbull Library Micro. Ms. Collection 2, Reel 169, London Missionary Society M660, Salmond transcript, f.38

Turnbull, D. “Cook and Tupaia, a tale of cartographic ‘méconnaissance’” in M. Lincoln (ed.). Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century.  Boydell Press in association with the National Maritime Museum. 1998. Pages 117–131. 

Turnbull, D. “(En)-countering knowledge traditions. The story of Cook and Tupaia” in Humanities Research. 2000. Vol. 7, no. 1. Pages 55–76.

Williams, G. “Tupaia, Polynesian Warrior, Navigator, High Priest –and Artist”. In F. A. Nussbaum (ed.). The Global Eighteenth Century. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2003. Pages 38–51.

  • Professor Dame Anne Salmond
  • Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond, DBE, CBE, FANAS, FRSNZ, FBA, FNZAH, PhD (Penn) is Professor of Social Anthropology and Māori Studies at Auckland University, and a celebrated author who has spent her life documenting shared cultural history in the Pacific and New Zealand. Her early collaborative work with elders Amiria and Eruera Stirling, of Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Te Ngāti Porou, led to the publication of several books. These were followed by Two Worlds and Between Worlds which detailed early contacts between Māori and Europeans. She also published The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, which focused on Cook’s voyages. Her work has been acknowledged through many awards, not least a CBE, Dame Commander of the British Empire, and New Zealand’s highest scientific award, the Rutherford Medal.
  • Huw Rowlands
  • Huw Rowlands is a mature PhD research student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Following a successful career as an international project manager and latterly a geography teacher, he has since 2014 been dedicated to research into encounters between European and indigenous peoples. His PhD is focused on Cook’s Endeavour voyage and its commemorations, Tupaia, and first contacts in Aotearoa New Zealand. He also works part-time as a project manager at the British Library.