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Tupaia (navigator)

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Name   Tupaia Tupaia
Role  Navigator

Tupaia (navigator) Image Tupaia39s Map Beachcombing39s Bizarre History Blog

Died  November 11, 1770, Jakarta, Indonesia

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Tupaia (also known as Tupaea or Tupia) (c. 1725 – December, 26 1770) was a Tahitian Polynesian navigator and arioi (a kind of priest), originally from the island of Ra'iatea in the Pacific Islands group known to Europeans as the Society Islands. His remarkable navigational skills and Pacific geographical knowledge were to be utilised by Lt. James Cook, R.N. when he took him aboard HMS Endeavour as guide on its voyage of exploration to Terra Australis Incognita. Tupaia travelled with Cook to New Zealand, acting as the expedition's interpreter to the Polynesian Māori, and Australia. He died in December 1770 from a shipborne illness contracted when Endeavour was docked in Batavia for repairs ahead of its return journey to England.


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Early Life

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Tupaia was born at Ha'amanino Harbour on Ra'iatea around 1725 and became a leading ariori priest for the Taputapuatea marae. Tupaia was trained in the fare-'ai-ra'a-'upu, or schools of learning, about the origin of the cosmos, genealogies, the calendar, proverbs and histories. He was also taught how to be a star navigator. His memorized knowledge included island lists, including their size, reef and harbor locations, whether they were inhabited, and if so, the name of the chief and any food produced there. More importantly, his memory would include the bearing of each island, the time to get there, and the succession of stars and islands to follow to get there. These islands included the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, the Cook Islands, plus Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Fiji.

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Borabora warriors invaded Ra'iatea around 1763, wounding Tupaia and forcing him to flee to Tahiti, where he sought protection from the Papara chief Amo and his wife Purea. Tupaia soon became their advisor and high priest, and eventually Puera's lover. Tupaia befriended Samuel Wallis during his observation of a solar eclipse, and then Joseph Banks during the 1769 Transit of Venus observed from Tahiti. After which, Tupaia "attached himself to the British," according to Anne Salmond. Tupaia was also an artist, and ten watercolors of his survive.

Joining Endeavour

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Tupaia joined Endeavour in July 1769 when she passed his home island of Ra'iatea in the outward voyage from Plymouth. He was welcomed aboard at the insistence of Sir Joseph Banks, the Cook expedition's official botanist, on the basis of his evident skill as a navigator and mapmaker: when asked for details of the region Tupaia drew a chart showing all 130 islands within a 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius and was able to name 74 of them. As Cook had at first refused to allow Tupaia to join the expedition for financial reasons, Banks became responsible for both the Tahitan's welfare and upkeep.

Tupaia had navigated from Ra'iatea in short voyages to 13 of these islands. He had not visited western Polynesia, as since his grandfather’s time the extent of voyaging by Raiateans had diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. His grandfather and father had passed to Tupaia the knowledge as to the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Cook was less pleased than Banks with Tupaia's evident navigational skills, resolving instead to rely on his own exploration of the region. As Banks noted in his journal, "the Captain refuses to take him on his own account, in my opinion sensibly enough, the government will never in all human probability take any notice of him."


As Cook intended to spend several weeks in the Society Islands before heading south, Tupaia assisted the expedition as an interlocutor and interpreter with local tribes. He also worked closely with Banks in compiling an account of Tahiti and its inhabitants.

Tupaia accompanied Cook to New Zealand and was welcomed by some of the Māori as a tohunga (an expert). It seems that they presented him with a precious dog-skin cloak.

Many Maori people have tales including Tupaia and his lineage that remains in New Zealand today. The crew of Endeavour had developed a less favorable impression of their shipmate. One, midshipman Joseph Marra, recorded that:

" Toobia ... was a man of real genius, a priest of the first order, and an excellent artist: he was, however, by no means beloved by the Endeavours crew, being looked upon as proud and austere, extorting homage, which the sailors who thought themselves degraded by bending to an Indian, were very unwilling to pay, and preferring complaints against them on the most trivial occasions."

Tupaia landed at Botany Bay, Australia, in late April 1770. Cook said of Tupaia, " means of would always get people to direct you from Island to Island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly resception and refreshments at every Island you came to."

Death in Batavia

In November 1770, Tupaia died from either dysentery or malaria, both of which were present aboard Endeavour during its berthing for repairs in Batavia. Cook recorded his passing in his journal: "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 much to promote the deceases that put a period to his life."


When Cook returned to New Zealand in 1773, the Maori approached his ship shouting "Tupaia! Tupaia!". As Cook noted, "...the Name of Tupia was at that time so popular among them that it would be no wonder if at this time it is known over the great part of New Zealand."


Tupaia (navigator) Wikipedia