tupaia navigateur polynesien explorateur

Tupaia: Navigator, Polynesian scholar and artist

A native of Rai'atea, Tuapia joined captain Cook's first expedition to the Pacific his visit to Tahiti in 1769. Alongside the English, this scholar and great navigator sailed to New-Zealand, to Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. He was, among other things, of great value to Cook during his explorations of New Zealand. But it was only in 1997 that another talent of his was uncovered: that of the artist, reponsible for certain depictions of Polynesian life and the islands he had visited.

tupaia matavai mahina pointe venue tahiti

Captain James Cook was the first explorer to have artists accompanying him on his voyages. On Cook’s first voyage he brought a Scotsman named Sydney Parkinson, to draw natural history specimens. He is best known for his botanical studies. In addition to which he did landscapes, portraits and costal views. Parkinson became ill during the Endeavour’s stay in Batavia (today known as Jakarta in Indonesia) On January 26, 1771 at the age of 25, on passage to the Cape of Good Hope he died. A second Scotsman, Alexander Buchan was taken on this expedition as the second artist, to record the scenery and make a general illustrated account of this expedition. This would allow Parkinson to concentrate on drawing the botanical and zoological specimens which were collected.

Buchan was an epileptic, on April 17th, 1769 at Matavai Bay in Tahiti, he suffered a fatal attack. His body was buried at sea. Herman Spöring was taken on as secretary to Joseph Banks. After the death of Alexander Buchan, Spöring took on the important role of drawing accurate coastal profiles. He also fell ill in Batavia and died of dysentery on the voyage to the Cape of Good Hope. He was buried at sea on January 25, 1771. There was another artist on that expedition.

Up until, April 1997 a group of paintings were attributed to ‘The Unknown Artist of The Chief Mourner.’ Then in April 1997 a letter of Banks gave a proper name to this artist, TUPAIA. Tupaia’s artwork shows how a Polynesian viewed his own world as compared to how Europeans viewed his world.


Tupaia : first an exile and a refugee...

Tupaia was born sometime around 1725 on the tropical island of Rai’atea, west of Tahiti. Sometime around 1760 Chief Puni and his warriors from the neighboring island of Bora Bora invaded Tupaia’s island of Rai’atea, robbing his family’s land. He managed to escape to Tahiti joining the high Chiefs of Papara, Chief Amo and his wife Queen Purea. In just several years he rose from his low status of refugee to the political advisor of Chief Amo, one of the highest chiefs and one of the most powerful men in Tahiti. He was also the advisor and lover of Chief Amo’s wife Queen Purea, in her own right a high chief. The first time Tupaia met Europeans was in 1767, when Captain Samuel Wallis anchored his British ship, the HMS Dolphin in Matavai Bay, Tahiti.

Two years later, The Endeavour arrived in Tahiti, Tupaia became close to Banks, serving as his advisor, his guide and becoming a member of Banks’ scientific party. Tupaia persuaded Banks into talking Cook into allowing him and Taiyota, a servant-boy, with him on HMS Endeavour to accompany the ship to Britain. No known portraits of Tupaia exist, but there is the below portrait of Taiyota, after a sketch by Sydney Parkinson. There is a strong belief that Tupaia was hoping to convince Cook to return to Rai’atea, and with the help of the Endeavour’s guns and crew, take back his family land in Rai’atea. In addition to which he felt Chief Amo and his wife Queen Purea would not remain in power much longer.

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The true identity of this unknown painter was first revealed in April 1997 when Banks’s biographer Harold B. Carter drew attention to the transcript of a letter written by Banks in 1812 to Dawson Turner, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Banks recalled a friendly exchange with a Maori at Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, on the first voyage of HMS Endeavour:

Banks exact words were: “Tupaia the Indian who came with me from Otaheite learn to draw in a way not Quite unintelligible. The genius for Caricature which all wild people Possess Led him to Caricature me & he drew me with a nail in my hand delivering it to an Indian who sold me a Lobster but with my other hand I had a firm fist on the Lobster determined not to Quit the nail till I had Livery and Seizin of the article purchased”. As Tupaia did not keep a journal, I can only relate to you what the other members of the crew had to say about him. On July 12, 1769 Banks wrote about Tupaia in his journal : “He is certainly a most proper man, well born, chief priest of this Island, consequently skilled in the mysteries of their religion; but what makes him more than anything desirable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the Islands in these seas… Thank heaven I have a sufficiency,’ wrote Banks famously in his journal, ‘and I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a greater expence [sic] than he will probably ever put me to.” In New Zealand, Cook said “Tupaia always accompanies us in every excursion we make and proves of infinite service.



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Tupaia: outstanding navigator and a man of great knowledge

When the Endeavour reached New Zealand, Tupaia established a strong relationship between the Maori people and the Europeans. The language of the Society Islands was at the origin of the Maori language, allowing Tupaia to translate. He was from the Maori’s ancestral homeland Hawaiki (Rai’atea) and was believed to possess Mana (Spiritual Power). Some Maoris even welcomed him as a Tohunga (high priest, almost a God). It was the great priest Tupaia who left a lasting impression on the Maoris in New Zealand, rather than Cook or Banks. The Maoris even thought that the Endeavour was Tupaia’s ship.

The missionary Richard Thomson reported, ‘Tupia was reputed by the people themselves to have been one of the cleverest men of the islands.’ John Marra, an Irish sailor who joined the Endeavour in Batavia described Tupaia as “a man of real genius, a priest of first order and an excellent artist.” After Tupaia’s death, Captain Cook remarked that ‘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 diseases which put a period to his life.’’ It would appear that the great Captain James Cook did not want this indian (this is how Cook referred to Tupaia) to receive any credit for helping him.

Tupaia certainly deserved a better epitaph from Cook. From the moment the Endeavour left Fort Venus in Matavai Bay on July 13, 1769, Tupaia guided Cook through the neighbouring islands, later named the Society Islands. A chart was drawn from Tupaia’s description of 72 islands centred on Tahiti. In New Zealand, he acted as an interpreter and go-between with the Maori, who understood his language and revered him as a priest and ambassador from their spiritual home. On 17 December 1770, little Taiyota announced, ‘Tyua mate oee’ (‘My friends, I am dying’); on his passing away, his master Tupaia ‘gave himself up to grief’, filled with remorse for having taken himself and his servant so far from their homeland, and died three days later. Joseph Banks bequested all of Tupaia’s drawings to the British Museum and they were transferred to the British Library when it was established.

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Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks

1769, watercolor on paper, Tupaia, 268 x 205 mm British Library. Add MS 15508, f. 12

This is the first representation by a Polynesian, showing early bartering between a Maori and the English, as seen through the eyes of a Polynesian. Neither party really seem to trust the other.

Chief Mourners costume and a dancing girl

1769, pencil and watercolor on paper, Tupaia 279 x 394 mm British Library. Add MS 15508. F. 9

This watercolour depicts The Chief Mourner in his complete attire, who officiated over all important funerals. Each part of his sacred regalia had a symbolic meaning and when in full dress he had the power to arouse the gods in order to help the dearly departed into the Arioi’s heaven. Just imagine how these surrealistic customs and costumes must have impressed the Europeans. Whereas these Chief Mourner Costumes were nothing new to Tupaia. Next to him is a Tahitian dancing girl. She is twisting her mouth, which was customary for dancing girls to do.


1769, Tupaia

This is a pencil drawing of a typical Marae (an open air religious structure) in the Society Islands. Here we see the paved square in front of the Marae and the steps leading up to the central stone platform. The altars here were for offerings to the God Oro and in the center is the fare atua (God House) which contained a representation of Oro. Possibly this is the large Marae which was constructed at Mahaiatea (the actual locality of Papara, on Tahiti's East Coast) by Purea (both Samuel Wallis and Captain Cook mistook her for the queen of all of Tahiti) and Amo (the chief of Papara) in honor of their son Teri’irere.

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Tupaia: a scene in Tahiti

1769, Pen and india ink and watercolor on paper,  by Tupaia, British Library. Add MS 15508. F. 9

Here Tupaia depicts two war canoes, each with fighting platforms and warriors fighting with staff-clubs. Each war canoe had a Tiki on each end. Tupaia explained to Cook, never more than one or two men actually fought on the platform at any given time. Once one was killed or wounded, another warrior replaced him. These battles never lasted a long time, and the conclusion settled the dispute. Included in this picture is a double sailed sailing canoe. The scene in the back shows a longhouse and all types of staple Tahitian food crops, breadfruit, bananas, coconut trees and taro plants There are also pandanus trees which are extremely important for building homes.

Australian Aborigines fishing in two bark canoes

1770, pencil and watercolor on paper, Tupaia, 268 x 205 mm British Library. Add MS 15508 f. 10

This drawing shows the everyday life of Australian Aborigines, fishing for food. The fisherman is using a four prong spear. Banks described these canoes in his journal : “A piece of bark tied together in pleats at the ends and kept extended in the middle by small bows of wood was the whole embarkation, which carried one or two, nay we once saw three people, who moved it along in shallow water by setting long poles, and in deeper by paddling with paddles about 18 inches long, one which they held in each hand.”

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tupaia peinture musiciens tahiti

Tahitian musicians

1769, pencil, wash and watercolor on paper, Tupaia, 267 x 368 mm British Library. Add MS 15508 f. 11

In 1769, the Tahiti Philharmonic Orchestra did not exist! At that time the Tahitian music came from three sources, drums, nose flutes and the human voice. Drums were made from different size hollowed out tree trunks, covering one end with a stretched out shark skin. Drums were always played by hand and depending where the skin was slapped could produce up to six different tones. The nose flutes were made from bamboo tubes, having a hole at one end to breathe into and two stop holes at the opposite end, which made it possible to produce three or four different notes. The drummers are wearing tiputa (ponchos made from undyed bark cloth.)

Tupaia's Chart

Drawn by Captain James Cook 1769-1770 British Library, Add MS 215193 C.

Best known as Tupaia’s Chart’. This surviving copy in pen and ink of Tupaia’s original map is in Cook’s hand, Tupaia used the center of his map as north, or noon, and the readings from north changed depending on which Island you were on.

tupaia carte polynesie exploration

Source : Magazine Reva Tahiti

Text : Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff

Pictures : Nick Greaves, Philippe Bacchet