By Sarah Ell

This year's Pasifika Festival at Western Springs will celebrate not only the vibrant cultures that enrich Aotearoa today, but also the visit of a significant Polynesian figure two and a half centuries ago.

While traditional histories have focused on the arrival of Captain James Cook and his band of British sailors and gentlemen in 1769, this year's Tuia — Encounters 250 commemorations will also celebrate the contribution of Tahitian priest and navigator Tupaia. He joined Cook's expedition into southern seas after the British party visited his homeland, and his dialect was close enough to te reo Māori to enable him to act as a vital interpreter and intermediary between Cook's men and the tangata whenua — perhaps saving lives on both sides.

Canoes, in the Society Islands, Tahiti by Sydney Parkinson (c. 1745 _ 1771). Photo / Getty
Canoes, in the Society Islands, Tahiti by Sydney Parkinson (c. 1745 _ 1771). Photo / Getty

At this year's Pasifika Festival, the Tahitian village will have a range of performances and displays to acknowledge Tupaia's visit. ATEED's Head of Major Events Stuart Turner says the festival underscores the importance of the long-standing relationship between Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands.

Advertisement

"The festival brings together thousands of people to learn about and celebrate Pasifika culture in the world's largest Polynesian city. Pasifika is a reflection of our multi-cultural region, highlighting our important Polynesian heritage as well as strengthening our identity as an exciting, cultural destination."

Opoutama, or Cook's Cove, where Tupaia was treated with respect and given a special cave to sleep in. Photo / Warren Buckland
Opoutama, or Cook's Cove, where Tupaia was treated with respect and given a special cave to sleep in. Photo / Warren Buckland

For many iwi around the country, Tupaia is a key figure in the story of the first encounters between local Māori and Europeans. Sociologist, tour guide and local history expert Anne McGuire of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, who lives at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), north of Gisborne, says the Tahitian was considered much more important than Cook to her ancestors. Tupaia was originally from Raiatea in the Society Islands, considered to be the ancestral Māori homeland Hawaiki, which McGuire says "would have made him immensely important and given him ariki status as far as our people were concerned."

"For our own people, it was about the fact that he could speak their language. They understood him, and he understood them. It was obvious that he came from their homeland," she says. "For them, it was like catching up — what's been happening back there, this is what we're doing here. It was an exchange of information for them."

Oral history traditions of the Endeavour's visit to Ūawa in 1769 highlight Tupaia's role as a communicator, and demonstrate highly how he was esteemed. McGuire says that while the stories handed down to her from her grandparents mention the activities of the scientists and artists of the expedition, "Tupaia is the only person they mention by name. They saw him as the chief of the boat, the big boss — and of course they would think he was the boss: he was the one doing the talking. And he didn't do anything to correct that thinking — to me that's typical Polynesian humour."

Accordingly, Tupaia was treated with great respect and taken to a special cave to sleep in at Opoutama, now also known as Cook's Cove.

"He didn't go back to the ship when it was anchored in the bay — he stayed on land and talked to the people and slept in the cave," McGuire says. "The people also made him a bath house. He complained about the British sailors being dirty and smelly, so they opened a spring and made him a place where he could have a bath."

The memory of Tupaia's visit was still strong when four years later, in November 1773, Captain Tobias Furneaux of Cook's second Pacific expedition arrived at Tolaga Bay, his ship in need of repairs and his men of R and R. When the local people asked after Tupaia and were told of his death in Batavia (Jakarta) on the way to England in 1770, they mourned his passing.

Uncharted with Sam Neill.
Uncharted with Sam Neill.

When working with the team making documentary series Uncharted, with Sam Neill, McGuire discovered that Furneaux had recorded details of this event in his journals.
"I was telling Sam [Neill] that our people had held a funeral service for Tupaia to farewell him, because that was our oral history. I'd never read any of Furneaux's journals, but the director had read them and showed me the entry where Furneaux had recorded the lament they sang, using phonetics.

Advertisement

"That was a really uplifting find for me, because I had heard this story from my grandparents, but to actually read it was so validating of our oral history. . . To find entries from that time reporting exactly what we've always been told is absolutely fantastic."

Oral history traditions of the Endeavour's visit to Uawa, or Tolaga Bay, in 1769 highlight Tupaia's role as a communicator.
Oral history traditions of the Endeavour's visit to Uawa, or Tolaga Bay, in 1769 highlight Tupaia's role as a communicator.

The Uncharted series featuring Tupaia is part of a growth in interest in the Tahitian's critical role in early contact, which was reignited by the earlier Maori Television documentary Tupaia's Story, made by film-maker Lala Rolls and released in 2016.

"That was when people started to realise how important a role he played in Cook's New Zealand visit, because of his ability to communicate in the language of the Māori. Otherwise I think Cook would have been killed long before Hawaii on his third voyage," McGuire says. "The significance of it was that Cook was able to go on and have those three voyages and map the world. Imagine how much longer it would have taken had he not been able to do that."

The Pasifika Festival, held at Western Springs in Auckland, celebrates 27 years in 2019. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Pasifika Festival, held at Western Springs in Auckland, celebrates 27 years in 2019. Photo / Dean Purcell

Pasifika Festival is a free, family-friendly Auckland Council event taking place at Auckland's Western Springs, on Saturday, March 23, 9am-7pm and Sunday, March 24, 10am-4pm.