Rio History: Pick your Poison (a few stories of the bottle)

By Steve Hathcock

Special to the PARADE

Ever since humans have had the ability to write, they have enclosed messages in bottles that have been dropped into the sea.

The earliest recorded sender was the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who, in around 310 BC, threw sealed bottles into the Mediterranean to prove that the inland body of water was formed by the inflow of the Atlantic. There appears to be no record of any responses, but the idea of using the sea as a postal carrier itself caught on.

Sailors or passengers under dire situations have written desperate messages at sea. One such incident occurred sometime in the 1700s when Chunosuke Matsuyama set off on a treasure hunting expedition in the Pacific. He and a crew of 44 were shipwrecked off a small island in the South Pacific. Knowing their fate was inevitable, (there was no food or fresh water) the captain scratched their story onto chips of wood and cast them adrift in a bottle. The bottle was found 150 years later on the shoreline of Japan – a bit too late to mount a rescue attempt. Ironically, it was claimed that the bottle was found on the beach near Matsuyama’s childhood home in Japan, but this may just be folklore.

In the May 5th 1849 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel, the editor reported the supposed wreck of a steamer after several articles floated ashore near Corpus Christi. Amidst the flotsam was a bottle with a message inside. “Unfortunately,” the editor reported, “the paper was torn to pieces by some stupid fellow who tried to get it out without breaking the bottle.” The beachcombers also found a board with some faded writing that had mostly been obliterated by the sand and water. As near as they could make out the message read, “Steamer Caledonia from New York to Chagres filled with passengers blown up and we expect to perish.”(Editor’s note: to date, I have found no record of the steamer Caledonia or its fate).

Then there was the British Admiralty bottle found on Padre Island on November 28, 1858 reported in the New York News. On July 6, 1857 this particular bottle had been thrown overboard from the Britannic Majesty’ ship Arachune in latitude 19 degrees and longitude 79 degrees, which is in the Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and Cuba. It was found on the shores of Padre Island 16 months later. Inside was one of the surveys furnished by the Admiralty at London to all the British National vessels with orders to note the longitude and latitude and then throw the bottle into the sea. All bottles picked up would then give insight into the vagaries of tide and current. Finders of the bottles are implored to note the location of where the bottle was found and then forward that information to the Admiralty. The plan spread and soon most of the sea going nations were participating in the effort.  Much knowledge was obtained in this way and the term “passing the bottle” took on a scientific connotation as well.

Before a ship channel was dredged through Aransas Pass, there were frequent shipwrecks. These were usually caused by ships getting caught in a storm or in trying to cross the bar without the services of a pilot. Crossing the bar was dangerous because the depth of water varied from five to 10 feet. Probably the most exotic cargo to wash ashore during that time would have to be that of the Mary, a ship that foundered near Corpus Christi when trying to cross the bar during bad weather in 1876. The Corpus Christi Gazette warned that some of the cargo consisted of 500 bottles of strychnine. Bottles, with their labels washed away, had come ashore. People were warned not to satisfy their curiosity by taking a sip.

So there you have it, pick your poison

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