The Polynesian navigator Tupaia (c. 1725–1770) traveled with Captain James Cook on his epic voyage of discovery on the ship Endeavor in the south Pacific Ocean. A gifted linguist and cultural ambassador, as well as one of the first Pacific islanders to attempt complex interactions with Europeans, Tupaia made important and largely underappreci-ated contributions to the success of Cook's voyage.

Tupaia was born on the island of Raiatea, in approximately 1725. The life of the Raiatea islanders was intimately connected with the sea, spiritually as well as materially, and biographer Joan Druett has surmised that Tupaia “was able to swim before he could walk.” As a child, he would have heard stories of the stars that not only underpinned Polynesian mythology but also exposed him to the principles that the Raiatea people and other islanders used to navigate the waters of the South Pacific.

Sent to Special School

Identified by his people as unusually gifted, Tupaia was sent to a special school in the southern part of Raiatea, where he was trained as a high priest with a specialty in navigation—again, a spiritual as well as a technical art. This training familiarized him with one of humankind's great intellectual accomplishments. Prior to the first wide distribution of the sextant around 1730, Europeans generally stayed within sighting distance of shore while at sea; when they undertook longer trips, such as those of Christopher Columbus, they often landed far from their intended destination, sometimes not know where they were when they reached shore. Polynesian peoples, by contrast, originated in southeast Asia and colonized islands as far as Madagascar to the west and Easter Island to the east, bringing linguistically and spiritually related cultures to a quarter of the globe. The principles of navigation Tupaia learned would have been transmitted as a series of stories about the stars; modern inhabitants of Hawai'i have rediscovered Polynesian navigation stories and sometimes sail as the Polynesians would have.

As a high priest with this specialty, Tupaia was likely venerated by his own people. Unfortunately, life on Raiatea underwent upheaval well before he met Captain Cook: in 1757 the island was invaded by tribes from the nearby island of Bora Bora. During one battle, Tupaia was hit in the back with a spear tipped with a barb from a stingray's tail. The spear went all the way through his body, emerging from his chest. Carried off the battlefield he was given treatment: If he had he been left on the battlefield and captured, he would have immediately been sacrificed. After the spear was pulled from the front of his body, no doubt resulting in unimaginable agony, the priest was treated with herbs. The treatment was successful; according to Druett, Endeavor science officer Joseph Banks later wrote in his journal that Tupaia's scar was “as smooth and as small as any I have seen from the cures of our best European surgeons.”

By 1760, however, Raiatean forces faced final defeat because many of the island's elite figures were dead. Tupaia, carrying several sacred objects of great significance, was able to flee to Tahiti in a canoe. He landed near Papara in the south of Tahiti island, where he was taken in by a local chief named Amo who recognized the spiritual importance of the objects—an effigy and a loincloth—he had brought from Raiatea. Tupaia's position rapidly improved: he became the lover of Amo's wife, Purea, who entrusted him with major responsibilities as one of her top advisers.

Encountered British and French Crews

It was while at Tahiti that Tupaia had his first contact with a British ship. It was the Dolphin, which landed on that island in 1767 with most of its crew seriously ill with scurvy. The substance known as vitamin C had not yet been identified, but British sailors of the time knew that scurvy could be ameliorated by eating fruits and vegetables as well as fresh meat. The Dolphin's crew had no knowledge of the sea to the west of Tahiti and feared that they might have to travel hundreds of miles before finding more food. They landed on Tahiti, unsure what they would find; often Polynesians were aggressive toward strangers. Their encounter with the Tahitians was a confused mixture of military clashes and attempts at negotiation in which Tupaia, accompanying Purea during visits to the ship, played a role. He correctly guessed that an alliance with the British could be valuable but was frustrated by continuing misunderstandings between these strangely clothed men and the Tahitians, one of which caused him to be briefly held hostage. After the Dolphin departed, two French vessels under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti briefly in 1768.

By the time the Endeavor arrived in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, on April 13, 1769, Tupaia had observed Europeans and pondered their ways. Some of these ways mystified him. To a Polynesian, the concept of time was integrally bound up with the stars and with the rest of the natural world, but Europeans divided it up with clocks and ship's bells that rang at prescribed times. Tahitian women were sexually freer, he learned, than their European counterparts, and Europeans were embarrassed by the Tahitian belief that sex need not be carried out in private. Tupaia discussed principles of Polynesian navigation with Captain Cook and science officer Banks, who realized his immense potential value as they continued their journey west. They asked him to join the crew of the Endeavor as a supernumerary, or extra crewman. Tupaia viewed the offer as an opportunity to visit England or perhaps even return to his Raiatean homeland and agreed.

Another factor that might have attracted Cook to Tupaia was the man's obvious facility with languages. He learned English quickly and took instruction in the finer points of English grammar from the more educated members of the Endeavor crew. Tupaia's native Tahitian language was similar to those of neighboring islands and enabled him to serve repeatedly as a negotiator and interpreter. These skills came in handy almost immediately, when the Endeavor approached the island of Rurutu, about 355 miles south of Tahiti, in August of 1769. Although Banks and Cook wished to land on the island to carry out trade and make scientific observations, Tupaia, after consultation with a Rurutu priest, convinced them that the islanders’ intentions were hostile, and the Endeavor pressed on.

Brought aboard partly because of his knowledge of the region—he told Cook and Banks that he knew of and could name 130 islands and had personally visited 74 of them—Tupaia drafted a map of islands in the South Pacific that included the Cook Islands, the Marquesas, the Society Islands (of which Raiatea was one), and other west Polynesian islands, drawing on oral tradition about the area that he had heard from his grandfather. What became known as the Chart of Tupaia was the first written artifact of its kind created by a Polynesian individual. At the time, Cook mostly disregarded it and may have contributed revisions himself; later historians rediscovered the chart and have attempted to sort out the contributions of Tupaia and Cook. It remains a fascinating artifact of the state of Polynesian geographical knowledge in the 18th century.

Made Ethnographic Drawings

As the voyage progressed, it was Banks who developed a closer relationship with Tupaia than Cook did. Some of the Endeavor crew seem to have felt that the high-born Tupaia acted arrogantly toward them, and Cook hesitated to show the Polynesian any favor. Banks, however, was fascinated by the wealth of knowledge Tupaia offered. At one point he persuaded Tupaia to make drawings of Tahitian dancers and musicians, unique examples of ethnography from the period done by an individual who was part of the culture.

Tupaia's linguistic contributions were especially valuable in New Zealand, where Cook and his party—except for a brief visit by a Dutch ship in the mid-17th century—were the first Europeans to make contact with the native Maori people. The Dutch expedition had ended violently, with four crew members dead and at least one Maori casualty. Tupaia, speaking an ancient clerical variety of Tahitian that retained close connections to Maori, was able to communicate with Cook's island hosts effectively. As a result, the British captain was able to map almost the entire New Zealand coastline. Maori oral tradition retains the accounts of Tupaia's activities during the Endeavor's visit.

In early 1770, the Endeavor moved on to Australia, with Tupaia passing the time on deck by learning to fire a musket. He also made ethnographic drawings of Australian aborigines and their canoes. In early June, he began to complain of painful gums, an early sign of scurvy. The sauerkraut held in the ship's stores might have helped him, but he refused to eat it. Although he did accept treatment with a lemon extract, its vitamin C content had been reduced by exposure to sun and it did not greatly improve his symptoms.

By the fall of 1770, the Endeavor had docked in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). Tupaia at first was fascinated by the bustling Dutch colonial city, with its stores, carriages, and broad streets. Soon, however, he contracted malaria, a scourge of this low-lying city, which contained sluggish canals that swarmed with mosquitoes. Tupaia was treated for the disease and recovered somewhat, but later he died, probably on December 20, 1770. Some sources have attributed his death to either malaria or dystentery, but Druett wrote that it was likely due to complications from the scurvy that had developed earlier in the year. While traditional accounts of Cook's voyage mentioned Tupaia only rarely, more recent revivals of interest in Polynesian culture have reevaluated his role.


Druett, Joan, Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, Praeger, 2011.

Hough, Richard, Captain James Cook: A Biography, Norton, 1994.


Captain Cook Society website, http://www.captaincooksociety.com/ (January 2, 2017), “History of an Idea about Tupaia's

Chart.”Pacific Islander Biography website, http://pib.anu.edu.au/ (January 1, 2017), “Tupaia (1725–1770).”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)