We finally know why these mysterious 'Tjipetir blocks' are washing up on European beaches

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Marco Werman: You know, there many different ways to experience history, including while walking in a beach in Cornwall, on the southwest tip of England. Some pretty old-looking pieces of rubber have been washing up there, and they caught the attention of local resident Tracy Williams.

 

Tracy Williams: What happened is I was walking along the beach and I found one of these blocks lying on the beach. But it had this word “Tjipetir” carved into it and I was quite intrigued. So, I took it home and I googled the word Tjipetir, and at that time there was hardly anything on the internet about it. It really just said it was a village in Indonesia, and it said what the temperature was. So, I was quite intrigued to see that it had come all the way from Java. I thought it might be the end of a box, perhaps a street sign, and I put it in the back yard and I forgot all about it. Then about two weeks later, I was on a different beach and I found another one. One was understandable, but a second one turning up was quite odd. So, I decided to investigate further.

 

Werman: Your notion that it came from Java was sort of right on and sort of not right.

 

Williams: It had originated in Java --

 

Werman: The actual material was gutta-percha, a kind of rubber.

 

Williams: Yes. There’s a government plantation, or there was, in Java, in this place called Tjipetir a hundred years ago. When I started to do my research, I found this old black and white picture of a little boy standing in a plantation, and next to him was this pile of blocks, all with this word, “Tjipetir,” carved into it. I knew at that stage that it was perhaps coming from a shipwreck. I knew they were old and that there was a story behind them.

 

Werman: So, a shipwreck, but what ship?

 

Williams: I had a few tip-offs from people, and somebody got in touch to tell me that they thought it was actually coming from the ship Miyazaki Maru.

 

Werman: That’s a Japanese ocean liner, is that right?

 

Williams: It was a Japanese passenger steamship.

 

Werman: And going back to WWI as well, correct?

 

Williams: Yes, it was a torpedoed in 1917.

 

Werman: And what would this chunk of rubber, or gutta-percha, have been used for on the ship?

 

Williams: It wasn’t used for on ships. It was just literally being transported here from Java. So, it was actually used for all sorts of different things -- for teddy bears’ noses, as a waterproof coating for hot air balloons; it was used for firemen’s hoses, all sorts of things. We understand that a salvage operation has been going on on the ship, the gutta-percha had been released during that salvage operation.

 

Werman: And so more of these slabs have washed up all over northern Europe?

 

Williams: Yes. They’ve gone as far as the Shetland Islands and Sweden. Who knows where the Tjipetir blocks will eventually turn up.

 

Werman: It’s a small window into the physics of the ocean, but you’re a historian. What fascinates you about the way flotsam travels?

 

Williams: Actually, I’m not a historian. I just clean the beaches. I walk on the beach with my dog every day and I’m always absolutely intrigued by everything that washed up and where it comes from. We pick up an awful lot of stuff from the States on our Cornish beaches. It’s just the history of where it all comes from and how long it’s been at sea that fascinates me. The important thing for me is that the story is only just beginning. We might know the name of the ship, but there’s the stories of everybody on board that ship and what happened to it. And also, we know that the blocks that we’re getting washed up at the moment, we suspect that they’re coming from this particular ship, but many people have contacted me to say that they’ve found these blocks years ago -- 8 years ago. Where were they coming from? We don’t know.

 

Werman: The mystery continues.

 

Williams: It does indeed.

 

Werman: Tracy Williams, thanks for telling us about it. Good luck with your investigation as it goes forward.

 

Williams: Thank you very much.

 

Werman: You can see those rubber blocks and some of their proud owners at PRI.ORG.