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The ‘Artist of the Chief Mourner’ and The British: Knowledge Sharing in Tahiti across Dance, Death, and Watercolour by Will Higginbotham

This essay will examine a watercolour by Tupaia – a high priest from Raiatea – who became, amongst other roles, an artist with the British HMB Endeavour as they explored Tahiti and voyaged through the Pacific. The other artefact in question is the diary of Joseph Banks, the botanist and scientist who became close with Tupaia. From the journal, passages have been selected that reference Tupaia’s work or explicitly or implicitly speak of the imprint of his presence, knowledge, and collaboration. Tupaia’s work is considered the first example of a Polynesian working within a European idiom of watercolour illustration. Examining these two artefacts, therefore, presents a number of intriguing insights. Namely, it suggests a more nuanced depiction of knowledge production from the Endeavour voyage than has traditionally presented, and it also illuminates the highly collaborative dynamic that at times existed between European explorers and Islanders. Tupaia’s artwork also suggests a strong current of Indigenous agency in early encounters, especially in regard to communicating aspects of Polynesian culture. This ultimately works to further shift the idea of initial encounters between British and Islanders in the South Pacific away from outright domination into something closer to the messy, collaborative dynamics that existed as two cultures met each other during the British discovery of the South Seas.

Date created: 
Wednesday, April 12, 2023
Attribution for this resource:
The ‘Artist of the Chief Mourner’ and The British: Knowledge Sharing in Tahiti across Dance, Death, and Watercolour by Will Higginbotham, All rights reserved.