Tupaia has shot to fame these last months as the pin-up boy of our history. Neither Māori nor Pakeha, the Tahitian ‘ariori (priest) and navigator who travelled with Cook bridged two very different cultures in 1769. If we approach the study of Aotearoa/New Zealand history through his eyes we develop a fresh understanding of our first encounters.
The illustrations are surreal and luminous, reduced to the essence. They feel powerful. There are hints of gods in the sky and in the sea, patterns in the stars, simple and evocative plants and birds. We have Tupaia standing alone on his waka looking at a ghostly Endeavour. He is strong and confident and inquisitive, part of the sea and the stars of his world. The stylised drawings, like the text, don’t follow a traditional approach. There are graphic-book drawings and full-page illustrations, poetry and descriptive prose, changing moods like the sea. Pretty neat, said a 14-year-old looking over my shoulder and trying (unsuccessfully) to take the book from me.
We travel with Tupaia from his formative years in Ra’iatea to his meeting with Cook and Banks in Tahiti, where he is neither frightened nor diminished by the grand boat and white-faced men with strange new ideas. Tupaia knows who he is. I feel his excitement at the opportunity to learn and to teach and to travel. He goes on board the Endeavour and takes with him the young man Taiata, who is described here as a student but in other sources called a disciple or a servant. He also brings ‘Oro, the God of war, who is a breathing force in the story, putting his oar in and stirring up trouble. There is mysticism wound up in dreams and premonitions.
In New Zealand Tupaia comes ashore and discovers, remarkably, he can communicate with the local Māori and he becomes their first link for centuries to their ancestral homeland. We don’t know much of what passed in these encounters but they must have been extraordinary. Sure we have stories still to come, different interpretations, different views. Hope so.
There’s an honesty to the telling of the encounters between ship and shore as Tupaia and the Endeavour’s crew travel around the coast. Different views, different understandings again. The relationship between Tupaia and Taiata is heart-warming. Loss and love, teacher and disciple.
The Adventures of Tupaia, and other books like Cook’s Cook and Tessa Duder’s First Map, recently published to celebrate Tuia 250, give teachers new resources to guide our tamariki into our country’s tangled past. There are knots in our history, but all histories are tricky. Tupaia’s story is just one of the millions of colourful strands that weave us together. I hope Courtney Sina Meredith, the writer of The Adventures of Tupaia, and Mat Tait, the illustrator, get together to write more illustrated histories, because this is terrific.