The Sea - The Marshallese World

by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

As most Micronesian atoll populations, the Marshallese were superb seafarers who ventured far. They were as much and probably even more at home at sea than they were on the thin strips of land making up their atolls.[1] They not only knew to find their way around the atolls which make up the - modern - Marshall Islands, but were also cogniscant of other islands and several small shoals and patch reefs well beyond the margin of the Ralik and Ratak Chains. Several of these seamarks are known from traditions and can be identified with known shoals and reefs (table 1). Others cannot be located, and are likely to be intersections of currents and deflected swells, upon the knowledge of which the Marshallese navigation largely depended.[2]

The Marshallese never had a fixed term comprising all the atolls which today make up the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese had no perception of the atolls of the Marshall Islands as a geographical entity differentiated from other entities. They called them Aelon Kein Ad, "our atolls" and called themselves accordingly: Armij Aelon Kein, "people of these islands". [3]

In the past, there was no need for such delineation, as the sea of the Marshallese ended, where that of other adjoining cultural groups began. The Marshallese were a culturally and genealogically rather homogenous group of people, more so than most other Micronesian groups. [4]

Figure 1. The Marshallese geography of the sea [5]




Figure 2. The atolls of the Marshall Islands and Marshallese seamarks




Table 1. Marshallese sea marks other than the atolls of the Aelon Kein (see figure 2)[6]
NameTranslationType of sea markModern name on chartsapprox. location
Aeboj (Aeböj Ed)The fresh waterwellreef southwest of Ebon
Ak Leotutu   east of Wake
Jere Akeo (Jede Ak Eo)   west of Bokak & northwest of Bikini
Jirurulon   southeast of Ebon & south of Mile
Joiiuenkan (Iurin Torrlön Kan)The flight of the great frigate birdsea mark west of Wake & northwest of Bikini
Jomaj   east of Jaluit/Namorik
Langa reefKeats Bank90 nm east of Mile
Lijinmaj   east of Jaluit/Namorik
Lijinmaloklok (Lijinuanoknok) wave node west of Ebon/Namorik
Limerwitip (Limädiwitüb) sea mark east of Bokak, also leeward of Mejit
Limlim en Enewetak (Liuliuin Enewetak) sea mark two days north of Enewetok [7]
Limudjalili (Limjujanülü)reef  north of Arno
  reefNeptuns Bank?[33 nm] east of Arno [8]
LukwejejaMiddle of nowherereefnear Neptuns Bankeast of Arno
Mermerkan Ruo (nöruör Kad Ruo)The two foams sea markssouth of Mile
No reef? between Arno & Mile [9]
Tokomule   southeast of Mile
Voren kobeguidj kan (Wödenköpakut Kad) reefs three days north of Bikini
Voren lal (Wüdelan)Pound the bottomreefNeptuns Bank?east of Arno



The only major geographical and possibly geopolitical differentiation known to Marshallese was between the two chains of atolls, the people addressing each other as Ri-Ratak or Ri-Ralik.[10]

For the Marshallese, the atolls of the northern Ratak Chain, north Majuro and Arno, and including Bokak and Eneen-Kio was Ratak En. The sea north of Bokak and Bikini was called Joiiaenkan.[11] The territory around Majuro, Arno, Mile and Nadikdik (Knox Atoll) was called Ratak Rak. The territory around Ebon, Namorik, Jaluit, Kili and half of Ailinglaplap is named Rak in meto, while the general name for the northern rest if the Ratak Chain is En in meto.

The sea between the Ralik and Ratak Chains is called Lolelaplap (fig. 3.1).[12] The sea marks to which has been alluded above , are plotted in fig. 3.2, as far as they can be placed on map.

The Marshallese koine, the world in which they sailed, ranged from at least Kosrae [13] and Ponape, possibly Yap in the west,[14] to central Kiribati and Banaba (Ocean I.) in the south, Eneen-Kio in the north and Johnston and probably Hawaii in the east.[15]

The world they knew about, however, was considerably larger, as they had been in contact with the people they had visited, as well as with the people who had visited them either intentionally or accidentally, namely Carolineans [16] and i-Kiribati. [17] In addition, their own accidental dispersals carried the Marshallese far afield. [18]

[Home Page]

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000) The Sea - The Marshallese World, Albury. URL: http:/

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 2000