Rio History: Tales of the Bottle

Special to the PRESS

Tonya Illman was walking across a range of sand dunes located on Wedge Island, located about 90 miles north of Perth in Western Australia when she noticed something sticking out of the sand.
“It was a lovely old bottle” she told a reporter, “and I picked it up.”

Later, her son’s girlfriend was shaking the sand out of it when she discovered a note that had been rolled tight and bound with a string.

After drying it out, they opened it. Inside they found a form that had been printed in German with barely visible German handwriting on it.

After a little research the Illmans discovered that, seeking to better understand ocean currents, the German Naval Observatory initiated a joint experiment with the Kaiser’s navy. Between 1864 and 1933, thousands of bottles, each containing a string wrapped form were thrown overboard from German ships. Their message, which bore the date, June 12, 1886, had been cast into the ocean by the crew of the German sailing bark, Paula.

On one side of the form, the captain would note the date, the ship’s coordinates and details about its route. On the back, the finder was asked to write when and where the bottle had been found and return it, either to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest German Consulate.

Intrigued the Illmans took their find to the assistant curator of maritime archaeology at Western Australian Museum who identified the bottle as a mid-19th century Dutch gin bottle, and the form inside was written on 19th century paper.

Wanting independent verification of the bottles authenticity, the curator sent inquiries to several colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany for help.

The European’s research of the Paula’s log revealed there was an entry for June 12, 1886, made by the captain, recording a drift bottle having been thrown overboard when the Paula was situated about 500 miles to the west of Wedge Island. The handwriting, date and the coordinates matched exactly with those on the form proving that their find was the real thing thus making it the second oldest message in a bottle to be found.

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