What was one of the first things Americans did when they landed on the moon? Stick a flag on it. Explorers have been laying claim to territories for a long time, no matter who has there first. (What about the poor moon men!?)
The explorers in Nation, i.e., the white European sailors, carry flags, too, and they're eager to expand the British Empire in any way they can. That makes flags sound a lot like weapons, maybe even more dangerous. In fact, the two go hand in hand. As Mau says, "Flags are like guns that flap. If you have a flag, you need a gun" (15.162).
Flags are intended to show who's boss. They symbolize foreign control and tell the natives that they no longer belong to themselves. And if they disagree, well, that's what the gun is for.
Who knew a flag could be so scary?
You young folk might not remember this, but, before a big trip, people used to actually pull out these big, unwieldy pieces of paper with lines scrawled all over and use those to find their way around. No GPS, no Tom-Tom, no Apple Maps, no MapQuest. Just a piece of paper that you could never get folded again the right away.
If flags stake your claim to places, maps show you how to get there. And they don't just lead you to tourist attractions; they can actually provide life direction. "Every life should have a map" (4.3), Daphne says. And when Mau pleads to the Grandfathers for direction, he too asks for a map. "Grandfathers? [...] Tell me what to do! [...] I need a chart of the world, I need a map!" (7.145). And he gets one, both literally and figuratively.
Maps may not be as sinister as flags, but they're still a bit nefarious. When Pilu and Mau look at the physical sea chart on the Sweet Judy, they find out that the world looks a little different than they thought. Their home is "a small, small island" (6.311), compared to the rest of the world—even though it seemed so big. Maps can provide a wider perspective of the world, and it's not always comfortable.
They can also show you what someone else thinks of your world. For example, Pilu and Mau find out that the trousermen call the Nation's islands the "Mothering Sundays" instead of the "Sunday Islands." No worries, Pilu says: "Trousermen often get names wrong" (6.305). But it's a little more than that: they're actually trying to rename the island. If they accepted the name "Sunrise Island," the explorers would have to accept that the people living there are regular people, just as deserving of their homeland as anyone else.
As we said earlier, Mau also gets a figurative map from the Grandfathers. Whether the Grandfathers actually exist or are just Mau's inner conscience, they give him an idea of what he should be doing and where he should be going—a map to his future.
And just like on a real map, Mau's maturation is mapped onto a physical world. You can track his progress: starting on the beach, through the jungles, into the Grandfather's cave, and back to the beach again. He defines his own borders and creates a new land for his people on his own terms.
Now, all he needs is a new map.