Pacific Islander Biography

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Tupaia (1725–1770)

by Ben Finney

When Captain James Cook reached Tahiti in 1769 he met a remarkable man named Tupaia (c1725–70), a high-born polymath originally from Ra'iatea who was skilled in geography, meteorology, navigation and other indigenous arts. Tupaia’s great geographical knowledge attracted Cook who, following the Tahitian’s recital of the names of islands surrounding Tahiti and their bearings and sailing days away, drew up a chart that arguably includes the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Australs, Societies, Cooks and a number of west Polynesian islands. Tupaia also outlined for Cook the principles of indigenous navigation, and how Tahitian sailors waited for westerly wind shifts when they wanted to sail east, facts crucial to Cook’s prescient sketch of how Polynesia was settled from island Southeast Asia. At the request of the chief scientist, Joseph Banks, Cook took Tupaia on board HMS Endeavour for the voyage back to England. Tupaia guided the Endeavour over several hundred miles of ocean from Borabora to the Australs, and further impressed the English, during the long traverse across the Pacific and around New Zealand and Australia, by always being able to point back to Tahiti. Sadly, Tupaia died while the Endeavour was in dry-dock in Batavia (Jakarta), and the opportunity to learn more about Polynesian navigation from him was lost.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Ben Finney, 'Tupaia (1725–1770)', Pacific Islander Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://pib.anu.edu.au/biography/tupaia-15981/text27226, accessed 27 September 2021.

© Copyright Pacific Islander Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1725
Raiatea

Death

1770
Jakarta, Indonesia

Cause of Death

malaria

Cultural Heritage
Key Events