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Marshall Islands Sailing Charts

If you have recently visited the Science Museum you may have spotted a rather unusual sailing chart displayed in the Population Movement case in their  ‘Who am I?’ gallery. The chart, a sailing chart of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, was one of five originally donated to the Royal Colonial Institute in 1875 by Sir George LeHunte G.C.M.G., private secretary to Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, Governor of Fiji.

It is made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre - the curved sticks representing ocean currents and swell, curving from contact with islands; the shells representing islands. Apparently the Marshall Islanders memorised the patterns on the charts to navigate from island to island – they were not carried on voyages. According to LeHunte the Marshall Islands charts were used until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Science Museum is displaying the sailing charts, alongside raft boats, to illustrate patterns of travel, migration and population amongst the islands of Polynesia and New Zealand.

The charts were loaned to the Science Museum in 1927 by the Royal Empire Society (renamed Royal Commonwealth Society in 1958), whose substantial Library now forms part of Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections Division.

For more information on the sailing charts, see: The Sailing charts of the Marshall Islanders: a paper read at the afternoon meeting of the Society, 14 May 1928, by Col. Sir Henry Lyons, F.R.S., and the Discussion that followed, in Geographical Journal, 72(4), Oct. 1928, p. 325-328.

Marshall Islands sailing chart

Image: Marshall Islands Sailing Chart made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre. RCS artefact collection, currently on loan to Science Museum.

Marshall Islands sailing chart

Image: Marshall Islands Sailing Chart made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre. RCS artefact collection, currently on loan to Science Museum.

Marshall Islands sailing chart

Image: Marshall Islands Sailing Chart made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre. RCS artefact collection, currently on loan to Science Museum.

Marshall Islands sailing chart

Image: Marshall Islands Sailing Chart made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre. RCS artefact collection, currently on loan to Science Museum.

Marshall Islands sailing chart

Image: Marshall Islands Sailing Chart made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre. RCS artefact collection, currently on loan to Science Museum.

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

Rachel Rowe, Smuts Librarian for South Asian and Commonwealth Studies
Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge
CB3 9DR

Email: rcs@lib.cam.ac.uk

Please note the Librarian is part-time and usually works at the University Library on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Rachel may be reached by phone on Wednesdays and Thursdays on +44(0)1223 333146, but it is preferable to email details of your enquiry.

If your enquiry concerns a valuation, please note that we are unable to provide valuations.  We recommend you contact a specialist antiquarian bookseller or auction house.