Two names from the 18th century voyage of the Endeavour are fixtures in New Zealand history - James Cook, the ship's captain, and wealthy botanist Joseph Banks.

Maritime historian Joan Druett wants to add a third - that of Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator, high priest, artist and translator who sailed from his homeland with Cook and defused the landmark encounter between Maori and Europeans off the Endeavour on October 9, 1769.

Tensions were running high because the previous day a Maori, Te Maro, was shot through the heart by a nervous crewman after Cook's party made landfall in Poverty Bay.

Back on shore and armed to the teeth, red-coated English marines faced off against agitated warriors on the far bank of the Turanganui River.

Tupaia - bearing a musket and clad in breeches, shoes, shirt, stock and skirted coat - stepped ahead of the soldiers and called to the restive war party.

"They understood him perfectly," writes Druett in her biography of Tupaia, a handsome new book she hopes will cement her subject in the foundation of the nation.

Tupaia's presence on the riverbank - a tall, commanding figure who, despite his costume, clearly resembled the fighting men opposite - both eased fears and stirred cries across the water. What was he doing on a "fat canoe that carried its own cloud?" Where did he come from? How was Te Maro killed with an "exploding stick?"

The breakthrough did not last. Though Cook and a courageous elder met mid-stream for a hongi, blood was again spilled when the Endeavour's surgeon William Munkhouse fatally shot local chief Te Rakau after astronomer Charles Green's military sword was snatched in a dispute over trading a greenstone mere.

"As an exercise in public relations it was a disaster," writes Druett.

It was the second time that Tupaia had helped the English explorers in a tight spot. Three months earlier, in his homeland, Tupaia made the brave decision to join the Endeavour. As wind filled the sails of the square-rigged converted collier when it set off from Matavai Bay for Tupaia's island birthplace of Raiatea, Banks and his Tahitian passenger waved from the masthead at canoes filled with paddlers making a "woeful cry."

A few days later the ship anchored at Raiatea, which had been conquered by neighbouring Bora Bora. A wary Tupaia led the party to a highly revered marae where, in tropical rain, he stripped to the waist and prayed to his gods. The ceremony over, Banks and the others inspected the hallowed grounds of Taputapuatea.

To Tupaia's horror, and the alarm of local priests, Banks thrust his arm into a thatched "god-house" and began tearing at the fabric of a precious totem.

Writes Druett: "Back on Tahiti, Dr Munkhouse had been attacked for the relatively trivial crime of plucking a flower on sacred ground. Here, on the greatest marae in eastern Polynesia, the whole party would have been slaughtered if they had not been under Tupaia's protection."

Banks, says Druett, "was so mindless and barbaric ... Tupaia would have had to talk very, very fast."

Just how was this imposing 40-something (Tupaia's exact age is uncertain) able to bridge cultures and languages, and in the face of Banks' sacrilege, perhaps alter the course of history by getting the expedition out of harm's way?

Tupaia was lucky to survive his birth, as infanticide was used on Raiatea to prevent overcrowding. His career path was marked early: as a boy he sailed on voyaging canoes, and formed a mental map of the stars, currents and swells. He was taught at Taputapuatea, and rites of passage were marked with candlenut soot tattoos, painfully etched with needle-sharp bird bones.

As a teen he was selected for the arioi cult, an exclusive guild of artists. Druett records these were handsome, bright and talented young men: "They were also ardent lovers, with no restrictions in the practice of the amorous arts, apart from incest bans - and the ruling that any progeny should be put to death, as only the highest-ranking arioi were allowed to have children."

Tupaia became a wayfinder, a master navigator, "distinguished by a deep double-crease between his brows and a distant, unfocused look in his eyes."

In 1757, he had a brush with death when a Bora Bora invader impaled a lance, tipped with a stingray barb, through his chest. The spear was drawn through his body and his battle wounds cleansed. Banks, who inspected the mark a decade later reported that "the scar is as smooth and as small as any I have seen from the cures of our best European surgeons."

Tupaia's first contact with Europeans was in June 1767 when Captain Samuel Wallis and his scurvy-weakened crew limped into Tahitian waters on the Dolphin . Blood stained the initial encounter when Wallis turned Dolphin's firepower on the canoe fleet at Matavai Bay.

As the weeks passed, relations improved, driven by Wallis' need for provisions and Tupaia's sense, Druett says, "that an alliance with the rich and powerful strangers would prove politically and economically profitable."

Two years later Tupaia and three other Tahitians were entered in the Endeavour's muster book, forming a fateful bond with Cook, who had arrived to observe the transit of Venus.

Once on board, Druett argues that Cook was defensive about Tupaia's deep knowledge of navigation. The Tahitian drew a stunningly accurate chart of Polynesia but Cook "refused to listen to him and ignored his urgings to go west".

Ventures Druett: "To have this proud priest telling Cook where to sail with none of the technological advances that Cook could use ... to be kowtowing to an Indian whose methods he did not understand ... Cook would not have been comfortable."

So Cook never asked - or never recorded - how Tupaia knew the location of islands and made a course. "This is so frustrating, complains Druett. "Why didn't Cook ask and write it down?"

And in the end, Cook, with an eye on his future, may have "fudged" the date of Tupaia's death in Batavia, now Jakarta.

Cook gave the date as December 11, 1770. But an entry in Banks' journal dated November 11, 1770 noted that Tupaia had died. Druett thinks the Tahitian, weakened by scurvy, succumbed to typhoid fever. She surmises the later date allowed Cook to assert his claim that he, of all the great explorers, conquered scurvy at sea.

The Englishman's epitaph concluded that Tupaia, while shrewd and ingenious, was also "proud and obstinate, which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him".

Fumes Druett: "This, surely, must be one of the most uncharitable obituaries ever written. Not only was the summing up petty, but it was a gross injustice."

The author hopes her account will balance the ledger.

Tupaia The remarkable story of Captain Cook's Polynesian navigator, by Joan Druett (Random House $55)
Stumbling on seafaring women

Joan Druett says she literally fell into her career as a maritime historian.

The former teacher's career changed abruptly during a holiday in the Cook Islands. She was cycling with her husband Ron, an artist, when the couple stopped in the shade of a cyclone-toppled tree in a crumbling graveyard.

Druett, 72, says she somehow tumbled into the hole where the roots had been, and discovered the gravestone of Mary-Ann Sherman, wife of Captain A.D. Sherman, of the US whaling ship Harrison.

The captain's wife had died, aged 24, in 1850. It didn't take Druett long to realise that Mary-Ann was among the legion of seafaring women whose stories largely were missing from maritime accounts.

For three decades, Druett has been filling in the gaps. Her books - drawn from logs and journals and crammed with blue water detail - feature women captains, shipbuilders and pirates. The titles - Petticoat Whalers, Hen Frigates, She Captains - sell well in the US.

Alongside her nautical history, Druett has written a series of mysteries set in the mid-19th century featuring Wiki Coffin, a young Maori sailor.

Book giveaway
The Herald has two copies of Joan Druett's book to give away. To go in the draw, send your name, address and phone number on the back of an envelope or postcard to:
Tupaia Giveaway,
Review Editor, NZ Herald
PO Box 3290, Auckland