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Of maps and fishermen

januar 12, 2007

150 years ago Eilert Sundt, the great pioneering Norwegian social scientist, visited the parish of Haram on the Norwegian west coast: On this trip he witnessed how the fishermen navigated their boats using the traditional system of méd (leading lines): 

“There is for example a mountain on one on the Haram isles, which is called Skulen, and when one is on a certain area of the ocean this mountain hides another mountain, farther in on the Mainland, which is called Hildre-hesten (the Hildre-horse); if one travels along the land towards the North, then the Horse little by little will come into sight beyond Skulen, and then one says: The Horse fine (when the head of the Horse just has become visible), the Horse coarse, the first part of the Horse, the second part of the Horse, the saddle of the Horse is clear of Skulen etc, and by each of these sightings one knows where one is on the route between South and North; if at the same time one has a méd on the other side one will as well know where one is in the direction from the land or between East and West; thus the experienced man will know, that to avoid this or that reef, he cannot sail any further in this direction, but must veer off to another. Thus, a pilot is able to steer his boat between breakers and dangers, scarcely looking at the dangerous items close by, but more certainly and more often fixes his eyes on the land and the distant mountain heights far way.           

What if these landmarks cannot be seen because of snowfall, fog, and darkness of night? Then there will always be danger afoot; but in that case it will be decisive to use one’s ears; because many of those reefs and skerries are recognisable by their ring and rumble, differing according to the rocks’ outstretched or steep shapes, a difference that also must be judged by the direction of the wind or more precisely the waves”.     

Eilert Sundt’s narrative tells us about an indigenous map of the seawaters in Haram. This map represented a communal accumulated knowledge of the fishermen in this area, an archive in Derrida’s sense: traces of events, inscribed on an external substrate. This archive must have been drawn from myriads of such traces: good catches, accidents, shipwrecks and other incidents that taught the fishermen where they should and should not sail in these waters. And this archive was kept as an oral tradition, conveyed from one generation to the next.  

Like other maps this map had been created with a purpose. In a pre-industrial costal society like Haram, this purpose was survival, to find food and income on the fishing grounds and to sail safely to and fro. Consequently, the knowledge about underwater landscapes, sea currents and the fish’s migrations, had been selected through generations and the map had been constructed to serve the immediate needs of the society.     

Modern navigational charts are made for a more confined purpose: navigation. These charts are founded on a different knowledge, the scientific measurements of the ocean floors, made by or on behalf of the state as an element in the making of authoritative cartographical series. Map historian J. B. Harley characterises the development of such authoritative maps as means to control a landscape in order to support the expansion of a social system. When modern navigational charts eventually replaced the indigenous maps of Haram, this also signified the end of the mode of production that Eilert Sundt had witnessed in the 1850s.   

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One Response to “Of maps and fishermen”


  1. […] Of maps and fishermen: “There is for example a mountain on one on the Haram isles, which is called Skulen, and when one is on a certain area of the ocean this mountain hides another mountain, farther in on the Mainland, which is called Hildre-hesten (the Hildre-horse); if one travels along the land towards the North, then the Horse little by little will come into sight beyond Skulen, and then one says: The Horse fine (when the head of the Horse just has become visible), the Horse coarse, the first part of the Horse, the second part of the Horse, the saddle of the Horse is clear of Skulen etc, and by each of these sightings one knows where one is on the route between South and North; if at the same time one has a méd on the other side one will as well know where one is in the direction from the land or between East and West; thus the experienced man will know, that to avoid this or that reef, he cannot sail any further in this direction, but must veer off to another. Thus, a pilot is able to steer his boat between breakers and dangers, scarcely looking at the dangerous items close by, but more certainly and more often fixes his eyes on the land and the distant mountain heights far way. —– […]


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