We’re creating a new online picture library here at the Royal Society (watch this space!), and so I’ve recently been getting to grips with image scanning, Photoshop and the storage of large TIFF files. One of the books I’ve been raiding for images to digitise is Sydney Parkinson’s wonderful ‘Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty’s Ship, The Endeavour’, first published in 1773.
Parkinson, a Scottish Quaker, was spotted by Joseph Banks FRS while honing his skills as a botanical illustrator in London, and hired as the artist to accompany Banks in his role as naturalist on HMS Endeavour’s voyage to Tahiti, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook. Although Parkinson’s exact date of birth is unknown, he would have been no older than 23 when the Endeavour left Plymouth in August 1768. They arrived in Tahiti the following April and, while the astronomers made their preparations to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3rd (at the behest of the Royal Society), the ship’s artist set to work sketching the local inhabitants.
Parkinson’s journal contains many memorable engravings of the people of Tahiti, Huahine and other ‘Society Islands’, as Cook named the remote Pacific archipelago. The image that particularly caught my eye is this charming picture of ‘The Lad Taiyota, native of Otaheite, in the Dress of his Country’. So, who was this fine young fellow, seen here playing ‘a musical instrument, somewhat like a flute, which they blow into through their noses’? Well, Taiata (to use the modern form of his name) was the 12-year-old Tahitian servant of a powerful master, originally from the neighbouring Society Island of Raiatea and identified by Parkinson as ‘Toobaiah [Tupaia], who is a sort of high-priest of Otaheite’.
When the Endeavour sailed from Tahiti on 13 July 1769, Tupaia and his servant were on board, under the personal protection of Banks, who (ever so slightly patronisingly) planned a future back in England for his new ‘acquisition’:
‘I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a larger expence than he will probably ever put me to.’
Banks’s sense of entitlement makes for a poignant contrast with the feelings of Tupaia’s flock, watching their high priest sail off into the distance (along with the English sailors, leaving a few heartbroken Tahitian ladies in their wake):
‘On our leaving the shore, the people in the canoes set up their woeful cry, Awai, Awai; and the young women wept very much”
During the following year, Tupaia and little Taiata proved to be valuable additions to the Endeavour’s crew, with whom they learned to communicate following English lessons from the ship’s astronomer, Charles Green. Tupaia was able to converse with the Maori of New Zealand, helping to defuse several potentially dangerous confrontations, and Cook himself noted that ‘Tupaia always accompanies us in every excursion we make and proves of infinite service’. While some of Cook’s sailors appear to have resented the high priest Tupaia’s rather haughty attitude, Taiata was regarded as the ‘darling of the ship’s company’.
Turning for home following the exploration of the east coast of New Holland (Australia), the Endeavour’s crew appeared to be in good shape for the voyage back to England. Tupaia and Charles Green were suffering from mild scurvy, but Cook was an enlightened leader in this respect, realising the effectiveness of anti-scorbutics such as malt and sauerkraut aboard ship and the need to take on fresh fruit and vegetables at every port of call; he was later to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society and to win the Society’s Copley Medal for his paper on preserving the health of his sailors. However, the Endeavour required major repairs to her keel following a close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef, and the only port with the necessary facilities was the Dutch colony of Batavia (now Jakarta), on the island of Java. This was to prove a fatal destination for several of the Endeavour’s crew.
At first, young Taiata found himself in paradise – as Banks comments, ‘Houses, carriages, streets … were to him sights which he had often heard described but never well understood, so he look’d upon them all with more than wonder’. However, the ‘civilisation’ of Batavia came at a cost: its elegant network of canals provided a breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease, and sailors from all around the world added their imported maladies to the ‘unwholesome air of Batavia which I firmly believe is the death of more Europeans than any other place upon the Globe’, in Cook’s words.
And not just Europeans: within a fortnight, both the passengers from Tahiti had succumbed to malarial fever. On 17 December 1770, little Taiata announced, ‘Tyua mate oee’ (‘My friends, I am dying’); on his passing away, his master Tupaia ‘gave himself up to grief’, filled with remorse for having taken himself and his servant so far from their homeland, and died three days later. Charles Green and Sydney Parkinson, the young artist who had preserved Taiata’s likeness for posterity, carried their sickness (a vicious combination of malaria and ‘putrid dysentery’) with them when the Endeavour eventually departed Batavia, and neither was to survive the journey across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town. ‘Awai, Awai’, indeed.
The sad story of Tupaia and Taiata is one of the lesser-known footnotes to Captain Cook’s great years of exploration, somewhat overshadowed by the tale of Omai, who was later to survive both the return voyage from the South Seas to Europe and the ‘hospitality’ of Joseph Banks. We can only be grateful to Sydney Parkinson for capturing the image of Taiata in happier times, before the ravages of Batavia claimed both their young lives. Readers wishing to know more about Taiata, Parkinson and the voyages of James Cook are welcome to visit the Royal Society Library to peruse our extensive collection of Cook and Banks material – and do keep an eye out for the launch of our online picture library, which will feature a significant selection of Parkinson’s drawings from Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.