29 April, 2007

Rilib and Kaelib

In July 1896, a German naval captain called Winkler—first name unknown—was stationed on the Jaluit atoll, a district of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. Jaluit was the administrative centre and main trading-station of the Islands, which had come under German control in 1885. Winkler was unusually interested in the local customs, and especially in a variety of 'sea-chart' presented to him by the land-inspector, Dr. Irmer. These charts consisted, in his words, of 'a number of sticks lashed together in a rude latticework, and on this at various points were tied small shells'. Irmer could not make head or tail of them. It turns out that Westerners had been puzzled by these devices for some time; the first certain reference to them can be found in a report by the Hawaiian missionary Luther Halsey Gulick in 1862.


While stationed there, Winkler made a systematic study of these charts, and in 1898 he published a report in the Marine-Rundschau, which in 1901 was translated into English for the Smithsonian Institute Report (51, 487-508, online as a scanned PDF here). Since then there has been a huge flurry of interest in the charts, especially after the US took control of the islands in 1947; a 1992 bibliography lists 44 relevant items. I've looked at a few of these items, and none of them adds much to Winkler's account. The clearest exposition can be found in a 1960 article by William Davenport, online here. But there is also a Wikipedia article, and various other internet sites that say much the same. All of these accounts abstract the data from Winkler's article—but when we return to his piece, we discover something different—of human, not just cartographic interest. It would be ripe for some post-colonial deconstruction, but as for myself, I'd rather use my own eyes.

*

Winkler, not being an academic, knew how to tell a good story. He presents his research of the charts as a quest for hidden treasure, and as a narrative it is better than fiction. The note of adventure is sounded in his opening paragraph:
Dr. Irmer confessed that he was unable to explain the meaning and function of the charts, for great secrecy was preserved among the islanders on this score, and only a few of the old chiefs, indeed, were in possession of the secret.
Thus Winkler is given the mission to decode the charts by Irmer. The first person to whom they turn is the local chief and master-pilot, Lojak, whose interpretation is to be translated by Irmer's servant Ladjur:
One forenoon an impressive scene was enacted in Dr. Irmer's quarters, when Lojak, with the greatest secrecy, first closed all the windows, in spite of the 34° C. heat, having threatened Ladjur with death if he divulged the tabooed mystery; but the result of the long sweat bath was a complete negative.
It is a game of looking—Winkler is offered a window into the secret, and he in turn offers us a window—but the shades are drawn, for we have no idea what happened. (One of my correspondents has eloquently written, 'If I admire the plunderers it is only for their sensational prose. As when Howard Carter notes the distractions of Valley work, translating graffitos scrawled by Greek historians. When John Lloyd Stephens reads at night, in the ruins of a Maya castle, by the light of bird-size fireflies. Articles of conquest I like for what they preserve of subjugated cultures.' Surely this is what he means.)

Winkler then discovers something substantive: that the shells represent islands, and the sticks represent wave-currents. Marshallese navigators, he is told, use the charts by looking over their canoes at the wave-currents and plotting accordingly; he is sceptical that this is possible. Winkler spends the next year enquiring about the charts in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Sea, but learns nothing further. The explorer Benedict Friedlander personally implores Winkler to find out more, and so on his return visit to Jaluit in 1897, he renews his efforts. He befriends his fellow captain Kessler, who is 'in fraternal relations' with a local chief named Nelu:
Then began a strenuous, monotonous, and patient research. Chief Nelu, who did not wish to conceal aught from his brother Kessler, was first pumped. He told us all that he knew, and gave us pleasure with his willingness, but when, in the evening I collected all that had been heard and noted down and tried to put it into form I found so many contradictions that pretty much all that had been written had to be crossed out.
Winkler decides that Nelu, 'through incessant drinking of beer, which furnished his sole nourishment, had become too stupid to be able to render a clear explanation'. The melancholy is overwhelming: even the chief, supposedly a man of power and knowledge, but in fact a drunkard, has no idea what the charts mean. These venerable objects, the stick-charts, have become opaque and illegible, despite preserving their mysterious aura, like the Delphic E.

They return to Lojak, who is less reluctant to divulge now that Nelu has spilt the beans. Winkler calls what results 'hour-long sessions and squeezings'. Still, he comes up against the contempt of the old chief: 'Once Lojak told me with seeming frankness that I was the dumbest churl he had ever seen.' Lojak, like Nelu, likes a good tipple; but his preferred drink is sack, which makes him friendly again. Thus the locals are corrupted into divulging their secrets by booze—but also by thirst for status, represented by a beautiful jacket: 'As an extreme measure, I had hanging in my cabin a showy uniform coat which I promised Lojak if he would answer all my questions'. What could be a better symbol of colonialism, as a twin process of military and economic conquest? This is how the White Man, lean and cunning, overcomes the greedy Savage.

But even Lojak turns out to be incompetent, and Winkler draughts in a 'half-breed' Portuguese named Jochem de Brun, and the native assistant navigator Laumanuan, who together are able to correct Lojak's errors: 'At last, in this way, we succeeded in clearing up the greater part of the doubtful points'. Further investigations among the natives—interviews with Muridjil, Burido, Litokwa and Launa—prove useless. Nobody, it seems, really has a grasp of what these charts mean. Winkler turns to some notes by a merchant named Capelle: 'Misfortune had overtaken him in business'. As the old world passes away, with barely a drunken whimper, the gloom, passing, deepens; and yet something—something—is salvaged from the wreckage.

*
The so-called charts do not deserve the name in our sense, but they merely serve to bring to view the water condition, as well for the instruction of the chief's sons, who have to be initiated into the secrets of navigation, as for the settling of differences between chiefs piloting a boat when the water indications are not plain and varying interpretations have been made.
This is Winkler's summary of the charts; later he adds, 'they are made by chiefs for their individual use as reminders of the various things which they have to attend to in sailing, as well as for rendering clear the noteworthy signs in the tuition of the uninitiated'. David Lewis puts the matter in similar terms in his classic study, We Are the Navigators:
The stick charts are not charts in the Western sense, but are instructional and mnemonic devices concerned with swell patterns. Nor are they essential navigational tools, de Brun, for instance, never having used one.
Davenport had argued in 1960 that the charts 'are used to teach navigators and possibly to store knowledge against memory loss. They are most assuredly not used to lay out courses, plot positions and bearings, or as aids in recognizing land forms as the European navigator uses his chart. Nor are they mnemonic devices to be taken along on a voyage for consultation.' Davenport also remarks that visual observation of the water is coupled with tactile observation:
[The navigator] learns to lie on his back in the bottom of the canoe and to interpret the wave pattern by noting the rise and fall, yawing, and slapping of sea against the hull.
Kjell Akerblom, in his 1968 Astronomy and Navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia, repeats Davenport's conclusions almost verbatim, also noting that the distribution of the charts (of which many have now been collected, for instance by Schück in 1902) is not even within the archipelago: 'If they had been of real value in navigation one might have expected the opposite'.

All later sources parrot the explanations of the charts given by Winkler: that the sticks (identified by Davenport as 'palm ribs bound by coconut fiber') represent nothing geographical, but rather the patterns of wave-swells between islands in the archipelago. Here is the secret—the navigators of the Marshall Islands locate island-masses by calculating the refraction and reflection of wave-fronts around and against the island shores. This is a technique specific to the geography of an island nation, and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Every article on the subject, including the Wiki piece, explains the method to some degree, showing how a wave-swell reacts when it hits an island—curving around at an angle, and interfering with itself and with swells coming from other directions. The patterns of interference coalesce into long lines of 'nodes', stretching out to sea—the navigator can follows these nodes to the island. Winkler even provides the local terminology, which has been duly repeated for a century. The wave-swells are called dunung; the species that comes from the east is a rilib, and that from the west a kaelib. The node produced by swell-interference is a bot (or boot), while the line of bots is an okar. A photograph of a chart can be seen here, while a particularly elaborate diagram (taken from the Winkler article) looks like this:


Here the rilibs are the curved lines to the right, the kaelibs are the curved lines to the left, the dots (shells) represent islands, and the transverse lines indicate lines of sight—ie. boundaries at which the islands at the top and bottom can be seen with varying levels of clarity. Many more drawings, some resembling the geometric art of 1920s Russia, can be found in Winkler's article. Here, however, sloppy copying has made his very words wavelike:


*

As I said, all the sources will tell you this same basic information, and more that I have here omitted. But few convey to the reader the process of obtaining the information; few articulate the beauty and significance of this precious data. Winkler remarks,
The interpretation of the charts is. . . always difficult, if one has not the maker of the chart himself as explainer; another, even an entirely competent navigator, can not under any circumstance read the deliverances of a chart which he himself has not made. Hence the repeated false and apparently wild information from the sticks.
Akerblom picks this up: 'the charts are an expression of the personal knowledge and experience of the different navigators, which are kept strictly secret and not circulated outside the immediate family'. Doug Aberley, introducing a book on 'bio-regional mapping', writes wistfully:
In all of us is some remnant of an ability to understand relationships of physical space to survival and the evolution of stable community life. In admiring the mapping of aboriginal cultures, the goal is not to copy others, but to rediscover in ourselves a genetic memory of ancient skills.
Aberley thinks that we have lost something in our progress. But more different than our methods of seafaring—and navigation by wave-refractions is certainly novel to a Western mind!—are our attitudes towards knowledge. For the Marshallese, there is still something religious about these maps; the secrets are guarded with more than a political fervour. They have that opaque, mysterious aura, that 'taboo', that I compared to the Delphic E. But it is the open society, as Popper recognised, that advances in its knowledge. We see in Winkler's article a closed society starting to fall apart. Davenport, 6o years later, notes that 'for over fifty years now writers have reported that wave navigation and chart making were rapidly falling into disuse, and that compasses, hydrographic charts, and even sextants and chronometers were about to replace them'—but cheerfully adds that the Marshallese navigators have also continued to use their own system, now publicly disseminated, alongside the modern techniques. He attributes this to 'the fact that the coveted skills of the navigtor are no longer politically valuable to the contending chiefs'. But perhaps, also, it is a sign that with the increased presence of the West, a little magic has gone out of the world of the Marshallese navigators.

Update: More information collected by the Nonist.

9 comments:

chris miller said...


"it is the open society, as Popper recognised, that advances in its knowledge. "


-- of certain measurable things -- and before the invention of navigational instruments and
the development of charts to accompany them -- Polynesian navigation was apparently an effective art that may have involved the kind of knowledge (like, say acupuncture) that was dependent on personal transmission -- depending heavily on personal sensitivity / mental awareness -- and it would have irresponsible of those who had mastered it to teach it to anyone who could not be trusted to practice it safely.

Now -- of course -- navigation is a no-brainer with the proper instruments -- but for all those things that remain unmeasurable:

"Knowledge is lost in a society that rejects the esoteric"

(I can't think of anyone famous who said that -- but someone should have)

John B. said...

This made for magical, mysterious reading.

As I read, I was reminded of Barry Lopez's essay, "Landscape and Narrative," which makes a distinction between "exterior" ("the one we see") and "interior" ("a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior") landscapes. Lopez writes this about exterior landscapes, which to my mind speaks directly to the nature of these maps:

One learns a landscape finally by not knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it--like that between the sparrow and the twig. The difference between the relationships and the elements is the same as that between written history and a catalog of events.

And about interior landscapes:

The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.

It is this last that your sources apparently don't address: they, quite naturally, want to know how to read these maps, but they seem to be less curious about the mindset that would produce such things. Navigation, especially for sea-faring people, being a crucial cultural skill, why make these charts so subjective that, literally, only the maker can read them? But perhaps that is precisely the point: this sort of knowledge can't be taught; it can only be learned--that is, internalized, as Lopez argues.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: my midwife friend assures me that she has an intuitive obstetric knowledge that is not reducible to science, but based rather on what you call 'personal sensitivity / mental awareness'. Navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia was indeed an art, and a family tradition; and these are valuable, but also hermetic.

John: thanks. I don't claim to know much or anything about the mindset that produces these charts, so perhaps you're right, like Chris, that this sort of art must remain intuitive.

Pretzel Bender said...

I think you are slightly missing the point here. Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is typically hermeneutic. Recall the guild system?

The impulse over knowledge control has historically been the norm. The secretive nature of the chiefly navigators is really more understandable than our modern ideas of open education and knowledge systems. It was a powerful and important resource that they controlled. The internal nature of some of the system was certainly eccentric and not completely standardized. But even in the sources you mention here, there were some basic similar and relational principles which were part of their conceptual mapping framework.

Even now within university systems, we cannot quash our impulse to exclude. I remember some tale of Newton writing the Principia in Latin to exclude the uneducated, which in most eras has been based on wealth and status.

These relational charts are not unique to the Marshall islands either, but are to be found in many of the Pacific islander societies. They are even mentioned by Columbus in his accounts of meeting up with islanders in the Carribbean realm.

They show perfectly abstract maps. They are the embodiment of a concept of space that is entirely relational without any of the spatial components we take for granted in our modern thematic maps.

Think of the London Tube underground map.

The islanders were using a concept of graph theory (think of Euler's 7 bridges of Konigsberg problem and you will get the idea) that although unformalized like what we consider a true science, was an indigenous development.

What's interesting about this is that for the time period (and I am thinking the "contact" period) in Oceania, this was a singularly non-western concept.

The famous Capt. Cook himself talks of getting a Tahitian expert to record his map of the islands. The expert does so, but the results are entirely a "graph" with no spatial components so they look "wrong" to a man that had mapped large parts of the world on a completely different cartographic principle.

What is interesting to me, at least, is that most people have written extensively about how the navigation worked, and how it contrasted with Europeans, rather than the conceptual system and what, exactly, it was. Even the excellent history of cartography volume published by UChicago doesn't go into it at all.

I thought expanding on that might be worthy of collaborative article rather than a blog.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hey, P. B., these all sound like really interesting points, thanks for sharing them. I'm confident that your exposition of the conceptual differences between Western and non-Western cartography could be published (at greater length, of course) in a scholarly journal.

However, I must disagree with you on one point:

"Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is typically hermeneutic. Recall the guild system? ... The impulse over knowledge control has historically been the norm... Even now within university systems, we cannot quash our impulse to exclude. I remember some tale of Newton writing the Principia in Latin to exclude the uneducated, which in most eras has been based on wealth and status."

Whether or not knowledge, such as professional guild-knowledge, has typically been controlled by private parties, I'd suggest that science has not been; that's part of what makes it science. Your example of Newton is a case in point: he wrote in Latin not to exclude peasants from reading his abstruse theories (would they have wanted to?), but to include the vast numbers of European intellectuals who understood Latin but not English. In the 17th century Latin was still the lingua franca among intellectuals, although it is in this century that we also see the seeds of movement towards vernacular thought, which would become the norm only in the late 18th century. Many thinkers (eg. Bacon, Descartes) published both in Latin and in the vernacular, exactly so as to maximise their audience.

In other words, scientific practice in the 17th century, just as during the entire Middle Ages and Renaissance (when scientific output was of course much smaller and less rigorous), was exactly geared towards the sharing of knowledge among those who could make use of it, and develop it further. Most of the 'knowledge control' during this period was exerted by that most unscientific body, the Catholic Church.

What was hermetic during this period was the group of occult practices such as magic, alchemy etc., written in a special code for initiates.

Lily Roth said...

Exactly so, Conrad. I am constantly aware, as I read about medieval technologies and innovations, about how open and unbiased they are...in the sense that those who developed new technologies and theories seeme relatively untrammeled by modern conceptions of "disciplines" or other artificial divisions that relate to audience or function. I would merely remark that,in the medieval period, there would not have been a significant difference between "science" and "religion"...it would have all been part of the same natural world that was governed by divine law.

Pretzel Bender said...

The "elite" control of knowledge does not mean that they had to be centralized (Lily) or not open to other elites (Conrad). I merely meant that it was restricted in practice.

It is only recently that we think education on anything should be open to all.

And it seems to me Lily, that you are actually making the opposite point of Conrad without realizing it.

And at any rate, Conrad's point about Bacon and all that is talking about a new attitude towards knowledge that was obviously not applicable to the marshall islanders.

I meant "scientific knowledge" as WE would recognize it not the practice of "science" per se. The Marshall Islanders had no unified concept of science that I am aware of certainly! That is why I think their shared (at least among navigators) concepts of relational space is an interesting and obviously indigenous development.

Frankly, I your comments on the worthiness of my publishing cartographic comparisons mystifying here given that in no less than 9 private email correspondences previous to your publication of this blog (based on a topic that I introduced to you as part of my publication idea), you were convinced of the unworthiness of my ideas for publication.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I merely meant that it was restricted in practice."

All things are restricted in practice. Just like 500 years ago, your average blue-collar schmo has to learn a lot of technical material before he can start 'doing science': that's a practical restriction. I don't think it's true that "It is only recently that we think education on anything should be open to all." The nobility has always been restricted by fiat, but the class of the learned has not. Those who could afford liberal educations in the Middle Ages had them--now, 'those who could afford' admittedly restricts many people, but this is merely an unavoidable aspect of society, and it is no less true today, as many cannot afford to go to university. (And some of Britain's older private schools were established as charities for the education of those who could not afford it.)

As for your putative publication, I have never been convinced of its unworthiness; I am just not convinced of its worthiness, either. (But then, my opinion apparently does not count for much on this matter.) In my previous comment I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, as a gesture of civility.

Anonymous said...

A feast of words & obscure knowledge which I happily devoured. Thank You!