Keith Vincent Smith
On 13 July 1769 the Polynesian polymath Tupaia (Tupai/ Tupia) and his young servant (Taiato /Taiyota) sailed aboard HM Bark Endeavour as the ship left Tahiti.
I wanted to mark that event, 250 years ago, on the EORA• PEOPLE blog, but that day I was myself on a very different and much larger vessel in the Gulf of Finland, approaching Russia’s northern city of St. Petersburg.
Tupaia, born on the island of Raiatea about 1725, was a high priest of the Polynesian god ‘Oro, a skilled navigator, map-maker, scholar and artist. He had voyaged widely and would become a vital informant to the wealthy Joseph Banks and Lieutenant James Cook as he guided their ship through the Society Islands.
Cook navigated with his sextant, and often questioned Tupaia, who divined the path through the ocean by natural signs: movements of currents, the sun, wind, clouds and birds. Throughout the voyage he could always point in the direction of Tahiti.
Cook wrote in his journal that day (his spelling):
For some time before we left this Island several of the natives were daily offering themselves to go away with us, and as it was thought that they must be of use to us in our future discoveries, we resolved to bring away one whose name was Tupia, a Cheif and a Priest : This man had been with us the most part of the time we had been upon the Island which gave us an oppertunity to know some thing of him : we found him to be a very intelligent person and to know more of the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religious laws and customs of the inhabitants than any one we had met with and was the likeliest person to answer our purpose; for these reasons and at the request of Mr Banks I received him on board together with a youg boy his servant.
In his journal, published in 1789 as A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, the young Scots artist Sydney Parkinson observed on 15 July 1769:
Toobaiah [Tupaia] praying in the afternoon, in the stern-windows, called out, with much fervor, O Tane, ara mai, ora mai matai ; which is to say, Tane (the god of his Morai) send to me, or come to me with a fair wind ; but his prayer proving ineffectual, he said Wooreede waow, I am angry. However, he told us that we should have wind when the sun arrived at the meridian, and so it happened, though we did not impute to him the gift of prophecy or foresight.
While sailing on the Endeavour Tupaia learned to draw and paint on paper in the European style. Through his eyes we see the first image of an Aboriginal man in his nawi (stringybark canoe) spearing a fish at Kamay / Botany Bay in April 1770. It is, in fact, the first known illustration of any kind of fishing in this continent.
Joseph Banks noted that, although he fished with a rod, Tupaia used an unbaited lure, similar to those he would see Aboriginal fisherwomen use with handlines at Gamay (Botany Bay) in 1770 to catch albecore or warm seas tuna fish (Thunnus germo).
Banks wrote in his journal on 12 August 1769:
Many Albecores have been around the ship all the evening. Tupia took one and had not his rod broke would probably have taken many. He usd an Indian [Polynesian] fish hook made of mother of pearl so that it servd at the same time for both hook and bait.
See the pictures in my article Tupaia’s Sketchbook on the Electronic British Library website at https://www.bl.uk/eblj/2005articles/article10.html
See also Tupaia’s Lorikeet here on the EORA•PEOPLE Blog – July 14 2018.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020