MapCarte 243/365: Marshall Islands Stick Chart by anon, late 19th Century



It’s doubtful any collection of cartographic design would be complete without some reference to Marshall Island stick charts. They represent perhaps one of the finest examples of form and function in map design. These navigation charts represent a system of ocean swells and the way in which islands disrupted the swells. They allowed the Marshallese to paddle by canoe between islands using these maps to aid their choice of route.

The charts were made of coconut fronds tied together to create a framework that represented the predominant direction of wave crests. Islands were represented by shells tied to the framework. Of course, there was no uniform system of design or construction but these were an early form of personalised mapping. The map-maker knew the ebb and flow of the seas and created a physical representation of their mental map.

Ironically, though the materials were perfectly suited to the wet conditions, being entirely waterproof, they were not used en route. They were more commonly consulted prior to a journey and committed to memory, with the canoeist laying in their vessel to understand how it was interacting with the swells to determine their course.

Map-making doesn’t have to be complex. Simple tools. Simple representations and a single, uncluttered theme. These charts are the epitome of cartographic simplification. All unwarranted detail is omitted. their form suits their function perfectly.