Joan Druett, right, in the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. Photo Mark Mitchell

Two names from the 18th century voyage of the Endeavour are fixtures in New Zealand history - James Cook, the ship's captain, and wealthy botanist Joseph Banks.
Maritime historian Joan Druett wants to add a third - that of Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator, high priest, artist and translator who sailed from his homeland with Cook and defused the landmark encounter between Maori and Europeans off the Endeavour on October 9, 1769.
Tensions were running high because the previous day a Maori, Te Maro, was shot through the heart by a nervous crewman after Cook's party made landfall in Poverty Bay.
Back on shore and armed to the teeth, red-coated English marines faced off against agitated warriors on the far bank of the Turanganui River.
Tupaia - bearing a musket and clad in breeches, shoes, shirt, stock and skirted coat - stepped ahead of the soldiers and called to the restive war party.
"They understood him perfectly," writes Druett in her biography of Tupaia, a handsome new book she hopes will cement her subject in the foundation of the nation.
Tupaia's presence on the riverbank - a tall, commanding figure who, despite his costume, clearly resembled the fighting men opposite - both eased fears and stirred cries across the water. What was he doing on a "fat canoe that carried its own cloud?" Where did he come from? How was Te Maro killed with an "exploding stick?"
The breakthrough did not last. Though Cook and a courageous elder met mid-stream for a hongi, blood was again spilled when the Endeavour's surgeon William Munkhouse fatally shot local chief Te Rakau after astronomer Charles Green's military sword was snatched in a dispute over trading a greenstone mere.
"As an exercise in public relations it was a disaster," writes Druett.
It was the second time that Tupaia had helped the English explorers in a tight spot. Three months earlier, in his homeland, Tupaia made the brave decision to join the Endeavour. As wind filled the sails of the square-rigged converted collier when it set off from Matavai Bay for Tupaia's island birthplace of Raiatea, Banks and his Tahitian passenger waved from the masthead at canoes filled with paddlers making a "woeful cry."
A few days later the ship anchored at Raiatea, which had been conquered by neighbouring Bora Bora. A wary Tupaia led the party to a highly revered marae where, in tropical rain, he stripped to the waist and prayed to his gods. The ceremony over, Banks and the others inspected the hallowed grounds of Taputapuatea.
To Tupaia's horror, and the alarm of local priests, Banks thrust his arm into a thatched "god-house" and began tearing at the fabric of a precious totem.
Writes Druett: "Back on Tahiti, Dr Munkhouse had been attacked for the relatively trivial crime of plucking a flower on sacred ground. Here, on the greatest marae in eastern Polynesia, the whole party would have been slaughtered if they had not been under Tupaia's protection."
Banks, says Druett, "was so mindless and barbaric ... Tupaia would have had to talk very, very fast."
Just how was this imposing 40-something (Tupaia's exact age is uncertain) able to bridge cultures and languages, and in the face of Banks' sacrilege, perhaps alter the course of history by getting the expedition out of harm's way?

Read the full piece at NZHerald.