The tragic tale of Taiata and the artist’s journal

Taiata, Sydney Parkinson, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium

The Royal Society is gradually opening up its archives – among them the artist Sydney Parkinson’s Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty’s Ship, The Endeavour, first published in 1773.

One of the illustrations from the journal is the one to the right, titled ‘The Lad Taiyota, native of Otaheite, in the Dress of his Country’.

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 left Tahiti on 13 July 1769, Tupaia and Taiata were on board, under the personal protection of Joseph Banks – the naturalist who had chosen Parkinson as one of his artists for the voyage.

Banks’ own journal reveals his attitude towards Tupaia: “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,” he wrote.

According to Banks’ diary and that of the captain, James Cook, Tupaia and Taiata never made it back to England, dying, along with five of the Endeavour’s crew in the port of Batavia (now Jakarta), as repairs were carried out on the ship.

On 17 December 1770, Taiata announced, “Tyua mate oee” (“My friends, I am dying”). With his passing, Tupaia ‘gave himself up to grief’, filled with remorse for having taken himself and his servant so far from their homeland. The high priest died three days later.

As the post on the Royal Society blog points out, “the sad story of Tupaia and Taiata is one of the lesser-known footnotes to Captain Cook’s great years of exploration.”

Parkinson himself died just a few months after the Tahitians as the Endeavour began the final leg of her journey home. He was among 23 other members of the crew who succumbed to the malaria and dysentery they contracted during their time in Java.

Parkinson’s journal was therefore left unfinished. While, before dying, he entrusted it to Banks’ fellow naturalist Daniel Solander, the latter also died, leaving the papers with Banks’, together with Parkinson’s will, which he already had responsibility for.

When the Endeavour finally made it back to England, Banks handed the artist’s will to his brother Stanfield Parkinson but withheld the journal, since Cook had demanded all such records of the voyage to be given to Dr John Hawkesworth, to form the basis of an official account.

Stanfield Parkinson was a deeply suspicious man, however, and one on the verge of madness. He became convinced Banks was somehow defrauding him and demanded the manuscript, which in the end the naturalist agreed to lend him, following intervention from a mutual friend Dr John Fothergill.

The upholsterer secretly enlisted a disreputable journalist by the name of Kenrick, of whom it was said he “libeled almost every successful author and actor” of his day. Kenrick copied the papers and turned them into a book, published under the name of Stanfield Parkinson and attacking both Banks and Fothergill in the preface.

This story of the publication of Parkinson’s Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty’s Ship, The Endeavour is also one of the lesser-known footnotes to Captain Cook’s great years of exploration. It comes mainly courtesy of Patrick O’Brien’s excellent biography of Joseph Banks (pp.151-2).

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