A Basemap To The World: On The Marshallese Wappepe

Daniel Chu

Figure 1. A Wappepe made by James Milne. Given to William H. Davenport and housed in Penn Museum.

Rebbelips and wappepes are some of the oldest examples of indigenous cartographic practices, used as navigation charts on the Aolepan Aorokin Majel (Marshall Islands). They are constantly held up as examples of alternative ways to look at maps, mapmakers, and representation. However, a closer look can help us understand precisely how this mapmaking tradition embodies cartographic knowledge counter to Western practices. The wappepe, the fundamental forms of Marshallese plans, shows how cartography in Majel is both an exercise of understanding the world around you through a personal lens through a shared identity.

Marshallese rebbelips are tools for recording knowledge. These maps (Figure 7) show different currents between different islands but are not meant to be used as navigation tools. Instead, the wave pilots construct these to memorize how to feel the ocean as they cross between islands. Each chart is highly individualized and usually incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Navigation knowledge was not meant for everyone: being in control of travel between atolls is a source of power. Only elder sailors and chiefs got to select who is worthy of this profession. Navigators of the past selected individuals who they believed to be worthy of this knowledge instead of passing it down to anyone. Although the purposes of these charts are better understood by the public through western sailors and anthropologists in consultation with navigators over the last century, there are few, if any navigators that utilize the charts left.

Wappepes, in contrast, are abstracted maps that are not meant to depict anything but help budding wave pilots understand how Marshallese navigation works. These abstractions are meant to demonstrate how waves and swells perform in relation to other islands. A basic wappepe (Figure 5) depicts relationships between two islands, showing two swell patterns and three wave types. This wappepe created by James Milne (Figure 1) offers even more complex possibilities. Milne, a fully trained navigator, made this chart around 1958 to depict four swells and the conditions for sailing when swells interact with each other. The swells are depicted through curved lines, while transit is depicted through straight lines. Milne’s map also indicates the sunrise’s direction by not crossing the two short sticks at the map’s right-hand edge. His map allows for combinations of island representations from the center or the edge to depict almost any wave conditions found between islands positioned in different directions.

The creation of wappepes represents a deep understanding of space and culture by the Marshalls. These charts are a way to preserve knowledge for future generations so that a navigator can tell their students what to expect when traversing between islands. Creating a stick chart requires decades, if not generations, of expert navigation to identify zones within the ocean. A wappepe, as a teaching tool, reveals patterns distilled and recorded through centuries of nautical experiences (Figure 6, which illustrates some physical principles of waves around atolls). 

Wappepes are the alphabet, the base maps, the shapefiles of what it means to be a Marshallese and occupy these waters. The maps are at the core of Marshallese cultural and spatial knowledge; they are a foundational tool for Marshalls to identify who they are as people. The more widespread and historic nature of wappepe reflects the nature of stick charts not as navigational tools bus as teaching tools. Wappepes enable sailors to identify patterns on an open ocean and traverse between land, no matter the specific condition of the sea. Far beyond an example of indigenous cartographic practices, Marshallese maps’ highly individualized, contextual, relational, scalable, and adaptable nature are what all mapmakers today ought to emphasize and incorporate in their practice. 

According to the Alele Museum in Majro, some elders believe that rebbelips are “recent introductions that were influenced by modern methods of mapping and plotting positions.” Although there is a contrasting account of rebbelip being in existence in the Ralik chain of Marshall Islands (Winkler 1901), these elders’ belief suggests that Marshallese mapmaking knowledge has shifted and adapted over time, and perhaps incorporated Western mapmaking epistemologies. These navigational charts are not just static relics of the past, but a system of navigational knowledge that evolved as new knowledge and techniques are introduced. 

When thinking about my own atlas on how the climate crisis affects people living on Majel, I believe it is useful to manipulate the “base map” for depicting Majel and the world it resides in. First, we might adopt a principle of not using traditional western projections, which places Majel at the periphery of the map, but instead, use projections that orient the Pacific in the center and emphasize their space (Figure 2, 3). Second, we should depict impacts of climate on specific atolls, such as Majuro, where half of the nation’s residents live, or Ebeye, where the US military base is located (Figure 4). Experimenting with scales and contexts, even though I’m approaching the project from a digital/web map perspective, is one takeaway I have from looking at traditional cartographic practices in Majel.

Figure 2. An example of a Pacific-oriented World map.
Figure 3. Creating a map that depicts the Pacific not as island countries but as ocean countries (lined by EEZ)
Figure 4. Sketch manipulation island sizes
Figure 6. Illustration of scientific understanding of Marshallese navigation charts, showing principles of refection and refraction when oceans encounter islands. H. Davenport, William. “Marshall Islands Cartography” Expedition Magazine 6.4 (1964): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1964.
Figure 7. Schematic representation of a rebbelip overview stick chart covering most of the Marshall Islands (collected by Robert Louis Stevenson on Jaluit in 1889). Abbreviations: A–Ailinglaplap; E-Erikup; J–Jaluit; K-Kwajalein; N-Namu; L–Likiep; U–Ujae.

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. 2005. “Traditional and Nineteenth-Century Communication Patterns in the Marshall Islands.” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Dry Season Issue, 4 (June): 28.

Winkler, Captain. 1901. On sea charts formerly used in the Marshall Islands, with notices on the navigation of these islanders in general. Smithsonian Institute Report for 1899 54:487–508.40

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