Australian researchers have discovered a 17th-century postal system made of dozens of stone inscriptions on the island of Madagascar.
Carved between 1601 and 1657 by sailors aboard Dutch East India Company ships on their way to the East Indies, the stones often featured letters placed at their base. The missives, carefully wrapped in layers of canvas, tar and lead envelopes, were left for other ships to pick up.
"The idea was that the crew of the next Dutch ship to anchor in that same place would pen down the message on the rock and collect the letters," Wendy van Duivenvoorde, a lecturer in maritime archaeology at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, told Discovery News.
"Basically it was like an early postal system," she said.
In the 1500s, the Portuguese were the only Europeans who knew the route to South East Asia so they supplied all the spices and exotic goods to the Netherlands.
As the Dutch made their way to Batavia (modern day Jakarta) for the first time in 1595, they realized they didn't have any systems in place to communicate via other Dutch ships to send messages back home and relay their last port of call.
From the first voyage on, they went to a small beach in the Antongil Bay on the northeast corner of Madagascar.
"They knew from the Portuguese that they could get fresh water there and that it was the only place in the bay where they could anchor safely to ride out a storm or repair a ship," said van Duivenvoorde.
"They started using the beach as a communications area by inscribing messages on the rock faces and frequently leaving letters for other ships to pick up," she added.
About a dozen of these inscriptions were discovered in the early 1920s, but the recent expedition, led by van Duivenvoorde under the auspices of the Australian Research Council, was the first to conduct a detailed archaeological assessment of the rock carvings within their environment.
The team, which included Mark Polzer, a research associate in archaeology at Flinders University, and Jane Fyfe, a Ph.D. candidate and rock art specialist from the University of Western Australia, discovered more than 40 inscriptions left by at least 13 different ships.
The carved messages revealed official communications that recorded the names of ships, the times and dates of their arrivals and other such details.
They also showed unofficial messages left by higher-ranking seamen, who carved their names into the stone.
"That was much as someone today might write, 'Hendrick was here'," van Duivenvoorde said.
According to the researcher, the earliest inscriptions dated to 1601 and were carved by the crew of the fifth Dutch expedition to the Indies—one year before the official founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602.
"They are indeed visual reminders of the earliest Dutch voyages into the Indian Ocean," she said.
One carving reveals that the ship Middelburg reached the bay after a cyclone in 1625 without masts, and was anchored there for seven months while it was being repaired.
"It’s quite amazing to think that they managed to sail into the bay after suffering such damage," van Duivenvoorde said.
A few inscriptions reveal that letters were left beneath them.
"These stones are really part of an early Dutch postal system and they show how European ships relayed information about their whereabouts when far away from home," van Duivenvoorde said.
"Unfortunately, should the next ship to arrive belong to their British or Portuguese rivals, the messages and letters would be absconded for their intelligence and to confound the Dutch," she said.
Van Duivenvoorde and her team hope to return to Madagascar in 2013 to create a 3D rendering and to petition relevant authorities for cultural heritage protection.
"The stones are under threat from sea erosion, cyclones and rain, as well as from jungle vegetation and moss growing," she said.
"Some inscriptions are still legible and relatively well preserved, but most have faded over time and several have been reduced to only a few letters remaining," van Duivenvoorde said.
Photos: 1626 inscription left by crew of Dutch East India Company ship Wapen van Rotterdam, carved over an earlier inscription left by VOC ship Middelburg in 1620 (top left of photo).Credit: Mark E. Polzer;
Recording rock inscriptions using LED lights.Credit: Mark E. Polzer; The beach where the inscriptions have been found. Credit: Mark E. Polzer.