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.
This legend says that 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. But then, in England in those days, what wasn’t 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.
This story really 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 even utterly nonexistent. Since then 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 end pointing back to Kraske, as best I can tell.
Well, 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.
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…well, unbelievable, that I wondered if it were true. I certainly hoped it was, and that I could apply for the job! But I just couldn’t find any source that definitively proved the story to be true. And that only fueled my quest. To be totally 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? You guessed it: 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 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, it’s hard to understand how Spielvogel would have learned this.
The bit about Novaya Zemlya is intriguing, isn’t it? It’s got just enough historical zing to it 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 Curt Ebbesmeyer included in his book Flotsametrics, a sweeping study of all that floats. Here’s what he 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…
Well 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. The story cannot be traced back further 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. The people in it never existed.
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. Amazingly, a century and a half later, some of our most respected information outlets like National Geographic, Wikipedia, The Telegraph, and more repeat this whimsical story as gospel truth. Today hundreds–maybe thousands–of websites and blogs and so on repeat the myth. It will take forever to correct the misinformation spread by these outlets. Their work may never be undone… It makes my head hurt…
Why Does the Myth of Queen Elizabeth’s Official Uncorker of Ocean Bottles Survive?
By now, I guess the short answer is obvious: the internet.
The handful of fanciful, mid-century American news articles mentioned above, based on Hugo’s novel, inspired Robert Kraske to include the legend of Elizabeth’s “Official Uncorker” in his 1978 children’s book as if it were fact. But he provided no evidence or sources. The whole story turned out to stem from a fictional novel. And yet, today, National Geographic repeats the myth as if it is fact. And thanks to these two dubious sources, Wikipedia also repeats the myth as fact.
From there, it just spirals out of control. New York Magazine publishes this myth as if it were true. Even Chad Pregracke of Living Lands & Waters, who I much admire, repeats this myth as if it were true.
But, overall–why does this myth keep floating around? Because it’s awesome!
This story 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 can conjure 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.
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 simply not be true. 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 proven wrong about this! Until then, I call this story a myth.