Craig Santos Perez: The Poetics of Mapping Diaspora, Navigating Culture, and Being From (Part 3)

[Previous installments of Craig Santos Perez’s “The Poetics of Mapping Diaspora, Navigating Culture, and Being From,” are here: Part 1 | Part 2]

As a poet, I’m interested in both what is seen and unseen. Visible and invisible lines.

They say “latitude” was determined from the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a sun declination table (which gives the angle between sunrays and the equator). The equator is latitude’s natural starting point. The Great Circle. Zero degrees.

Longitude, on the other hand, created a problem when Imperial nations began making transoceanic voyages because longitude has no natural starting point. No natural zero. While many explorers and navigators used astronomical observations to determine longitude—or just dead reckoned (those savage navigators!)—the inexactitude of their methods led to many accidental shipwrecks and accidental “discoveries.”

In 1567, Spain’s Philip II offered a prize for solving “the problem of longitude”; in 1598 Philip III increased the prize. Holland offered a longitude prize in 1636. France’s King Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1666, which aimed to improve maps and navigational techniques. The British government established the Board of Longitude in 1714. The nation that mastered longitude would rule the seas and dominate trade.

The history of mapmaking is woven into the history of imperialism and colonialism.

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English clockmaker John Harrison developed the marine chronometer from the 1730s to his death in the 1770s, a key invention in charting longitude. How it worked: set the clock to noon London time when you begin your voyage. Refer to the clock when it is noon wherever you travel to and you can read the clock face to see how far you are from London. If the clock shows that it’s midnight in London when it’s noon where you are, then you are halfway around the world (180 degrees longitude). Time and space made visible.

Cook used a copy of Harrison’s longitude watch on his voyages to the South Pacific.

An unnatural center, an unnatural origin, an unnatural zero point of longitude had to be chosen. Most nations used their capitals or major cities as starting points: Rome, Copenhagen, Saint Petersburg, Paris, Philadelphia, Washington.

The Greenwich Meridian was established in 1851. In 1884, U.S. President Arthur and delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C. for the International Meridian Conference. This conference selected the Greenwich Meridian as the official Prime Meridian. Universal, zero point of longitude. However, France abstained from the vote and continued to use the Paris Meridian for several decades (viva la France!).

While this history can be read as one of scientific and international achievement, there are many invisible stories—or maps—buried beneath these dominant imperial maps, these national narratives of navigation and globalization. There are stories of those imprisoned and erased by these maps. There are other, suppressed, latitudes and longitudes of memory. How do we navigate these buried maps? How do we locate our own native meridians? How do we measure our own time and space?

Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guahan (Guam), is the co-founder of Achiote Press and Ala Press, and the author of two poetry books: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing, 2010), recently noted as a finalist for the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Beginning Fall 2011, he will be an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. Find him online at http://craigsantosperez.wordpress.com.

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