Tupaea and the people of Tōtaranui


One of the outcomes of the Tuia 250 commemorations has been increased public awareness of Tupaea, the Ra’iātean who joined James Cook on his first Pacific expedition.


Many scholars have commented on Tupaea’s exceptional navigational abilities, his role in the first engagements between Māori and Pākehā, his artistic abilities, and his position in Tahitian society.


Iwi too have traditions of Tupaea.


The Kurahaupō tribes of the northern South Island (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa) met Tupaea in January 1770.


The European sources make some comment about the interactions between tangata whenua and Tupaea, however, we have little detail as to what may have been said in those conservations, although we can assume certain things were discussed.


We can safely assume that the people of Tōtaranui asked Tupaea, ‘no hea koe’? Where are you from?


When Cook left New Zealand Tupaea went with him. During the journey Tupaea fell ill and died in Batavia.


When Cook returned on his second expedition in 1773 he again stopped at Tōtaranui where the tangata whenua inquired as to the whereabouts of Tupaea. News of Tupaea’s death left Māori grief stricken.


The death of Tupaea was felt deeply by the people of Tōtaranui. An examination of tribal whakapapa shows that the locals were somewhat influenced by Tupaea as children born at the time or soon after his visit were given names of East-Polynesian origin.


At that time too a waiata tangi was composed by tangata whenua lamenting Tupaea’s death; one hundred and twenty years later the waiata tangi was dictated by Eruera Wirihana Pakauwera of Ngāti Kuia to S P Smith.


Eruera was a survivor of the ‘musket wars’. Some time around 1828-29, Te Rauparaha and his allies invaded the Pelorus Sound. A few years earlier Eruera’s grandfather, Pakauwera, and great uncle, Maihi, both of whom were renowned warriors, had travelled to Horowhenua where they joined their Muaūpoko relatives in attacks on the recently arrived Ngāti Toa. Moreover, other Ngāti Kuia warriors had taken part in the botched invasion of Kāpiti Island - the newly acquired residence of Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Koata.


Kāpiti was of extreme importance to the Kurahaupō tribes as it was here that a number of high ranking chiefs were buried.


As far as Ngāti Toa was concerned all of this was just cause to exact utu from Ngāti Kuia. When Pinohia pā fell Pakauwera and Maihi were killed. ‘Hikapu’, the southern variant of ‘Hingapu’, means ‘fallen to the gun’ and it is the name given to the battle at Pinohia. ‘Hikapu Reach’ in the inner Pelorus Sound is a reminder of these events.


The death of Pakauwera induced his brother, Taiteariki, to compose a waiata. Today that waiata – E Koro Paroa - can be heard across Te Tauihu. It acknowledges important mountains and calls upon Pakauwera to rise up. Sung by descendants and non-descendants alike, it could be argued that the tides of battle have indeed turned.


Following the fall of Pinohia, Eruera and his father, Wirihana Kaipara, retreated to the headwaters and valleys of the Pelorus Sound. Here they reunited with other Kurahaupō survivors and engaged in a guerrilla war against ‘nga iwi hou’ (the Ngāti Kuia name for the Tainui/Taranaki alliance). Later, once the fighting with nga iwi hou had ceased, Kaipara joined a Ngāti Koata contingent in an attack on Kaiapoi pa. Eruera eventually settled in the Pelorus Valley, near present day Canvastown.


S P Smith was a founding member of the Polynesian Society. The Society believed that Māori, like all Native peoples, would eventually die out and so took it upon themselves to salvage what history and traditions they could from the surviving members of the race and publish it in the Society’s journal.


Eruera dictated around 150 waiata, karakia, and moteatea to Smith, and in many cases identified the composers. When this information is placed alongside tribal whakapapa we can begin to paint a picture of the relationship between people and place, and time. Although there was some effort on Smith’s part he underestimated the value of what he was collecting, stating, they were ‘not worth translating’.


Today Eruera’s dictations form an important part of Ngāti Kuia’s whare kōrero. Of particular interest at this time, as we await the arrival waka from the Pacific, is the lament composed by Eruera’s ancestors in memory of Tupaea. Importantly, it gives us an indication of the esteem in which Tupaea was held and the kinds of things that were discussed when he met the Kurauhaupō community of Tōtaranui.


The lament begins by asking who or what has caused the death of Tupaea, this great treasure, this ‘taonga nui rawa’. Reference is then made to ‘Te Toheremi o Houmea’. Houmea is a well-known figure in Polynesian mythology. Married to Uta, a fisherman, Houmea had an insatiable appetite and constantly devoured her husband’s catch while laying the blame on others. On his return from a fishing trip Uta finds Houmea with severe stomach pains. After reciting the appropriate incantations to relieve her discomfort Uta discovers that his wife has in fact swallowed their children. After recovering the children Uta decides that he will leave his wife. He sends Houmea on an errand and in her absence they depart. Upon her return Houmea sees that Uta and the children have left. Hungry and angry, she pursues the fleeing party, eventually catching up with them. She demands that the children feed her, which they do; however, soon all of the food onboard, including the fish that had just been cooked, is eaten. With little hope of satisfying Houmea, the children decide to kill her by throwing hot charcoal from the fire into her gaping mouth.


The story of Houmea is a comment on evil, greed, and thievish behaviour. The shag is often considered to be a manifestation of Houmea, however, Eruera informed Smith that she also took the form an ocean whirlpool.


Next, the lament mentions ‘Paoa-here’ and ‘Te Kura a Awarua’. This particular part of the lament provides an insight into the political and religious situation in East-Polynesian prior to the migration of peoples to Aotearoa. Paoa-here was a Rarotongan high priest who helped transport a great drum known as ‘Tangimoana’ to the sacred marae at Taputapuatea in Ra’iātea. Here the drum was to be presented to the god ‘Oro’.


Up until this time the islands of East-Polynesian lived under a peace alliance made up of two broad groupings of islands centred on Ra’iātea. ‘Te-ao-uri’ comprised those islands to the east and southeast, and included Tahiti. ‘Te-ao-tea’ took in those islands to the west, beginning with Taha’a and Porapora (Bora Bora) and extending to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.


Over a number of generations aristocratic pilgrims travelled to Taputapuatea to discuss religious matters. These great meetings came to an abrupt end when Paoa-here was killed by a priest from Te-ao-uri. Te-ao-tea retaliated and attacked the murderer and then made a sudden departure. Significantly, however, they did not leave via ‘Te Avamo’a’, the sacred pass (in the reef) through which they arrived. Rather, they made haste through ’Te Avarua’, that is to say, ‘Te Kura a Awarua’. The departure of Te-ao-tea signalled the end of the alliance.


Lastly, mention is made of Tupaea’s relationship to ‘te whanau o Putea’. This part of the lament accounts for Tupaea’s recent past. In the years leading up to Cook’s arrival Tupaea’s fortune’s had fluctuated. He was part of the Ra’iātean elite who trained as a priest specialising in star navigation, however, when Ra’iātea was invaded by warriors from Bora Bora he was forced to leave for Tahiti where he found refuge with the family of local chief, Amo, and his wife Purea (Putea).

In time, Tupaea became Putea’s lover and one of Amo’s key advisors. This position of privilege was shaken with the arrival of the British frigate, Dolphin, in 1767. Initially relations between the Tahitians and the English were cordial but the latter soon outstayed their welcome and conflict ensued. When the locals attacked the English the English responded with cannon fire forcing Amo to retreat. Tupaea took this as an opportunity to negotiate with Captain Wallis, who was himself seeking to substantiate Britain’s claims to the islands.


Following the departure of the English, rival Tahitian forces attacked Amo and Putea, once more placing Tupaea in a precarious situation. But again Tupaea managed to find himself an advisory role in the new ascendancy, and although not as prestigious as his former station it did place him in a useful position when Cook eventually arrived in 1769.


The lament composed by those who met Tupaea provides some useful insights into the conversions that would have taken place in 1770. Reference to ‘Houmea’, Paoa-here’ and ‘Te Kura a Awarua’ would indicate that connections through common traditions were being made. Moreover, it is clear that Tupaea had discussed the events that led to him being on the Endeavour.


The most important aspect of Tuia 250, at least from our perspective, is that it has given ‘us’, the descendants of those people who met Tupaea, the opportunity to connect with our Pacific relatives; to reacquaint ourselves with some of our oral traditions; and, learn about our own navigation traditions and practises. James Cook, it would seem, has retreated beyond the horizon.


Dr Peter Meihana and Mark Moses


In 2019, New Zealand will mark 250 years since the first meetings between Māori and Pākehā during James Cook and the Endeavour’s 1769 voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand. Tuia – Encounters 250 will acknowledge this pivotal moment in our nation’s history as well as the extraordinary feats of Pacific voyagers who reached and settled in Aotearoa many years earlier.

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