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Revealed after 250 years: The real meaning of master navigator Tupaia’s maps

Friday October 11, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
The replica Endeavour arrives in Poverty Pay this week, 250 years after Captain James Cook and Tahitian navigator Tupaia first sailed into the New Zealand bay and gave it the controversial name. GRAY CLAPHAM 19100701 The replica Endeavour arrives in Poverty Pay this week, 250 years after Captain James Cook and Tahitian navigator Tupaia first sailed into the New Zealand bay and gave it the controversial name. GRAY CLAPHAM 19100701

Gerald McCormack from the Natural Heritage Trust explains timely new research that shows how far ahead of his time Tahitian navigator Tupaia was – and why Captain Cook was right to trust him to steer the Endeavour.


It was 250 years ago. Captain James Cook, on his first voyage to the South Seas, was in Tahiti in 1769 to time the transit of Venus across the sun.

After making the observations, Cook opened his secret orders.

He was to search south for the fabled Southern Land (Terra Australis). If he did not find it by 40°S, he was to search westward. If he still did not find it, he should explore Tasman’s New Zealand and return to England.

Tupaia was a 45 year old arioi priest and navigator of marae Taputapuātea on Ra‘iātea. He had been living as an exile on Tahiti since 1763, and had become an advisor to ‘Queen’ Purea. He had learnt some English volunteering as the local ambassador for Captain Wallis of HMS Dolphin in 1767, who was the first European to visit Tahiti.

Cook stayed three months on Tahiti, and Tupaia became the key local ambassador, and a close friend of the botanist Joseph Banks.

Banks was very impressed with Tupaia’s knowledge and sponsored him, and his young assistant Taiato, to join HMS Endeavour to go to England. Cook was particularly impressed by Tupaia’s navigational knowledge. He let Tupaia navigate the Endeavour for a month around the Society Islands and south to Rurutu in the Austral Islands.

At Rurutu, Tupaia was keen for Cook to sail to Ra‘ivavae, which he knew was a major source of excellent stone adzes. Instead, Cook followed his orders and continued south.

On Tahiti, Tupaia had talked about 130 islands.

Near Rurutu, Cook’s navigators plotted the Society Islands on a chart and asked Tupaia to plot the islands he knew. The Europeans did their best to write Tupaia’s Polynesian name beside each.

The original three versions of Tupaia’s chart were lost. We use a copy of the Third Version, now in the British Library. On this map, Tupaia recorded 63 islands beyond the 11 drawn by one of the Endeavour’s navigators.

His islands reached the limits of tropical Polynesia: westward through Samoa to Rotuma in Fiji; eastward through Pitcairn to Rapa Nui (Easter Island); and, northward through the Marquesas to O’ahu in the Hawaiian Islands.  

Tupaia’s map was misunderstood by Cook and his navigators, and it has puzzled academics for the 250 years since.

Finally, this year, Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz convincingly identified the 63 islands drawn by Tupaia and discovered the way he plotted them relative to each other.

Their 95-page article is entitled: “The Making of Tupaia’s Map: A Story of the Extent and Mastery of Polynesian Navigation, Competing Systems of Wayfaring on James Cook’s Endeavour, and the Invention of an Ingenious Cartographic System”.

We will demonstrate Tupaia’s system with three voyages, two of which include the Cook Islands.


Voyage 1: Rurutu to Ra‘ivavae

The chart they presented to Tupaia at Rurutu had the Societies mapped on the Mercator Projection, and the cardinal North-South and East-West lines intersecting at the centre.

On a Mercator Projection, islands are arranged on a grid of straight lines, with North at the top and East to the right.

Looking at such a map is like being a bird high in the sky looking northward down onto the earth. Mercator adjusted the distance between his East-West (Latitude) lines so travel to any destination was always a straight line. It was the preferred mapping system for European navigators.

Tupaia had wanted Cook to sail to Ra‘ivavae and the researchers concluded that he started with this voyage: Voyage 1.

First, he asked someone to write “Eavatea” at the centre of the map, where the North-South and East-West lines intersected. Then he ignored the Rurutu already on the chart and placed his Rurutu northwest of Borabora (Bola-bola) and the other Society Islands. Finally, he drew his Ra‘ivavae to the left of his Rurutu.

No European on the ship knew where Ra‘ivavae was located. They assumed Tupaia was using the Mercator system and therefore Ra‘ivavae was northwest of Rurutu.

Over the years many of Tupaia’s islands have been identified from their Polynesian names and it was clear he was not placing them on a Mercator Projection – Ra‘ivavae is east of Rurutu, not west! Some academics had concluded Tupaia did not have a consistent system to place his islands, although in more recent years some had found glimmers of a system.

Now, after 250 years, these German researchers have demonstrated that Tupaia was both logically consistent and accurate in his placement of islands.

The researchers say Tupaia placed his start island somewhere on the chart, in this case Rurutu was placed northwest of the Societies.

He then imagined himself starting a voyage, standing on his va‘a/vaka on the chart at his Rurutu, and he orientated himself to Eavatea at the centre of the chart. In his mind he rotated himself clockwise until he was looking towards Ra‘ivavae, which he placed on the chart at a distance related to the sailing days to get there.

Tupaia’s Eavatea, the Noon Sun, is North and his clockwise rotation put Ra‘ivavae at 110°, which on a Mercator map would be 110° ESE (east-southeast) – its exact direction! Somehow Cook and his navigators missed the point that Tupaia’s north was in the centre of the map, rather than at the top. This was the key Cook and numerous academics missed.

The distance between Tupaia’s charted islands related to days of sailing, including the likely effects of the prevailing winds. He told Cook the voyage from Rurutu to Tonga took “10 or 12 days in going thither and 30 or more in coming back”, because the latter is against the prevailing wind.

Voyage 2: Rarotonga to Tonga

At Rurutu, Tupaia also tried to get Cook to sail west to islands he knew, which today we know as Tonga.

Tupaia used Rarotonga as his start island and placed it southwest of the Tahiti. As in his first voyage, he imagined himself in his va’a/vaka at Rarotonga, rotated himself clockwise from the direction to Eavatea, at the centre of the chart, until he was looking towards Niue, which he placed on the map. On the map his direction was 295°, which is almost exactly the Mercator direction of 293° WNW (west-northwest).

He then repeated the procedure at Niue to plot directions to ‘Uiha in the Ha‘apai Group in central Tonga, and Vava‘u in northern Tonga. In both cases his directions were extremely accurate.

Voyage 3: Southeast to Ra‘ivavae

This voyage started on Motu One (Bellinghausen) in the northwest Societies and went through the Southern Cook Islands and Australs to Ra‘ivavae  where it split. The short branch went to Rapa Iti, the southernmost island in the Australs, while the long branch went through Mangareva and Pitcairn to Rapa Nui. We illustrate the voyage through the Cook Islands to Ra‘ivavae.  

Tupaia placed Motu One on the chart near the centre to the left of Borabora (Bola-bola). The illustration shows the voyage but includes his angles for only three islands: Manuae (Scilly), Rimatara and Tupua‘i (Tubuai). The position of his islands from Ātiu to Ra‘ivavae show how his method of plotting puts them on an arc while the Mercator map puts them in a straight line.

In this case, the directions were not as accurate as those for Voyages 1 and 2. Nevertheless, the researchers were able to positively identify the target islands all the way to Rapa Nui – an immense journey of 5,500km from Motu One, via Ātiu to Rapa Nui.

Although Tupaia had already plotted Rurutu and Ra‘ivavae in his first voyage, he plotted them again in Voyage 3, on a different part of the chart. Tupaia’s islands were not in a single fixed location as on a Mercator grid. Instead, his islands were plotted within each voyage or travel path, and islands encountered on more than one voyage were simply duplicated.

It was amazing that from each of his 63 islands, Tupaia knew the direction to the next as an angle to the Noon Sun and he used this to transfer his knowledge to a chart. It was totally different to being on his real va‘a/vaka planning a voyage to another island in relation to markers on the island, the wind, the many navigational stars at night and the sun throughout the day.

Captain Cook made a list of the 73 islands, excluding Tahiti, from Tupaia’s map and asked him which islands he had actually visited. Cook marked 21 islands as visited.

As a result of the recent research, we now know the real geographical position of the 73 islands on the map. And, 16 of Cook’s 21 marked islands are in the Societies, Australs and Southern Cooks.

As a navigator and arioi priest at marae Taputapuātea, Tupaia would have travelled extensively in the Society Islands maintaining and spreading the arioi religion, which had elevated the god of war, ‘Oro, above Ta‘aroa/Tangaroa as the principal god. And as an arioi missionary he probably travelled west to the Cook Islands, although ‘Oro worship was not adopted here.

The three distant westward islands, marked by Cook, were Niue, Manua in American Samoa and ‘Uvea (Wallis) west of Samoa; while the two distant eastward islands were the “land of men”, the Marquesas, and the most distant, Rapa Nui.

These distant islands were not associated with nearby or on-the-way visited islands and it seems doubtful he visited them. Even if he had visited some of them, there were 52 islands in Cook’s list not marked as visited.  How did Tupaia know how to navigate to so many islands he had not visited?

Taputapuātea is widely accepted as the main hub of voyaging in Eastern Polynesia. It would have included a school of navigation, and Tupaia was one of its leaders.

In the 1750s, the Taputapuātea navigation school was teaching every detail of how to navigate 3,400km west through Samoa to Rotuma in Fiji; 5,000km east through Mangareva and Pitcairn to Rapa Nui; and nearly 5,500km northeast through the Marquesas, then north-northwest to O‘ahu in Hawai‘i.

In contrast to the distance places Tupaia could navigate to in tropical Polynesia, it was unexpectedly remarkable that he, the master navigator of Taputapuātea, did not know anything about Aotearoa (New Zealand).

When Tupaia arrived in Aotearoa with Captain Cook he could converse with Māori and was very interested when they said their ancestors came from Hawaiki, which he thought was the same Ohiavie/Oheavei where Tahitians originated, namely Savai‘i in Samoa. In this, he was probably mistaken because most Māori traditions associate Hawaiki with Ra‘iātea, the home of Tupaia.

Unfortunately, Tupaia never saw England. He and Taiato died of malaria while the ship was being repaired in Batavia (Jakarta) on Java, which was well-known as a disease-ridden city. All but one of those on the Endeavour got sick and several died.

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