The Adventures of Tupaia by Sally Greer

‘I cry every time I read it’ – Courtney Sina Meredith on her new picture book

Forget Cook. The Adventures of Tupaia is much more interested in the famed navigator and priest who shared his formidable indigenous knowledge with Pākehā.

The cover tells the story. Stars everywhere. Palm trees in silhouette. And two figures: there’s Tupaia in the foreground, eyes shining, arm raised, pointing the way, generally looking magnificent. And there’s Captain James Cook positioned further back – and therefore smaller – all buttons and britches, clunky old compass lowered as he looks to Tupaia, instead, for guidance.

Tupaia originally came from Ra’iātea, but was in Tahiti when Cook arrived on the Endeavour. He would be on board for the rest of Cook’s journey through the South Pacific. 

His status as an ‘ariori (priest) meant he saw himself as Cook’s equal, much to the annoyance of the crew. Yet Cook soon realised his worth – Tupaia’s knowledge of South Pacific geography outstripped those of the visitors and he was able to describe the rough locations of Tonga, Samoa, Aotearoa, and Rotuma (these days, a dependency of Fiji). 

Courtney Sina Meredith says she wanted to breathe life into Tupaia’s story, since he so often ends up being just a footnote in Cook’s. She was helped by a team of curators from Auckland Museum – the book was commissioned to go alongside the new exhibition: Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour.

The museum put out an open call for illustrators. When graphic artist Mat Tait pitched, Meredith says, “I was just totally staggered by it”.

“He is Māori and has had a very interesting journey himself as an artist, so he had a huge amount to contribute beyond just his beautiful artwork.”

A languid, dreamy palette of sand and turquoise.

The prose of the book varies widely in tone, moving from the languid – descriptions of tapa making and the art of Sydney Parkinson – to more pacey storytelling during moments of high drama. These shifts are mirrored in the illustrations. Tait abruptly and effectively switches between colour palettes, from soft turquoise and sands, into red, black and white. Much of the book is made up of two-page spreads that he’s filled with large, striking images. But at times the page divides into picture squares, becoming more like a comic, in order to convey fine detail of the characters’ interactions.

There were outbreaks of violence during the first encounters in Aotearoa between Cook’s crew and Māori. Meredith decided her role was to inject humanity into the portrayal of those involved.

One example of this is the book’s account of Tupaia’s first direct interaction with Māori, when Cook’s party came face-to-face across a river with iwi in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. Tupaia found his native tongue was close enough to te reo Māori for him to hold a conversation, and initially the interaction was peaceful, with Cook meeting an elder of the tangata whenua on a sacred rock at the midpoint of the river and exchanging a hongi.

However, when the Māori insisted on trading for the Europeans’ weapons, shots were fired and a young chief, Te Rakau, was killed.

“With two such different world views, I can see how clashes happened,” Meredith says. “As Te Rakau lay dying, Tupaia went over to him and the two had a conversation, but no one knows what was said.”

In Meredith’s version, Te Rakau asks “Tell me about Hawaiki, about Ra’iātea, the place my spirit will return to.” And Tupaia responds: “Ra’iātea is beautiful beyond imagination. Go well, my brother. A place is being prepared for you among the stars.”

That tiny bit of dialogue humanises Te Rakau and Tupaia, Meredith says, as “two people caught up in this moment of new discoveries – not just a geographical discovery, but a discovery of ourselves and our place in the world.”

Meredith found it important to be as truthful as possible about Tupaia as a real person, who had his own aims and motivations. During the encounter above, he in fact shot a musket himself and wounded two Māori in the legs. But by having Tupaia offer those few words to Te Rakau, Meredith deftly refocuses the moment on their shared connection, Hawaiki.

The making of a legend: a spread from early in the book.

Writing Tupaia’s story also meant researching his religion – he worshiped the god of war, ‘Oro, who becomes a talismanic figure in the story. The museum brought in an expert from Tahiti to check how these elements were represented in the story; the learning was a privilege, Meredith says. 

“It was also amazing to learn about the sacred marae in Tahiti and how those marae lined up with the stars, as well as the whole overarching world view of the sky being held up by these different pillars … It’s a whole other idea of time and space.”

Meredith workshopped multiple versions of the ending with her collaborators, and says it was the most challenging aspect of the book. 

Tupaia had hoped to go all the way to Britain, along with his young student Taiata, but both were struck down by disease in Indonesia. Meredith ends the book with Tupaia passing on one final lesson to his student, vividly explaining the Tahitian navigation system which ties locations on Earth to gods manifested in the sky. 

This account is adapted from a speech given by a Bora Bora elder 200 years ago, which was reprinted in the Journal of Polynesian Society. Reading over the last chapter still sends chills up Meredith’s spine.

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“To be real with you – I cry every time I read it. It still breaks my heart how things ended up for Tupaia and Taiata … He’s trying to pass on his knowledge to Taiata. All of that emotion between them, then suddenly their story kind of ends with them both buried in unmarked graves in Indonesia.”

But Meredith’s a poet. Of course she finds meaning for them in the end.

“Hold on to me and close your eyes, Taiata,” Tupaia says. “It is time to ascend to the sky. Now you embark on your greatest voyage yet: a journey to the stars themselves.”

The Adventures of Tupaia, by Courtney Sina Meredith and Mat Tait (Allen and Unwin and Auckland War Memorial Museum, $35) is available at Unity Books. 


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