Marshall Islands navigation chart

1920 

Meddo” sea chart

Australasia & the Pacific Pacific
  • Publication place: Marshall Islands
  • Publication date: ?1920
  • Physical description: Sea chart made of coconut fibres, palm tree fibres and cowry shells.
  • Dimensions: 370 by 760mm. (14.5 by 30 inches).
  • Inventory reference: 12154

Notes

Navigation in the Marshall Islands was, and still is, an essential survival skill, which was a closely guarded secret and only passed on within a small number of families. In order to memorise the main navigational features between the islands, sailors built special maps with sticks, fibres and shells, to describe the archipelagos. They were created for personal use, and only the sailor who built them could wholly understand their meaning. Consultation would happen exclusively on soil, as once at sea the sailor could not show any kind of uncertainty in the route as that would have questioned his capacity and consequently undermined his social status.

These types of maps, apart from indicating the positions of the islands (through cowry shells), show the main characteristics of the sea. The Marshall Islands culture, aware of the fact that the presence of the islands altered the orientation of the strong ocean currents, profited by this knowledge to navigate in the archipelagos.

The Marshall Islands maps, being the first document to give information on currents and also on the geography of the islands, represent a milestone of nautical cartography.

There are three distinct categories:
1. Mattang Map, an abstract graphic used to teach the principles to read how the islands stop waves and currents.
2. Meddo Map, it indicates the real position of the islands, the direction of the main currents, the way in which the currents curve around the earth and how they intersect between themselves. It shows the distance from which it is possible to see a precise island. The Meddo maps present a side of one of the two main chains of archipelagos.
3. Rebbelib Map, it contains the same information as the Meddo map, including most or, in same cases, all of the islands of one or both the chains of archipelagos.

Provenance

1. John Giltsoff Collection
2. Private Collection, France