Captain Cook’s Right-Hand Man – Polynesian navigator, artist and warrior Tupaia

2020 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook and the HMB Endeavour reached the southern coast of New South Wales and sailed north, charting Australia’s eastern coastline. For Australia’s First People, the 1770 landing resulted in fundamental changes to their way of life. It also paved the way for waves of migration and the shape of modern Australia.

While most Australians have some knowledge of Captain Cook and his expeditions, fewer would be aware of the significant role played by a Polynesian man named Tupaia. This remarkable man was originally from Raiatea, one of the Society Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. He was the son of master navigators and had studied star and sun paths that allowed him to make astronomical observations. Not only that, he was a priest, scholar, linguist, artist and warrior.

Tupaia had memorised details of an extensive list of Pacific Islands – an estimated 130 in all. He knew their size, reef and harbour locations, whether the islands were inhabited, the names of local chiefs and food produced there.

Tupaia’s vital contribution

Tupaia met Captain Cook in Tahiti and acted as an interpreter and guide. Cook’s journal reveals he found Tupaia to be “…a very intelligent person and to know the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religion, laws and customs of the inhabitants better than any one we had met with.” Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook’s official botanist, described Tupaia as a genius and insisted he join the Endeavour. Banks wrote: ‘What makes him more than anything else desirable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the islands in these seas; he has told us names of above seventy, most of which he himself has been.’

Cook was initially reluctant to accept a passenger, but Banks offered to cover Tupaia’s expenses. After joining Cook’s expedition, Tupaia guided the Endeavour through the Society Islands and acted as an intermediary between the crew and Maori warriors. The Polynesian was keen to head west and take Cook and his crew to islands he knew well, but the Captain was under strict, secret orders from the British Admiralty to sail south in search of the continent many believed existed in the Southern Hemisphere. While Tupaia found himself in unfamiliar waters he continued to help in any way he could, sharing his insight and aiding Cook in charting the Tahitian islands.

Deteriorating health

Tupaia’s health began to deteriorate once the Endeavour sailed into cooler climates. He was struggling with an intestinal disorder, likely due to his poor diet. And although he landed on Australian soil, Tupaia wasn’t able to communicate with the Indigenous people. As a result, he was viewed as less useful and his influence and popularity waned.

Tupaia redeemed himself slightly when he proved he was able to forage and hunt for fresh and nutritious food on the Australian mainland. However, he never fully recovered from his sickness and passed away when the Endeavour stopped in Jakarta, Indonesia. About 30 other crew members died here as ship-borne illnesses spread.

The 2020 Endeavour encounter

Encounters 2020 commemorates the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s expedition. A replica of the Endeavour will retrace Cook’s journey, examining it from the perspective of those on the shore and the ship. Participants can join the Newcastle to Brisbane leg in mid-May.

Find out more about Encounters 2020