The Art of Tupaia

The author of Endeavour shares an encounter captured in watercolor.

By Peter Moore

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti, by Tupaia, 1769. British Library.

Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly addresses a theme—States of War, States of Mind, Food, Youth, Animals—by drawing on primary sources throughout history, finding the rhymes and dissonances in how these topics have played out and been perceived over the centuries. In this series, we open up the sleuthing beyond our staff and four annual themes by letting historians and writers share what they have come across in their recent visits to the archives.

This week’s selection comes from Peter Moore, author of Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude That Changed the World, now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The fascinating image above was made almost precisely a quarter of a millennium ago. In April 1769, James Cook and the crew of HM Bark Endeavour—a British research vessel—arrived at a mid-Pacific island they knew as George’s Island, named after the reigning monarch. The island had been first visited by Europeans only a couple of years before. In Paris and London it had quickly gained a reputation of being an Arcadia: a permissive paradise far away from the tainted politics of Europe where all the desires of the human heart could be satisfied.

The Endeavour’s April–July 1769 visit to this island yields perhaps the most iconic encounter of all the Enlightenment Age. The European sailors lived and interacted closely with the indigenous island population as they attempted to observe a rare astronomical phenomenon known as the Transit of Venus. As they waited for the transit to happen, the sailors surveyed the island’s geography and the people’s customs and histories—both natural and supernatural. One of their first discoveries was the indigenous name for the island. The Europeans copied down the name as Otaheite, which we know more accurately today as Tahiti.

The most significant figure Cook and his shipmates met during their time on Tahiti was a Polynesian high priest called Tupaia. He would later be described by subsequent voyagers as “an extraordinary genius.” The high priest was a figure of unusually high status and a political refugee from the neighboring island of Ra’iātea. He kept close to Endeavour’s crew throughout their stay. Making use of pen, Indian ink, watercolors, and paper, Tupaia began to produce experimental works of art like this depiction of a Tahitian long house.

This piece of art—which is kept at the British Library in London today—is not just significant as the first example of Polynesians using India ink and watercolor. It is also fascinating for the biographical histories it contains. The painting was most probably made as a joint composition with Endeavour’s voyage artist Sydney Parkinson in May or June 1769. It seems likely that the action depicted in the foreground is Tupaia’s attempt to explain elements of his life to Parkinson in the absence of spoken language. We can glimpse a sea battle taking place in the foreground, and we now know that Tupaia was driven from his home by just such an event. The chaos of this conflict contrasts sharply with the bucolic backdrop.

It seems likely that Tupaia was trying to tell Parkinson that Tahiti was a more contested and complex place than the Europeans had taken it for. Moreover, the piece of artwork, with its two authors, gives us in tangible form a connection with the earliest moment of encounter. Looked at today, as much as attempting to convey Tahiti’s fraught past, the sea battle seems to darkly foreshadow the coming colonial era that would change the ancient world of Oceania forever.

Tupaia went on to join the Endeavour voyage when it left Tahiti. He played a vital role in the first European circumnavigation of New Zealand. He died in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in November 1770 as Endeavour began her journey home to Europe.


Want to read more? Here are some past posts from this series:

Ryann Donnelly, author of Justify My Love

LeAnne Howe, author of Savage Conversations

Lucy Inglis, author of Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium

Chris Cander, author of The Weight of a Piano

Rosellen Brown, author of The Lake on Fire

Patricia Miller, author of Bringing Down the Colonel

Monica Muñoz Martinez, author of The Injustice Never Leaves You

John Wray, author of Godsend

Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine

Ken Krimstein, author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Scott W. Stern, author of The Trials of Nina McCall

Katherine Benton-Cohen, historical adviser for the film Bisbee ’17

Victoria Johnson, author of American Eden

Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Christopher Bonanos, author of Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK

Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Ben Austen, author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing