Cook and Tupaia, and the marriage of Maori and Pakeha

I remember Sir Paul Reeves saying that the relationship between Maori and Pakeha was like a marriage, and it required continual work to keep it loving. After a year spent developing a series of exhibit-activities on Cook, Tasman and Kupe, I now think that the matchmakers of this marriage were Cook and Tupaia.

Before Cook arrived in Tahiti, European and Polynesian were already acquainted. A few of the Endeavour crew spoke Tahitian, and many traded a nail for the favour of a woman ashore. Banks, always interested in deflowering, formed a close relationship with “Queen Oberea”. During the weeks of waiting for the transit of Venus, relationships between the crew and the Tahitians ranged from dangerously tempestuous to amorous, as each side inadvertently transgressed the other’s tapu, and then made peace again. The most important friendship, for the history of Aotearoa, was with Tupaia. It was Tupaia’s decision to step aboard the Endeavour, and sail with these new acquaintances into the unknown south, that smoothed the introductions for our Maori-Pakeha marriage.

Tasman, without the benefit of a Polynesian interpreter, accidentally declared war by blowing his trumpets. After 3 sailors were killed, he decided it was too difficult to trade with the Maori, and headed back to Batavia, without even passing first base.

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The first meeting between Maori and Cook resulted in the unfortunate death of a few by musket. Cook had been instructed by the admiralty to befriend native people, and both he and Bank’s wrote of their distress at the deaths. The misunderstandings that led to this aggression may well have continued were it not for Tupaia being able to communicate with the Maori. The learned Tupaia; navigator, ariki, and it seems, talented linguist. We will never know exactly what he said. Typically, a waka taua paddled out vigorously, each warrior well-armed with stones. Tupaia lent over the side of the Endeavour and engaged them in a conversation for a good while. Sometimes a whakapohane was performed before the waka returned to shore, but regardless, these transactions allowed the Endeavour to land and revictual without further violence.

Cook, with great thoroughness, continued to chart the whole of Aotearoa, landing along the east coast, and in the Marlborough Sounds. This was the foundation of our marriage, each side gaining a wary acceptance of the other, which sometimes swung towards love, and sometime towards war.

Let’s hope that the work we do in museums around Tuia Encounters 250 will deepen our understanding of one another. I initially thought my approach through the lens of navigation was a bit dry and scientific, but I soon realised there was much to admire and learn from the intrepid adventures, skilful technology and interrelationships of European and Polynesian sailors. European Enlightenment Science dissected our world into examinable fragments and usable resources: cartesian squares, measured time and botanical nomenclature. Polynesian Navigation depended on keeping the whole picture in your mind:  on a continual mental recalibrating of position within a continuously changing natural environment: Tupaia could point to home from anywhere. Objectivity and relationism. We need to carry both understandings forward to live in harmony with each other, our land and our sea. I hope that Intouch Design’s collection of exhibit-activities, Pacific Explorers, will make a meaningful and enjoyable contribution to this ongoing relationship.