The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Length: 1.000 m
Collected by Adm. Davis, HMS Royalist
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Navigation chart (rebbelib)
From the Marshall Islands,
Probably 19th century AD
The Marshall Islands in eastern Micronesia consist of thirty-four coral atolls spread out across an area of several hundred miles. In order to maintain links between the islands, the Marshall Islanders built seafaring canoes. These vessels were both quick and manoeuvrable. The islanders developed a reputation for navigation between the islands - not a simple matter, since they are all so low that none can be seen from more than a few miles away.
In order to determine a system of piloting and navigation the islanders devised charts that marked not only the locations of the islands, but their knowledge of the swell and wave patterns as well. The charts were composed of wooden sticks; the horizontal and vertical sticks act as supports, while diagonal and curved ones represent wave swells. Cowrie or other small shells represent the position of the islands. Generally the charts were used as an aide-memoire for an experienced navigator, and were not constructed to scale.
This chart is of a type known as a rebbelib, which cover either a large section or all of the Marshall Islands. Other types of chart more commonly show a smaller area. This example represents the two chains of islands which form the Marshall Islands. It was collected by Admiral E.H.M. Davis during the cruise of HMS Royalist from 1890 to 1893. Navigation charts continue to be made, often simpler in form, to be sold as souvenirs.
T.A Joyce, 'Note on a native chart from the Marshall Islands in the British Museum', Man-1, 8 (1908), no. 81, pp. 146-49
A.C. Haddon and J. Hornell, Canoes of Oceania (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publications 27-29, Reprinted as one volume, 1975)