Parkinson’s Tahitian Name

When I made a list of all the names given to Endeavour’s people by the Tahitians, something stood out to me: some are better approximations of the English names than others. Only one—that of Jonathan Munkhouse, or “Matta”—is understood by the British to mean anything: “killer,” on account of the fact that he shot an islander. But I wondered whether the other names could have any possible meaning, and therefore turned to an extensive nineteenth-century Tahitian dictionary published by the London Missionary Society. As it turns out, some of the names do have meaning—but not the ones you might expect. “Toote,” (Cook), for example, means absolutely nothing (and sounds silly). “Pane” (Banks) has a few possibilities, none particularly intriguing. “Tolano” (Solander) probably not. But then there is “Patini/e.”

“Patini” (Parkinson) doesn’t appear to be a word in Tahitian; it appears to be a name composite of two words. “Pa” is a form of address which connotes honor. “Tini” means “to honor.” Put together, what seems a redundancy is, in fact, an indication of emphasis, so “Patini” is one who is “doubly honored” or very special. The fact that this seems to be a rare name in the Pacific (two 19th century uses are documented, one in Tahiti and another—a noblewoman—in the Marquesas) suggests it was a name that wasn’t given lightly. Even if it sounded like the best approximation of “Parkinson,” the Tahitians would have known that giving him this name would continually impact how he was regarded by them, and I doubt they would have bestowed that name if they didn’t feel it was deserved. Moreover, the fact that the Tahitians had a high regard for Sydney was made clear to Stanfield Parkinson by his brother’s shipmates.

So it seems brilliant irony to me that the two men who are the most highly regarded in England for the Endeavour voyage—James Cook and Joseph Banks—are given essentially meaningless names by the Tahitians, while the lowly “hired hand” is the one who is “doubly honored.”  Owing to the bias of their own culture, both Banks and Parkinson might be expected to have assumed that the Tahitians recognized Banks as the more “worthy” of the two, when in fact the reality might have been quite different.

It’s unfortunate Parkinson never knew the meaning of his name.

One caveat: I am only an amateur linguist! I would love to hear from someone really familiar with the Tahitian language to hear their interpretation. You can contact me at if you have ideas to share.


***UPDATE: Back in February, Patricia Wallace sent me an email with some excellent added information regarding language. I was hesitant to post her response without her permission, but she says it is fine to share, so here it is:

Kia ora Emily – greetings from New Zealand.

Your ideas are interesting – although I don’t necessarily agree with them.

I write as one who has enormous respect for Sydney Parkinson; I used his empirical studies of Maori people as a source of ethnological data (along with those of other early voyaging graphic artists) while completing my PhD ‘Traditional Maori dress : rediscovering forgotten elements of pre-1820 practice’ – some years ago.

Although I am not a linguist, I would like to offer you some alternative ideas to investigate regarding the Tahitian names given to members of James Cook’s expeditionary party in 1769.

While the Tahitian language is not the same as te reo Maori (the Maori language), that they were very similar is evidenced by the ease with which the Tahitian navigator Tupaia was understood my Maori when the Endeavour reached New Zealand.

While the English alphabet has 26 letters, the Maori alphabet consisted of 15 letters: – once the missionaries arrived and started to write it.  There were eight consonants: h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w; two digraphs, representing single sounds: ng, wh; five vowels: a, e, i, o, u. The vowels can be long or short. Contemporary conventions are that long vowels should be indicated by a macron: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū.  As with Italian, the consonant in Maori is always followed with a vowel. 

This means that Maori pronunciation of words or names beginning with letters not in the Maori alphabet were usually adapted to the nearest similar sound.  E.g.  butter – in Maori becomes ‘pata’.  In addition, some sounds were softer.  Sometimes the letter ‘t’ sounds more like a cross between a ‘t’ and a ‘d’.  Accordingly, names initially seem to have been transliterations, rather than something with a specific meaning.

Thus the Maori version of ‘Cook’ was Kuki.  Banks almost certainly became ‘Pana’ and Parkinson probably ‘Pakini’ (with a long ‘a’ = ā, Pākini,  and the letter ‘i’ sounding like ‘ee’ in English.)

I hope these small details will give you some more leads to follow.

With best wishes,

Patricia Wallace

This is the sort of information and cross-checking that is gold to a researcher–especially one who can’t easily go to the source, because I am half a world away! Patricia confirmed some of what I thought I knew about the language, and corrected or enhanced my knowledge. Having the Maori comparison is especially useful, and explains not only how easily Tupaia might have understood Maori, but also where there might have been a bit of disconnect.

I still do wonder whether the Tahitians would have given to a stranger a name that already implied something significant (if indeed, it had that meaning), even if it was the closest approximation of his actual name. If anyone has information regarding the importance (or unimportance) of name meanings in traditional Tahitian / Maohi (or related) culture, please do let me know!



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