A New Find of the ‘Oldest Message in a Bottle’ Was Part of a German Experiment
Over 130 years ago a bottle was cast overboard during a voyage of a German merchant sailing barque… Before you get your head filled with romantic notions of pirates, shipwrecked souls, long-lost lovers, or such, lets tell you straight away – this bottle and the note within it had an experimental, not emotional or survival, purpose.
The bottle was recently recovered by an Australian family, with the document inside intact, on Wedge Island, about 140 kilometers (88 miles) north of Perth in Australia. Half-buried in the sand, the dark glass stood out amongst the white grains.
The Square case gin type bottle embossed ‘DANIEL VISSER & ZONEN/ SCHIEDAM’ ( Ross Anderson/ WA Museum )
With no cork or closure, the bottle was about a quarter filled with damp sand. Upon emptying the contents, the family was surprised to find a damp, tightly rolled message tied with a string. Tonya Illman, discoverer of the artifact, told Deutsche Welle about the find:
“[We] were walking across the dunes when I saw something sticking out of the sand, so I went to take a closer look. The note was damp, rolled tightly and wrapped with string. We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”
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A translated version of the note from inside the bottle reads:
"This bottle was thrown overboard on June 12, 1886 at latitude 32° 49' South and longitude 105° 25' from Greenwich East.
From: Bark Ship Paula, Port: Elsfleth, Captain: D [illegible], On her journey from Cardiff to Macassar.
The finder is requested to send the slip in the bottle to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest consulate for the return to the same agency after filling in the information on the back.”
Page one of the message slip naming the ship Paula, the date, its journey and coordinates ( Ross Anderson/ WA Museum )
The Western Australian Museum was notified of the discovery and they soon got into contact with German and Dutch agencies to identify if the item was of real historic value or a modern creation, to find out more about the ship, and discover the meaning behind the request included in the text.
A report published by the Western Australian Museum on the message in the bottle goes into detail on how they ascertained the bottle’s origin (the style shows it’s Dutch and was made circa 1880), the note’s creator as authentic (confirming the captain’s handwriting and studying the ship’s logs), and overall the validity of the message in the bottle as a historic artifact (it is!) Dr. Ross Anderson, Assistant Curator Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum, expressed his surprise , “Incredibly, an archival search in Germany found Paula's original meteorological journal and there was an entry for June 12, 1886 made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard. The date and the coordinates correspond exactly with those on the bottle message.”
The same report shows the ship which was carrying the message in the bottle was the German sailing barque Paula, which records show was commanded by Captain O. Diekmann from 1886-1889. It would have probably been carrying Welsh steaming coal from Cardiff at the time when the bottle was dropped – as this was a major Welsh export at the time.
The bottle was thrown overboard from the German merchant sailing barque Paula, depicted here in 1880. ( Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum-Unterweser )
The bottle was apparently thrown overboard as part of a 69-year-long oceanographic experiment which was interested in improving shipping routes by following ocean currents.
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The German Government’s Bundesamt fürSeeschifffahrt und Hydrographie (BSH -Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency) reports the message it most likely genuine :
“As far as we can judge the photos and information from a distance, it is an authentic bottle post, which was thrown overboard from the PAULA in 1886 as part of the experiment on flow research. The information from the PAULA Meteorological Journal confirms the ejection of a stream bottle on the appropriate route. The information on the found form can therefore also be regarded as authentic.
Reasons that speak against it being a forgery: There are no lists of the then ejected bottle items. The knowledge about the ejection of a bottle post with exactly this data about ship, route and exact date would be available only through access to various official historical sources. However, these sources are not easily accessible to the public. This makes a fake in terms of content extremely unlikely.”