'Why Don't We Celebrate the Arrival of Tupaia in New Zealand?'

While we celebrate, some with mixed feelings, that 250 years ago on 8 October, 1769, James Cook stepped ashore in New Zealand, the standard narrative portrays it as meeting (or clash) between two peoples. In fact there were three, for on the Endeavour were a high chief and priest, Tupaia, and his assistant, Taiata, from Tahiti.

We tend to underplay the significance of Tupaia. The first volume of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (published in 1990), gave a lot of space to Cook but ignored the Tahitian. Twenty-seven years later it commissioned an entry from Joan Druett, who wrote his biography, Tupaia: the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator (published in 2011).

Probably, the Maori saw the situation the other way around. (I have to write ‘probably’ because we have not any contemporary Maori sources. One of the frustrations is that we have meticulous accounts from Cook and some of his crew, but they knew no or little Tahitian and no Maori and interpreted events from a very Eurocentric perspective.) It seems likely that Maori thought of Tupaia was the chief of the boat; Cook was just the captain.

Their universal admiration arose in part from Tupaia’s ability to communicate with them. The proto-Maori came from East Polynesia so Maori has a common root with Tahitian. Tupaia was able to translate between English and Maori; on various occasions that skill facilitated relations between ship and iwi.

It is a curious that while the two Polynesian languages had been diverging for almost 500 years – the proto-Maori arrived around 1300 – Tupaia coped. That is as far back as 1500 in today’s terms with the additional complication that both languages would have evolved since then. There had been no communication between the two peoples in the gap, and no written records. One theory is that Tupaia’s training for priesthood, included learning a very old version of the Tahitian language – like an English graduate learning Early English – which was closer to the root from which Maori derived. Whatever, he must have been an extraordinary linguist.

That was not his only accomplishment. He was an acute observer which makes him our first anthropologist – Eurocentrics may disagree. (I wonder if Tupaia has a special status in the Polynesian Society.) Sadly he (and Taiata) died in Batavia (Jakarta) as Cook returned to England – he was about fifty – so we have no idea what he would have thought of late eighteenth-century England.

Tupaia told Cook that Maori knew little of their ancient religions. They proved very keen to learn. He gave sermons to hundreds – presumably in Maori. We know little of their contents because the reports are by the English crew. How come he knew so much more than the local tohunga who were deeply respectful of his learning?

We may have misunderstood the migration from East Polynesia. Perhaps only younger Polynesians came, Probably most had a twenty-year-old’s knowledge of their culture, Any priests were curates not the bishop that Tupaia was with a deep learning from years spent with colleagues at the equivalent of the religious college on Ra’iatea (Rangiatea).

The impression we have is that Maori cosmology was more sophisticated fifty years later before it became contaminated with Christianity (and so what we know of it is not the true old-time religion). Did Tupaia inject some of the sophistication?

We will never know, but there are hints that he impacted on the cultural memory. I find it difficult to believe that the inhabitants of the migration canoes were driven out following civil strife; the thirty-day journey is so long. However we know that is exactly what happened to Tupaia. Some Maori say their ancestral island was Ra’iatea, the island Tupaia came from.

Tupaia had a magnetic attraction for Maori. They wept bitterly when Cook told them on his second voyage that Tupaia was dead. Younger generation Maori affectionately told stories about the man despite never having met him,

Alas those stories seem largely forgotten, and today’s Maori account of the arrival of the Endeavour usually parallels the English-centred one. Some Maori add that the arrival was bad for their people to the point of proposing that the statues of Cook be pulled down. I am not sure what their alterative account is. Jean de Surville arrived only a couple of months after Cook – their ships passed within 40 kilometres of one another.

Some have overlaid the Cook story with the Columbus story which sees his arrival in the Americas as the beginning of an extremely destructive invasion by Europeans; I am not sure ours was as destructive although there is no question that the Maori population suffered greatly from the muskets and diseases the Europeans brought.

The adoption of the Columbus perspective is typical of much of the national dialogue. The colonial cringer borrows stories from overseas and does not bother adapting them for New Zealand circumstances. Columbus had no Tupaia; Cook did but we have almost written him out of the story, despite that it would have been a very different story without him.

I am not a great fan for pulling down statues. Relocate them, yes. Better still, put up some statues of Tupaia.

Postscript: One of our most iconic images – of a Maori and a British officer exchanging a crayfish for tapa cloth – is one of a number of drawings Tupaia left behind. He proved a good artist despite not having taken it up in his middle age; the Polynesians did not have the artist’s materials).

          I see that the Auckland Museum has an exhibition on Tupaia. We are not all Eurocentric.