Constrained by extreme necessity, we decided on touching at the Cape Verde Islands, and on Wednesday the 9th of July, we touched at one of those islands named St. James’s. […] In order to see whether we had kept an exact account of the days, we charged those who went ashore to ask what day of the week it was, and they were told by the Portuguese inhabitants of the island that it was Thursday, which was a great cause of wondering to us, since with us it was only Wednesday. We could not persuade ourselves that we were mistaken; and I was more surprised than the others, since having always been in good health, I had every day, without intermission, written down the day that was current.
Pigafetta sailed with Magellan’s small fleet, and was one of the few survivors who completed the circumnavigation. He recorded his experience in Italian (Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo), and what he originally wrote has been pieced together from various surviving copies.
So he was one of the very first people to encounter a commonplace reality of modern long-distance travel. In the absence of an International Date Line (or even a general understanding of why a Date Line might be required), he found that his carefully recorded sequence of days and nights as experienced aboard ship had fallen out of synchrony with the days and nights of those who had stayed at home.
It works like this:
For a mythical observer sitting on the surface of the sun and watching the Earth revolve, we all of us go around the Earth once per day, carried around on its surface as it rotates from west to east. But anyone who travels across the surface of the Earth, making a circumnavigation from east to west, undoes one of the Earth’s rotations, and experiences one less day and night than those who stay at home. (This is why Pigafetta thought it was Wednesday when the Cape Verdeans thought it was Thursday.) Anyone who circumnavigates from west to east adds a rotation to the Earth’s natural period, experiences one more day and night, and comes back with their calendar a day ahead of those at home. (This famously supplied the twist at the end of Jules Verne’s novel, Around The World In Eighty Days.)
If we’re to keep everything straight, there needs to be a disjunction between time zones; a line at which we wind the calendar forward by a day when moving west, and turn it back by a day when moving east. And that’s the International Date Line, which runs down the middle of the Pacific, separating later dates in the west (“Asiatic” dates) from earlier dates in the east (“American” dates).
Interestingly, this International Date Line is nowhere defined in international law—you can’t look up a list of its precise coordinates. In international waters, the nautical date line is well-defined—it follows the 180º meridian across the Pacific, and ships on the high seas will adjust their calendars as they cross that line. But in territorial waters, every sovereign territory chooses its own date, according to what’s most convenient. Since a number of countries in the Pacific lie directly on or close to the 180º meridian, the International Date Line must zig-zag back and forth around their territorial waters, according to which date they’re keeping. Cartographers plot a Date Line by choosing the most economical set of line segments they can find that keeps countries with Asiatic dates separate from those with American dates, and the precise choice of lines varies from one map-maker to the next.
From time to time, countries and territories have chosen to change the date they’re using, and the International Date Line then has to be flipped from one side of them to the other. And that’s what this post is about.
The Western calendar arrived in the Pacific aboard European ships. Some, mainly Spanish, arrived from the east (American) side of the ocean, and some arrived from the west (Asiatic) side. Those ships coming from the west had adjusted their clocks forwards as they sailed eastwards; those from the east had adjusted their clocks backwards as they sailed westwards—with the result that Asiatic and American time extended in a piecemeal fashion into the Pacific, and met up with their calendars a day out of synchrony. The date a territory first used depended on whether its first encounter with the Western calendar had come from the east or the west; the date it finally adopted depended on the dates its neighbours and trading partners were using. The following is a chronological list of those territories that started out with one date, and subsequently shifted to another.
PITCAIRN (between 1808-1814)
Pitcairn Island was colonized by mutineers from Captain William Bligh’s Bounty, along with their (not necessarily willing) Tahitian companions. The Bounty had entered the Pacific from the Asiatic side. The mutiny took place in the waters around what is now Tonga, after which the mutineers sailed their ship a long way east to Pitcairn, where they arrived in 1790. Their little colony was not discovered until 1808, when they were visited by the American sealing ship Topaz, which arrived from the American side of the Pacific. The next outsiders to visit the island arrived in 1814, aboard the British frigates Briton and Tagus. And this is when it gets interesting. In his narrative of the visit, Captain Philip Pipon of the Tagus records encountering the first-born son of the mutineer Fletcher Christian, whose name he gives as Thursday October Christian, named for the day and month of his birth. Whereas Marine Lieutenant John Shillibeer of the Briton, in his book A Narrative of the Briton’s Voyage to Pitcairn’s Island, describes meeting the same man, but gives his name as Friday Fletcher October Christian.
Thursday October Christian is certainly the name by which Fletcher Christian’s son was subsequently known. Did Shillibeer just make a mistake? This seems unlikely, since he spent a lot of time in Christian’s company, asking him questions and even making a drawing of him, which is reproduced in his book. So the man seems to have been called Friday, but to have adopted the name Thursday for use in later life. Which would make sense if the mutineers had carried their dates to Pitcairn from the west, and then subsequently found out from the American ship Topaz that their calendar seemed to be a day out of alignment. In which case Christian would have been born on Friday, 29 October 1790 by the Bounty‘s calendar, but on Thursday, 28 October by the Topaz‘s calendar. Pitcairn certainly now keeps the American dates appropriate for its position well east of the 180º meridian, but the story of Friday/Thursday Christian seems to suggest that it once used Asiatic dates, and made a change some time between the visit of the Topaz and the visit of the Tagus and Briton.
The Philippines, despite their position very close to the Asian side of the Pacific, had their main calendrical contact with Spanish ships arriving from the Americas, with the result that the Philippines were, for three centuries, the tip of a peninsula of American dates which extended west into regions that otherwise observed Asiatic dates. Nineteenth-century maps show the Date Line with a huge westward bulge, encompassing not only the Philippines but other Spanish possessions in that part of the Pacific—the Marianas, the Carolines, the Marshalls and Palau. Here’s an illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexicon, a German-language encyclopaedia, for instance. But the Date Line in this map is inaccurately placed at Alaska (see next entry), and locates many islands farther south, like Fiji and the Cook Islands, on the wrong side of the line. So it’s more of an artist’s impression than an accurate depiction.
By the nineteenth century, Latin America was becoming independent from Spain, while Philippine connections with Asia and Australia were increasing. So at midnight on Monday, 30 December 1844, the Philippines flipped to an Asiatic calendar, by simply omitting 31 December entirely, and beginning the New Year in synchrony with neighbouring territories on Wednesday, 1 January 1845. Documentation seems to be lacking, but it seems likely that the Marianas, Carolines, Marshalls and Palau (which were governed from the Philippines) made the transition on the same date, allowing the Date Line to spring almost entirely back to the middle of the Pacific.
Alaska was owned by Russia until the Alaska Purchase of 1867, when the United States acquired the territory for $7,2000,000. Up to that time Alaska had been using Asiatic dates, to match Russia, with the Date Line running along the border between Alaska and Canada. To shift the Date Line westwards, into the Bering Strait, Alaska needed to repeat a day, bringing it into synchrony with American dates. But it was more complicated than that—Russia and Alaska were still using the old Julian calendar, whereas the USA (and most of the rest of the world) had moved on to the Gregorian calendar.* By the nineteenth century, the Gregorian calendar was 12 days ahead of the Julian.
So at midnight on Friday, 6 October 1867 (Julian calendar, Asiatic date), Alaska prepared to have another Friday, 6 October (Julian calendar, American date), but transformed into Friday, 18 October (Gregorian calendar, American date). This combined shift, with a duplicate weekday but a different date, appears to be unique in the annals of Date Line crossings.
With the shift of Pitcairn, the Philippines and Alaska to geographically appropriate dates, it began to look possible to run the Date Line fairly neatly through the middle of the Pacific, without too many zig-zags. The idea was clearly voiced at the International Meridian Conference of 1884, by one of the British representatives, Lieutenant-General Richard Strachey:
I think that if the world were to adopt the meridian of Greenwich as the origin of longitude, the natural thing for it to do would be to have the international day, the universal day, begin from the 180th meridian from Greenwich—that is, to coincide with the Greenwich civil day. That meridian passes, as I said before, outside of New Zealand, and outside of the Fijee Islands; it goes over only a very small portion of inhabited country. It appears to me, therefore, that inasmuch as there must be an absolute break or discontinuity in time in passing round the earth—a break of twenty-four hours—it is much more convenient that this break should take place in the uninhabited part of the earth than in the very centre of civilization.
The Meridian Conference firmly established the Greenwich meridian as the zero for longitude, but never got around to doing anything about formally defining the Date Line. But more calendrical adjustment was about to happen in the Pacific.
During the nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Samoa was keeping Asiatic dates, which had been established by missionaries originating in Australia. Britain, Germany and the USA were tussling for influence in the region. In 1892, the Americans managed to persuade King Malietoa Laupepa that increasing trade from San Francisco would be well served if Samoa shifted to the American side of the Date Line. And in any case, Samoa’s longitude of 172ºW put it on the American side of the critical 180º meridian. So Samoa shifted from Asiatic to American dates by having two American Independence Days in succession, repeating Monday, 4 July 1892.
But the story wasn’t over for Samoa, yet. In 1899, shortly after Malietoa Laupepa’s death, Germany and the USA divided up the Kingdom of Samoa between themselves, with Germany claiming the western islands (German Samoa) and America the eastern (American Samoa). That division into two colonial territories would become relevant later.
COOK ISLANDS (1899)
The Cook Islands got their calendar from Australian missionaries, too, and so ran on Asiatic dates. But at 160ºW, even farther east than Samoa, they were a long way into the American side of the Pacific, and they decided to shift their calendar to match that of their neighbouring territories. They made the change by repeating Monday, 25 December 1899. According to James Michener, the Cook Islanders enjoyed their two Christmases so much that they announced they would have made the transition years previously, if only someone had come up with this brilliant plan earlier.
“MORRELL ISLAND” AND “BYERS ISLAND” (1900)
These two islands were part of a vast archipelago, stretching from Hawaii to Japan, which appeared in early eighteenth-century charts. It was sometimes labelled the Anson Archipelago, and is distinguished by the fact that it was almost entirely imaginary or fictitious—very few of its islands actually existed, although all had been reported by more-or-less reputable mariners, sometimes on more than one occasion. But later in the century a lot of them were turning up absent when their location was revisited. So Captain Frederick Evans, newly appointed to the post of Hydrographer of the Royal Navy in 1875, went over the Pacific chart with a fine-tooth comb, and deleted no fewer than 123 of these islands (although a few had to be subsequently reinstated). Morrell and Byers Islands survived, temporarily, although marked “doubtful”. (In fact, almost everything about them seems to have been doubtful, from their existence and position to their correct names—Morrell also appears as Morell or Merrel, and Byers as Byers’s, Byers’, Byer’s, Byer and even Patrocinio.†)
Their existence (or otherwise) was significant to the position of the International Date Line because they lay just off the western end of the Hawaiian island chain, were both claimed by Hawaii, and were both plotted just on the western side of the 180º meridian —174.5ºE and 176ºE, respectively. So the Date Line took a little jog westwards between 24ºN and 36ºN, to keep these two non-existent islands in the same American date zone as Hawaii. But as dubiety about their existence increase, cartographers began to straighten out the Date Line in that vicinity. This was a slow and piece-meal process—the islands were gone from some charts by 1903, but were still marked in J.G. Bartholomew‘s Times Survey Atlas Of The World as late as 1922.
The Date Line shift associated with the vanishing of these islands is usually dated to 1910, based on a typewritten memorandum circulated by the Royal Navy Hydrographic Department in 1921, which was reproduced in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology in 1930 as “Notes on the History of the Date Or Calendar Line“. This shows the course of the Date Line, as plotted by the Hydrographic Department over the course of the years, and the Morrell and Byers diversion is marked as persisting until 1910. (My picture below comes from a scan of the original, hand-illustrated Hydrographic Department document, which is clearer than the scanned version of the 1930 publication in my link above.)
But I’ve chosen 1900 as my cut-off date for Morrell and Byers because of an article about the International Date Line that appeared in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association in February 1900, written by A.M.W. Downing and entitled “Where the Day Changes“. It shows several plots of the Date Line, including one provided by Admiral William Wharton (Frederick Evans’s successor as Hydrographer of the Navy) which draws a straight line right past the fabled locations of Morrell and Byers. So it seems the Hydrographic Department had given up on that particular Date Line diversion a little earlier than they subsequently recalled.
And of course it’s also a nice round number on which to pause this exposition. I’ll bring the story up to the present day in another post.
The story so far (click for an enlargement):
* If you want to know more about the Julian/Gregorian calendar shift, see my post about February 30th.
† But we know that Morrell Island was named for its “discoverer”, Captain Benjamin Morrell, and (from Morrell’s memoir of his voyages), that Byers Island was named for James Byers, one of the owners of Morrell’s ship, Wasp. (Morrell used the form Byers’s Island.) Patrocinio is another illusory island, reported in the same vicinity by the Spanish Captain Zipiani in 1799. When Patrocinio could not subsequently be found at the coordinates Zipiani had set down for it, it was suggested that his was probably an earlier report of the island Morrell had named after Byers.