Messages from the past

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Archaeologists have found dozens of inscriptions carved by 17th century Dutch sailors on Madagascar, shedding new light on how trading ships communicated their whereabouts when far from home.

More than 40 etchings, dating between 1601-1657, were cut into the rocks on Nosy Mangabe Island in the Bay of Antongil. They record the names of Dutch East India Company ships that used the sheltered beach – known to this day as Plage des Hollandais  (‘Beach of the Dutchmen’) – as a safe place to take on fresh water, recover from sickness and repair damaged ships en route to South East Asia.

Centuries before the invention of the radio or telegraph, sailors relied on other ships to pass on messages and relay their last port of call. Last month (April 2012) a research team from Flinders University found inscriptions left by the crews of at least 13 ships, recording the names of the vessels and some of their officers, as well as the time and date of their arrival in the bay.

‘The idea was that the crew of the next Dutch ship to anchor in that same place would pen down the message,’ said project leader Dr Wendy van Duivenvoorde. ‘A few of the inscriptions tell us that letters were also left beneath them, which would have been carefully wrapped in layers of canvas, tar and lead envelopes. It was like an early postal system.’

She added: ‘Unfortunately, should the next ship to arrive belong to their British or Portuguese rivals, the messages and letters would be appropriated for their intelligence to confound the Dutch.’

Leaving their stamp
Around a dozen maritime inscriptions were previously known on the island, spotted in the early 1920s by M E Drouhard, the French colonial adjunct-inspector of waters and forest, but this recent survey – the first archaeological assessment of the carvings to take place – found many more.

Similar ‘postal stones’ have also been found on St Helena and the Cape of Good Hope, Dr van Duivenvoorde said, but the Madagascan examples are the earliest of their kind and exceptionally well preserved.

‘As far as I know, the site on Nosy Mangabé is the earliest European poste restante in the Indian Ocean and the inscriptions include the earliest Dutch postal stone writings found to date,’ she said. ‘Furthermore, they are still in their original environment and there has been practically no modern development on the island, which makes it a unique site.’

The research team, which also included Flinders University archaeologist Mark Polzer and Jane Fyfe, a rock art specialist from the University of Western Australia, are currently transcribing and translating the inscriptions and hope to return next year to create 3D images of them.

Dr van Duivenvoorde added that some of the writings highlighted how hazardous 17th-century maritime trade could be.

‘One inscription reveals that the ship Middleburg reached the bay after a cyclone in 1625, without masts, and was anchored there for a good seven months while it was being repaired,’ she said. ‘It is quite amazing to think that they managed to reach the bay without masts and sails.’

All images: Mark E Polzer

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