Ginny Fisher talks to the organisers of a groundbreaking new exhibition commemorating the influence of the Tahitian chief, Tupaia, on Cook's voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand
Some 250 years ago, a vessel carrying around 88 Caucasian crew and four Tahitians sailed close enough to Te Kurī a Pāoa - a jagged and rocky finger of Aotearoa New Zealand, to establish if they had found a land of "great extent"
They had not found Terra Australis Incognito - an imagined sixth southern continent Europeans had long thought to exist and that had been explicitly mentioned in Captain James Cook's secret naval orders before he departed Britain.
What they found was Aotearoa, inhabited by Māori since circa 1320 and visited briefly by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman more than 100 years earlier at Golden Bay. He'd thought the country to be one island, not two, as later discovered by Cook.
In typical colonial fashion, Te Kurī a Pāo was swiftly re-named Young Nick's Head after Nicholas Young, the son of the ship's surgeon who first spotted land. Lucky Nick was awarded a gallon of rum for the good deed. He might not have been seeing so well after claiming his prize.
Most of us are familiar with this story - except for the part about the Tahitians aboard. But from knowledge gained from Cook's log books, his passage to and around New Zealand was forever altered due to the addition of an important character who boarded the ship in Tahiti before departing for New Zealand in 1769.
That figure was Tupaia, a navigator, high chief and priest from Ra'iātea, one of the central islands in the Society Islands archipelago near Tahiti. It's his "lesser-known story," says Juliana Satchell-Deo, Pacific associate curator at Auckland War Memorial Museum, told in Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour, an exhibition that coincides with the 250th anniversary of Cook's arrival in New Zealand.
With plans to ensure all New Zealand schoolchildren are taught local history, the exhibition is timely and designed to enrich knowledge of our past. Rebecca Lal, the writer behind much of the exhibition material, says it aims to "de-centre the narrative" from the colonisers to a Māori and Tahitian perspective. For most of us, the history books have only given a peek through Cook's eyes.
"The truth depends largely on who is telling the story," says Lal.
Cook was determined to sell the rights to publish his story of this particular voyage so, once they reached Indonesia on their journey home, he confiscated the crew's journals, except for those of Joseph Banks, the wealthy botanist who funded the journey and who managed to smuggle his out, says Kavi Chetty, content and interpretation developer for the exhibition.
"This story is also about language and how it played such a vital part in Endeavour's journey," says Lal.
English was the only language used to record the journey, so it was the curators' task to come up with stories in Māori and Tahitian to more accurately gauge how locals may have described the encounters with Cook.
"Throughout the exhibition we use Māori and Tahitian language along with English to offer a more balanced story," says Lai. "For example, the term dancing girl is fairly colonial, so instead we use tapairu huru and local names for places like Te Mau Motu Tōtaiete for the Society Islands."
Thanks to Tupaia's ability to communicate with Māori and the Endeavour's crew, Cook managed to travel around New Zealand relatively unscathed – not all Māori he encountered were so lucky - while gathering knowledge of Māori culture and local flora and fauna.
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Voyage to Aotearoa, housed in one room of the museum's impressive, newly opened wing, took more than 18 months for curators, historians, language and navigation experts, animators, writers and illustrators to create.
Tupaia in Tahiti
Here's what we know about Tupaia – and you could say he had it all.
He was reputedly handsome, athletic, artistic, an orator and entertainer. And, to top it off, he could navigate by the stars. Born around 1724, by the time he joined Cook both were in their mid-40s. Unlike Cook, he was nobly born, had considerable landholdings and was one of a select few who taught at the central marae in Polynesia named Taputapuatea, on Ra'iatea's southern coast - now a Unesco world heritage site.
We know Tupaia must have been handsome because after his consecration as priest ('arioi) with star navigation as his specialty, he joined 'arioi society. The most important criteria for joining this religious order was surprisingly superficial - you had to be good looking, but this had to backed up with knowledge of religious texts, skills in storytelling, dance and pantomime, says Satchell-Deo.
Tupaia's parents had also been members of the 'arioi - until they gave birth to Tupaia.
"Children were forbidden in 'arioi society and, as a consequence, there were many cases of infanticide," says Satchell-Deo. "If you had a child, you were demoted of any 'arioi status and were no longer part of the group."
This policy was designed to prevent the upper classes from having children with people in the lower classes to keep the ruling line "pure". Ironically, Tupaia's relatives can be found in New Zealand, where he spent several months on land, specifically in the Tolaga Bay region, says Mat Tait, the illustrator of the exhibition's graphics and of the children's book The Adventures of Tupaia, by Courtney Sina Meredith.
Tait had to decide what Tupaia might have looked like, as there are no known drawings or paintings of him.
"Although he came out of my imagination, I looked at the ceremonial dress of this period and common body markings. I also knew he was a handsome man and he carried himself proudly. He was very aware of his status - Cook wouldn't have compared," says Tait.
"Tupaia might have considered Joseph Banks, who was aristocratic, his equal, but I doubt he would have conformed to European standards while on the boat."
One striking feature of note, says Tait, was Tupaia was "avae parae" or a black leg. Every 'ariori lodge leader, as Tupaia was, had their legs tattooed from thigh to heel - a visible sign of their status.
How this revered chief ended up on Cook's ship had largely to do with the well-documented 1757 invasion of Ra'iatea by warriors from neighbouring Bora Bora. Tupaia was severely wounded in battle but eventually recovered and fled to Tahiti.
"That's how he got his name. He was struck by a spear made of stingray barb. Tupaia means 'to be struck'," Satchell-Deo explains.
He was given refuge by the ruling chief Amo and his wife, Purea and soon proved his diverse talents becoming Amo's adviser and, apparently, Purea's lover, says Satchell-Deo.
He started to pick up English in 1767, when Samuel Wallis visited Tahiti on his ship Dolphin. Satchell-Deo says he appears to have seen the political advantages of maintaining an alliance even when things got tense.
"He could see the power of guns and believed these weapons might help him take back his homeland."
But two years later, the Endeavour arrived ostensibly to record the transit of Venus – a onve in every 243 years event – but with a secret side mission was to find the unknown land of the South. Tupaia befriended Banks, acting as an advisor and guide and impressing all with this skills and intelligence.
Valuable as he proved, Cook didn't agree to fund Tupaia's inclusion on the onward journey west but the wealthy Banks did. When the Endeavour left Tahiti, Tupaia and his servant Taiato, thought to be aged 10-12, joined the voyage intending to travel to Britain to form an alliance with King George, says Satchell-Deo.
It was to be a very different voyage of discovery.
Endeavour's Passage to Aotearoa
While navigating his way across the Pacific, Tupaia, who had visited many islands in his lifetime, made his first map of the region with Cook. A copy of this now revered map is in the exhibition along with Cook's actual telescope and various mechanical pencils used for cartography.
Life aboard the Endeavour, a small boat rather than a full-sized ship, was cramped and uncomfortable with ceilings under the desk so low, no man could stand up. Chetty, the exhibition's content and interpretation developer, says drinking was a common way to pass the time and there was no shortage of alcohol, with each crew member rationed 3.7 litres of beer a day, plus rum.
The exhibition features a series of humorous vignette scenes from below the deck of the vessel. Cheeky and colourful puppet-like figurines of the crew were created by artist Steven Templar and give an insight into what life might have been like.
One sailor lies passed-out in the storage hold; another relieves himself on the "seat of ease", a wooden plank with a hole in it strategically placed over the bow of the boat, where waves could wash nether regions and boat alike.
The Tahitians, on the other hand, had not been introduced to alcohol until the Europeans arrived. They instead used the mildly narcotic kava, or 'ava as it's known in Tahiti. Banks wrote in 1769 while in Tahiti: "Some drank pretty freely of our liquors and in a few instances became very drunk but seemed far from pleased with their intoxication, the individuals afterwards shunning a repetition of it."
But food was still pretty grim. In between visits to islands for fresh produce, vermin infested the ship's rations and one display shows what might have appeared on the table: a maggot-filled stew with sides of heavily salted and preserved vegetables.
"They still hadn't quite worked out how to stop scurvy," says Chetty. "Pickled vegetables were an attempt but this wasn't always effective."
Taiato often entertained the crew with his nose flute playing and on-board artist Sydney Parkinson's drawing of the little boy playing this curious instrument also appears in the exhibition. Indeed, art plays a vital role in the exhibition with watercolour paintings by Tupaia - extraordinary considering he had, up to this point, never set hand on a paint brush or watercolour pigments – which were originally credited to Banks.
"It was only in 1997 that a letter from Joseph Banks was discovered stating that it was Tupaia who had painted him trading with a Maori man. Prior to this the paintings were attributed to 'The Artist of the Chief Mourner'," explains Chetty.
Reproductions of these paintings (the originals are at the British Library) are displayed in lightboxes and come to life via animation. A Tahitian tapairu huru starts to sway her hips to music, nose flutes (popular in Polynesia) start trilling. The accompanying musical sounds were researched by Tahitian scholars.
Other sketches include local scenes in Tahiti and Aotearoa with the etchings blown up to vivid effect, although the original works would have been no larger than notebook size, says Chetty. These enlarged scenes transport the viewer to each place in wonderful detail. A waka drawing by Parkinson is so intricate, each feather of a wreath floating from the bow is clearly visible, as are the decorative patterns of the hoes (paddles) held by Māori warriors.
Encounters with the tangata whenua
Weapons, taonga and trading objects, including steel nails and muskets feature in this part of the exhibit, curated by Taila Roth.
"We wanted to look at the Maori experience of Cook's visit, specifically how conflict was dealt with and how trade developed," she says. "It didn't go so well for Abel Tasman in the South Island."
Roth is referring to the death of four of Tasman's party - killed by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri in Golden Bay more than 100 years earlier. Luckily for Cook, many Māori thought the Endeavour was Tupaia's boat but there were still skirmishes along the way leading to deaths and casualties.
The story of Cape Kidnappers is told in a short film, encapsulating the Māori version of the story – that on seeing Taiato, they thought Cook had stolen a child and set out to rescue him from the Endeavour. The British looked on this as kidnapping - hence the bay's name - and retaliated with cannon fire, killing at least three Māori. In the chaos, Taiato jumped off the waka and swam back to the ship.
Cook eventually figured out it was best to send Tupaia ashore first and many times the Tahitian would stay on land for long periods of time often returning with taonga as word spread that Tuapaia had high chief status in Ra'iatea. With Tupaia's help, interactions turned from violence to negotiation.
"Tupaia's words were more powerful than muskets," says Roth, who explains this was partly due to the fact he was given ancestor rank, as some iwi believe Māori originate from Taputapuatea marae. "Communication shifted the playing field away from fighting to negotiation. Waka would zip out and back to Endeavour, and trade and exchange began."
Endeavour needed access to fresh water and food, so gifts were given in exchange for crayfish, water and vegetables. Trade beads - made from semi-precious stones - and rusty iron and copper nails were offered in return for food and water.
"Nails were hot property," says Roth. "Māori converted them into fish hooks and other tools."
Cook also traded tapa cloths; the finery of these and white linen was recognised as this material could not be created in Aotearoa because aute (paper mulberry tree) didn't thrive here. The cloth was prized for its rarity and was the predominant focus of the first trades between Māori and the Endeavour.
But it didn't always go smoothly. In 1769, Captain John Gore became the first recorded person on the expedition to shoot and kill a local following an altercation over a piece of tapa.
A team headed by Banks was hard at work recording and collecting plant and animal specimens to take back to England. The vast collection of plant specimens Banks and Daniel Solander brought back became the basis for one of the premier herbariums in the world (now in the Natural History Museum in London).
One of the most valuable pieces in the exhibit is a selection of leaves collected by Banks and Solander. Meanwhile, Parkinson completed the world's first ever pōhutukawa drawing - a delicate sprig from the tree which would become forever synonymous with Christmas in New Zealand. To assist in accurate drawing, Banks shot several native birds so Parkinson could record them in detail. Chetty says the tūī was the first native bird to be sketched but many others were eaten.
"Banks was on a personal mission to taste everything in the world he could…"
Tupaia's last days
From New Zealand waters, the Endeavour headed to Australia. Tupaia, despite great efforts, including disrobing on first greeting indigenous Australians, was unable to communicate with their more Micronesian culture and language foreign to him.
"As a result, the British thought them to be unsophisticated and no trading ensued, which is why Australia ended up as a penal colony," explains Chetty.
The Endeavour's next port of call was Tupaia's last. He died in 1770, along with Taiato, most likely from scurvy and was buried on the island of Edam, now Damar Besar, in Indonesia. Their graves were unmarked.
A less-than-glowing entry in Cook's journal, dated December 26, 1770 said this of Tupaia: "He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him, and tended to promote the deceases which put a period to his life."
Although Tupaia's name may not be used as frequently as Cook's to name our roads, straits and bays, there is a cave named after him in Tolaga Bay, Tupaia's Cave, where he once preached to local Māori about a distant homeland.
And when Cook returned to Tolaga Bay three years later, it was Tupaia's name they called upon hearing of his death.
"Aue, mate aue Tupaia!" Departed, dead, alas! Tupaia.
Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour exhibition is on now at Auckland Museum, free with museum entry. As part of the Auckland Heritage Festival, the museum holds two Night at the Museum: Landlubbers to Scurvy Dogs events, where kids can discover more about shipboard life in Tupaia's era. See aucklandmuseum.com for details.
The Adventures of Tupaia, written by Courtney Sina Meredith and illustrated by Mat Tait, is on sale now.