When History Washes Ashore

Rubber duckies now, duckey stones then: lost cargo from the pre-plastic generation.

Published September 26, 2016

Rubber duckies, Lego pieces, fly swatters, and Nike shoes are just a few examples of modern cargo that has toppled from container ships and washed up on our shores. But it’s not just evidence of our disposable lifestyle that lands on our beaches. To this day, sharp-eyed beachcombers can find much older cargo among the plastic—objects that reflect centuries of cross-oceanic trade and the perils that came with it.

Doubloons and Duckey Stones

Word spread quickly when the Dutch merchant ship Golden Grape grounded off Chesil Beach in Dorset, England, on December 11, 1641. Over the next four days, people rushed in from surrounding communities to cart and carry away fruit, wool, oil, gold doubloons, and silver. In depositions to the subsequent High Court of the Admiralty Inquiry, hundreds readily confessed to plundering the wreck for essentials, but in many cases, mentions of gold and silver turned to finger pointing rather than confession. Fortunately for today’s beachcombers, some of the Golden Grape treasure was left behind. Storms and shifting gravel occasionally reveal weatherworn coins, some valued at thousands of dollars. But the Golden Grape was just one of hundreds of wrecks off Chesil Beach and hopeful hunters keep an eye out for other shipwreck treasure including saucer-sized silver slabs, called “duckey stones.” Thought to be named for the stones used in the children’s game of the same name, duckey stones weighing up to 1.7 kilograms have been found on and near Chesil Beach. 

Beeswax Bounty

In 1700, a megathrust earthquake rocked the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon, the resulting tsunami drove a deluge of debris, including tonnes of beeswax, into the Nehalem River valley. The commodity—highly valued for making candles on a continent with no native honeybees—was a boon for the Clatsop and Tillamook peoples. They mined it and sold it to explorers and commercial traders such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. Even today, beachcombers still uncover chunks of beeswax along the Oregon coast. But where did the wax come from? While the Clatsop and Tillamook knew a shipwreck was the source of the wax, it wasn’t until 2013 that researchers from the Beeswax Wreck Project announced they believe the ship to be the Manila galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos, lost in 1693.

Counterfeit Copper

When the Irish immigrant ship Faithful Steward wrecked near Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in 1785, it took with it more than 180 lives and approximately 400 barrels of coins, mostly British and Irish “coppers,” or halfpence. Since then, beachcombers have found thousands upon thousands of coppers there, so many they call the place “Coin Beach.” But they should call it “Counterfeit Beach.” In the late 1700s, the British and Irish traded counterfeit copper indiscriminately mixed with legal coinage. When counterfeiting copper became a felony in England in 1771, English and Irish counterfeiters began shipping their fakes to the United States. There citizens used them as currency until the country began minting its own pennies in 1793. Because the coppers were worth too little to warrant space in a merchant ship, the coins were typically loaded onto ships with paying customers—immigrants like those of the Faithful Steward—both on their way to mix into the melting pot of America.

Lumps of Lard

In June 1941, during the height of the Second World War, the Norwegian cargo ship Taurus, laden with foodstuffs bound for Hull, England, was bombed by German aircraft and sunk off the coast of Scotland. The ship’s loss, however, became a war-weary community’s gain. Over the next years, residents near what is now Scotland’s St. Cyrus National Nature Reserve regularly found beached lumps of lard, a bounty that provided welcome relief when fat and meat were scarce during the war. But that wasn’t the last of the lard. After a storm in 2013, staff at the nature reserve discovered four remarkably well-preserved barrel-sized blobs of fat there, a few of many such finds over the past 75 years.

Gutta-Percha Slabs

A Google image search for “Tjipetir” brings up hundreds of photographs of people holding doormat-size slabs engraved with that word. These rubbery blocks began appearing on European beaches around 2012. But despite their look and feel, the slabs are not rubber. They are gutta-percha, a Malaysian tree gum. And these particular blocks were from Tjipetir, a gutta-percha plantation active in the early 20th century in what is now Indonesia. During the First World War, the slabs were on their way to London in the Japanese ocean liner, Miyazaki Maru, when it was sunk by a German submarine. Once destined to become fire hoses, undersea cable cladding, and even “rubber” duckies, the slabs continue to circulate the oceans and wash up on beaches—just like today’s rubber duckies.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to doubloons as ducats and implied that “duckey stones” were part of the cargo aboard the Golden Grape