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.