Tupaia (navigator)

Tupaia (navigator)

Tupaia (also known as Tupaea) (c. 1725 – December, 26 1770) was a Polynesian navigator and arioi (a kind of priest), originally from the island of Ra'iatea in the Pacific Islands group known to Europeans as the Society Islands. His remarkable navigational skills and Pacific geographical knowledge were to be utilised by Lt. James Cook, R.N. when he took him aboard HMS Endeavour as guide on its voyage of exploration to Terra Australis Incognita. Tupaia travelled with Cook to both New Zealand and Australia, acting as the expedition's interpreter. He died in December 1770 from a shipborne illness contracted when Endeavour was docked in Batavia for repairs ahead of its return journey to England.


  • Joining Endeavour 1
  • Expedition 2
  • Death in Batavia 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5

Joining Endeavour

Tupaia joined Endeavour in July 1769 when she passed his home island of Ra'iatea in the outward voyage from Plymouth. He was welcomed aboard at the insistence of Sir Joseph Banks, a member of Cook's expedition, on the basis of his evident skill as a navigator and mapmaker: when asked for details of the region Tupaia drew a chart showing all 130 islands within a 2,000 miles (3,200 km) radius and was able to name 74 of them.[1]

Tupaia had navigated from Ra'iatea in short voyages to 13 of these islands. He had not visited western Polynesia, as since his grandfather’s time the extent of voyaging by Raiateans had diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. His grandfather and father had passed to Tupaia the knowledge as to the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.[2]

Cook was less pleased than Banks with Tupaia's evident navigational skills, resolving instead to rely on his own exploration of the region. As Banks noted in his journal, "the Captain refuses to take him on his own account, in my opinion sensibly enough, the government will never in all human probability take any notice of him."[3]


As Cook intended to spend several weeks in the Society Islands before heading south, Tupaia assisted the expedition as an interlocutor and interpreter with local tribes. He also worked closely with Banks in compiling an account of Tahiti and its inhabitants.[3]

Tupaia accompanied Cook to New Zealand and was welcomed by some of the Māori as a tohunga (a very gifted religious person).[4] It seems that they presented him with a precious dog-skin cloak.

Many Maori people have tales including Tupaea and his lineage that remains in New Zealand today. The crew of Endeavour had developed a less favorable impression of their shipmate. One, midshipman Joseph Marra, recorded that:

" Toobia ... was a man of real genius, a priest of the first order, and an excellent artist: he was, however, by no means beloved by the Endeavours crew, being looked upon as proud and austere, extorting homage, which the sailors who thought themselves degraded by bending to an Indian, were very unwilling to pay, and preferring complaints against them on the most trivial occasions."[5]

Death in Batavia

In November 1770, Tupaia died from either dysentery[6] or malaria,[5] both of which were present aboard Endeavour during its berthing for repairs in Batavia. Cook recorded his passing in his journal: "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 deceases that put a period to his life."[5]


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Druett, Joan (1987). Tupaia – The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator. Random House, New Zealand. pp. 218–233.  
  3. ^ a b O'Sullivan, Dan (2008). In search of Captain Cook. I.B. Taurus. p. 148.  
  4. ^ King, Michael (2003). History of New Zealand ISBN 0-14-301867-1, Penguin Books. Pages 103 & 106
  5. ^ a b c O'Sullivan, Dan (2008). In search of Captain Cook. I.B. Taurus. p. 150.  
  6. ^