Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


AS A KID, I picked up lots of misinformation. For instance, that the famed British explorer James Cook discovered a bunch of Pacific islands and, on his return trip, got eaten by cannibals in Hawaii.

Fortunately these days, I read the New York Times Book Review. Its May 19, 2019, issue carries “Aloha,” by Simon Winchester. His review is subtitled “How did Polynesia become populated? And what of the man—and the boat—that first ‘discovered’ the many islands?”

It turns out that punch of the word “discovered” is not inappropriate. Here in Parts 1 and 2, today and tomorrow, are tidbits, not to say amended history, gleaned from Winchester’s review of two books, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson, Harper/HarperCollins, 2019. Below, Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World, by Peter Moore, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019.

Cook, the Explorer. Cook was a quick study: After apprenticing to a grocer and haberdasher, he decided instead to chum up to local ship owners in the coal trade. His apprenticeship with them was time well spent: Cook learned algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy.

He progressed through merchant navy ranks and, at the age of 26, joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He served in the Seven Years’ War, 1754–1763, arithmetically dodgy and what we Yanks call the French and Indian War, which is also dodgy in terms of participants. Whatever, Cook got to practice his cartography by creating a chart of Newfoundland.

James Cook, 1728–1779, British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy. Portrait by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c. 1775.

Cook’s First Voyage—and its Secret Mission. Cook’s first Pacific voyage, 1768–1771, was ostensibly to enable British scientist Sir Joseph Banks to view a Venus Transit of the Sun, visible on June 3, 1769, only in the Southern Hemisphere. For this event, H.M.S. Endeavour under Cook’s command sailed to Tahiti in the mid-Pacific.

The routes of Captain James Cook’s three Pacific voyages. The first is shown in red; the second in green; and the third in blue. The dashed line shows his crew’s route after Cook’s death in Hawaii (of which more anon). Image by Jon Platek.

Tahiti was not exactly the closest Southern Hemisphere viewing location from England, but there was method in their madness: The voyage’s primary mission, a secret one, was to sail beyond Tahiti in search of Terra Australis, the hypothetical land mass balancing the known world in the Northern Hemisphere.

Similar thinking has people digging a hole straight down to China. It doesn’t work.

Tupaia Enhances Cook’s Reputation. While in Tahiti, Sir Joseph Banks met Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator and arioi, priest of a secret religious order in what’s now known as the Society Islands. Recognizing Tupaia’s Pacific cred, Banks invited him aboard the Endeavour. Cook objected on financial grounds, but Banks offered to pay for Tupaia’s upkeep and welfare on board.

A good thing too. Tupaia, also known as Tupaea or Tupia, c. 1725–1770, was of highly intellectual character. Sea People author Christina Thompson notes his areas of expertise included “cosmology, politics, history, medicine, geography, astronomy, meteorology, and navigation.” He was also a talented artist, with ten of his watercolors surviving.

Reviewer Winchester writes, “Tupaia traveled with Cook, … gave him written lists of scores of faraway islands with which he was familiar, and drew for him a chart (the original sadly lost) that showed, with uncanny accuracy, where these islands lay, out in an ocean then quite uncharted by European cartographers.”

A Tupaia chart of the islands surrounding Tahiti, c. 1769.

Not only this, Tupaia was a goodwill ambassador. According to Wikipedia, “Tupaia accompanied Cook to New Zealand and was welcomed by some of the Māori as a tohunga, (an expert).”

A Māori exchanges a crayfish for a piece of cloth, a drawing by Tupaia, c. 1769.

Australia was later found not to be the massively balancing Terra Australis Cook was seeking. Nevertheless, Wikipedia cites Cook writing, “… by means of Tupaia… you would always get people to direct you from island to island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly reception and refreshments at every island you came to.”

Tupaia’s Death. In 1770, Tupaia perished, either of dysentery or malaria, in Batavia. Now Jakarta, Indonesia, this was where the Endeavour had berthed for repairs.

Wikipedia cites Cook’s journal entry commenting on Tupaia’s death: “He was a Shrewd, Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him, and tended much to promote the deceases that put a period to his life.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, Cook gets his.

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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