Message in a Bottle Myth #1
Queen Elizabeth I’s “Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”
Let’s go back in time to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I… It is the late 16th century. England is expanding its empire and flexing its muscles. Information is power—and, in the wrong hands, a threat to the Crown.
Many versions of this myth float around the internet. But in general, it goes like this:
Around 1560 (or 1598, depending on the source), an illiterate fisherman scooped up a message in a bottle on English shores. He opened it, but, being illiterate, couldn’t read it. So he took it to a local official, who in turn took it (and the fisherman) to higher powers. Eventually, word of this bottled note reached Queen Elizabeth because it contained sensitive military information sent ashore by England’s Navy (or possibly by English spies “on the continent”). Elizabeth, in order to deter any others from opening messages in bottles and stumbling into secret information, appointed an “Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”. She also made it a capital offense for anyone else to open messages in bottles, punishable by beheading or hanging. Mercifully, the fisherman was spared because he could not read. The information in the bottle was never at risk in his hands.
Fascinating story, right? But here’s the most interesting part: It isn’t true. None of it.
This myth got legs from Robert Kraske’s 1978 fanciful and dubious children’s book, The Twelve Million Dollar Note, which contains some true stories and many that are now known to be hoaxes or works of fiction. Alas, National Geographic and Wikipedia have repeated the myth, along with the UK’s The Telegraph and countless others. Everyone writes about this story with the confidence of the internet age, using phrases like, “This law remained on the books for 200 years,” while never specifying which books or how to find any record of the law. They all point back to Kraske, as best I can tell. No one on earth can provide a single primary source to support this story, because none exist.
I hate to be a bummer, but let me just be clear right up front: Queen Elizabeth I never appointed an Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles. This myth was born in a French novel published in 1869.
No Evidence That Elizabeth I Appointed an Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles
This story has been on my radar since I first started finding and researching messages in bottles. It sounds so unbelievable that I wondered if it were true. I certainly hoped it was, and that I could apply for the job! But I couldn’t find any source that definitively proved the story to be true. And that only fueled my quest. To be honest, I grew obsessed with this story, as the following will illustrate.
One of the earliest mentions I have found of this apocryphal story is a 1954 article by Alan Hynd called “Tales of the Floating Bottles,” which was published in The Saturday Evening Post. Hynd claims the message was “top secret” and “in code” (details omitted by other tellers of this tale) and was dropped by a British Intelligence officer. But did Hynd include a source for this story? Nope!
There is also a 1955 article by Carl Spielvogel for the New York Times, likely inspired by Hynd’s article. Spielvogel shares even more fanciful details. He claims the bottled note was “to the effect that Novaya Zemlya, a 35,000 square mile arctic island, had been seized by the Dutch from Russia.” If it was in code, as Hynd claimed the year before, how could Spielvogel have learned this?
The bit about Novaya Zemlya is intriguing, isn’t it? It’s got just enough historical zing to sound believable. Spielvogel mentions real places, real powers that England had to contend with, and drops a message in a bottle right into the middle of that murky situation. As you have guessed already, Spielvogel does not provide a source for the story either.
Origin of Queen Elizabeth I’s “Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” Myth
This whole story is one of the “Urban Legends of the Sea” that renowned oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer included in his book Flotsametrics, a sweeping study of all that floats. You know of Curt Ebbesmeyer’s work, even if you haven’t heard of him. Have you heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch?” Well, he discovered it and coined that term. Anyway, here’s what he Curt had to say:
The tale is often told that in 1560 Queen Elizabeth I of England charged an official with opening any message bottles that drifted on Albion’s shore, in case they might have come from her spies on the continent. Anyone else uncorking a message was subject to death. I traced this account to a story by Victor Hugo, which contained many details that seemed somewhat plausible. Try as I might I have not been able to trace it further…
Friends, I am pleased to be the first on the internet, apparently, to put all these scraps of stories and investigations together. Curt is right that the story can only be traced to Victor Hugo. But as for the “somewhat plausible” details–they are all inventions of Hugo’s imagination. No one can trace the story further back than Hugo, because his brain is where the story came from.
If you would like to read Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs, you can do so at your own peril here. It is a slog. And it is worth repeating: This is a novel, a work of fiction. The events in it did not actually happen outside of Victor Hugo’s head. These people did not exist.
In the novel, the Duchess Josiana presides over a royal court (she is the fictional illegitimate daughter of King James II). A somewhat comical character called Barkilphedro comes to her, seeking to be appointed “Uncorker of the Bottles of the Ocean”. He basically wants a title and a salary, because he is a bit of a vagrant in the court. Josiana finds the request amusing and the two banter for a while. During their banter, Barkilphedro reels off this story about Queen Elizabeth appointing an Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles in what is clearly an attempt to make Josiana jealous, to make her think, “Well, if Queen Elizabeth did it, then, by God, I will too!” So she does, and Barkilphedro becomes her Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.
And really, that’s all there is to it. Victor Hugo, a French novelist, dreamed up this myth for a comical scene in his fictional 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs. Amazingly, a century and a half later, some of our most respected information outlets like National Geographic, Wikipedia, The Telegraph, New York Magazine, and more continue to publish this whimsical story as gospel truth. Even Chad Pregracke of Living Lands & Waters, who I much admire, repeats this myth. Today hundreds–maybe thousands–of websites and blogs repeat the myth. It will take forever to correct the misinformation spread by these outlets. In fact, their work may never be undone.
Why Does the Myth of Queen Elizabeth’s Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles Survive?
Because it’s awesome! But also: the internet.
The internet loves an apocryphal story featuring famous and powerful people from history, and this story is the perfect blend: part drama, part romance, part magic, part English-monarchy-fairytale…
The myth of Queen Elizabeth’s Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles hits the bullseye where history, drama, and danger all intersect. England is a legendary land, too. For many of us, the mere mention of England conjures images of King Arthur and Merlin, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian. In a land that’s home to such legends, the idea of England’s most famous Queen appointing someone to a position as magic-sounding as Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles seems totally plausible. So, we went with it.
But in reality, we can trace this myth from today’s internet articles, back to Robert Kraske’s children’s book of 1978, then back to a few fanciful mid-century news articles, and from there, back to Victor Hugo’s imagination.
Obviously I love the idea of a national, official “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” because I would be awesome at the job! But as of now, this story appears to be merely a work of fiction. It floats in the sea of myth.
If you have any further information on this story that predates Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, let me know! I would love to be wrong about this! Until then, I call this story a myth.