The unhistoric story, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator
Joan Druett
Random House, $55.00,
ISBN 9781869793869


One of the great virtues of Joan Druett’s style of historical writing in this extensive reassessment of Tupaia’s role in Pacific history, is her ability to make poetry from maritime history, to evoke the world of 18th-century sailors and their ships with a lyrical delight. (On the role of poetic and fictional techniques in history writing, more later.) With a novelist’s narrative muscle, she has crafted a readable and convincing tale of a wronged and forgotten Raiatean hero to whom the record has given precious little credit for the success of Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand from Tahiti and his subsequent circumnavigation of these islands.

Druett credits her initial fascination with Tupaia to a 2006 New Zealand Herald article by Greg Ansley, which stemmed from an interview with Professor Paul Tapsell. This revisionist view states that for Maori at the time (and today) Tupaia was the real leader of the expedition, and gifts of taonga taken to England by Cook and Banks after the Raiatean’s death in Batavia in November 1770 were those given to him by Maori. In a recent interview on National Radio’s “Sunday” programme, Druett recalled Tapsell “arguing powerfully that Tupaia had been cheated by history and by his shipmates”, that when he died in Batavia, “his possessions became open slather”. Tapsell’s “strong opinion” was that all the taonga Cook and Banks distributed to royalty, museums and friends “had been given to Tupaia because he was the only man on board with sufficient mana to be entrusted with these by Polynesian nobility”. Druett was overtaken by “a rush of sympathy … he suddenly became a human being” – and she wanted to know more about him. Here lies the genesis of this biography. Tapsell does in fact make a compelling argument for this point of view, but is careful to note that his beliefs about these matters are speculative, derived from an experiential knowledge of Maori belief and culture and his years of academic study.

Druett’s approach to the project is encyclopaedic, replete with the substance of a maritime historian’s familiarity with naval lore. Some of the most lyrical and engaging writing is concerned with ships and sailing. While this can slow down the narrative, it is a convincing foil to the prevalent psychological speculation about what leading characters may have been thinking and feeling at certain times and places, where the historical account has them as witnesses. When Wallis’s ship HMS Dolphin blazes away at the Tahitians shortly after making contact with them in June 1767, Tupaia’s reaction to this display of European maritime might is imagined thus: “Inevitably [he] pictured the effect of broadsides of cannon on the war fleets of his Boraboran enemies. It must have been a most enticing vision.” But we cannot know any of this unless he said or wrote it. Colourful and racy as this kind of narration may be, it owes more to Druett’s imagination than to any evidence.

Druett’s writing on the aesthetic charms of life under sail is often magical, at times achieving a high level of poetic intensity, but is still, nevertheless, unbelievable. How can she know the exact physical details of what took place over 200 years ago? The book’s style in these places is akin to historical fiction. Most historians take some poetic licence in order to absorb the reader in a convincing narrative, on which the facts and the consequent argument from them are threaded; yet real life is too jagged and chaotic in its present tense, to behave itself for future chroniclers. Like all serious historians, however, Druett leads us onwards with more than mere storytelling: the book is a rich tapestry of cultural and historical detail gleaned from an exhaustive trawling of primary and secondary sources.

Unfortunately, one of these secondary sources has her opining that, as Tupaia discoursed with local Maori at Tolaga Bay on Tahitian religion and its links with Maori belief, “he and the Maori priests must have talked of Io, the greatest of all the gods”. Apart from the obvious fact that we have no proof of what they discussed, the subject of Io’s existence, let alone his primacy, prior to the arrival of Christianity is the subject of ongoing debate. This reputed high god’s place in the Polynesian pantheon was first championed by the Pakeha ethnographers Percy Smith and Elsdon Best in the first 20 years of the last century, and is arguably a child of post-literate parentage. There is no doubt at all that Tupaia was a vital kaihautu and kaitakawaenga for Cook and Banks, an indispensable navigator and mediator for the Europeans. I just wish that Druett had not overplayed her hand so often, suggesting that she knows intimately what can never be known. A tad more of the academic’s cautious phrasing would have helped here: “it seems likely”, or “it is fair to speculate”.

Her case for Tupaia as a neglected subject hangs on the argument that he was minimised in Cook’s and Banks’s accounts of the journey, and thus written out subsequently as a vital figure in the history. Yet she twice notes – with qualifications such as “belated” – Cook’s approval of Tupaia’s “infinate service” and his hope that if a second expedition were approved, Tupaia’s presence would give them “a prodigious advantage over every ship” on previous voyages of discovery. Casting Tupaia as a forgotten victim of the ungrateful English risks tipping the balance too far towards another extreme – a risk run by all egalitarian revisionist histories. The facts are powerful enough to suggest that he deserves to be considered on his own merits, minus any whiff of victimology.

What is exciting about this necessary and fascinating study is the picture that emerges of Tupaia as a kind of co-ethnographer with the Europeans, clearly seen in the imaginative placement of his artwork alongside the better-known images of Parkinson. An excellent example of this is the way the two men portray Tasmanian aboriginal people, after they leave New Zealand and sail to Australia. Parkinson’s warriors resemble stylised Greek heroes, whereas Tupaia’s naive portrait of young boys fishing is far more convincing in its apparent artlessness. Certainly, his role as a translator and explainer of Europeans to Maori and vice versa in the early and later New Zealand encounters rank him along with Cook as our first genuine ethnographer of Maori. For this insight alone, Druett’s retelling of his life has a value beyond its reiterations of how badly he was wronged: without him, such encounters would have shown up in far less sharp focus in the record of our earliest meetings.

As is typical of recent Random House New Zealand history titles, the book is beautifully presented and competitively priced: sumptous would be a fair description. Lavishly illustrated in colour, with charts and maps, it is a pleasure to behold and explore. There are no page references in the text (the typical scholarly apparatus), but this is cleverly circumnavigated with all citations listed and discussed in a commentary section, divided into chapters, at the end of the book. I found it quite simple to skim through these after reading each chapter. It’s a good compromise between the Michael King Penguin History of New Zealand model (no references given at all) and the rather more pointy-headed footnote system (à la Judith Binney et al). This is a weighty book based on extensive research, yet one intended for a wider public – so it can’t afford to look as though it is aimed at the academy.

Not quite so forgivable are the obvious proofing errors (1868 for 1768 in the highlighted opening to “The Endeavour” chapter), and the misspelling of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, the people Cook and Tupaia first encountered in Poverty Bay (Teitanga-a-Hauiti). I’m no great fan of inflated book titles that tell me I’m about to read “a remarkable story”: if it is one, the reading of it will let me know. Yet this truly is, and we’re the richer for Druett’s being captured by its potential, and her dogged persistence in doing the hard yards that have given us a readable and thoughtful portrait of Tupaia and his times. I could have done without some of the less tenable speculations about what he and Cook and Banks were thinking, but the historiography of Pacific exploration needs many more hands on deck like hers.


Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is this year’s University of Waikato Writer in Residence, where he is working on a memoir and a volume of poetry.

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