Archives For Chinese Shipwrecks

Capture

Robert Wells, a retired US Navy captain, recently released his first book, Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster, an intriguing investigation into the tragic sinking of the SS Japan in the late 19th century. Leading the reader through a wealth of primary sources and photographs, Wells pieces together the origins of Chinese emigration to the US in the mid to late 19th century. Tales of the wealth of Gum Shan (Gold Mountain, aka the United States) lured thousands of Chinese residents of Guangdong province to the California coast as laborers for farms and the infant transcontinental railway system.

Wells relates the travails a Chinese emigrant would endure from leaving his farm to boarding the vessel to finding work in Gum Shan as well as his return journey with, hopefully, a money belt full of silver coin. A notable discussion from the book is the shipping of the bones of Chinese who perished in the United States back to China for permanent burial in their native land. This practice was most recently in the news in November of last year when a documentary of the SS Ventnor aired in New Zealand. The Ventnor was carrying the bodies of 499 Chinese miners back to China when she sank in 1902.

Overall Wells has done historians and casual readers a great service by documenting a little remembered part of Sino-American history as the SS Japan was the deadliest maritime disaster of the 19th century Chinese emigrant wave. Readers will enjoy the numerous illustrations, tales of sunken treasure aboard the SS Japan and general machinations of the Chinese emigrant trade covered in Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea | The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster.

Amethyst Incident

Sunset on the Yangtze River
CC Image Courtesy of Dan Nelson on Flickr

On April 20, 1949, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst was cruising up China’s mighty Yangtze River as hundreds of western gunboats had done over the previous century. The Amethyst had been ordered to relieve HMS Consort which was guarding the British Embassy and British interests at the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Around 9:30am, without warning, a People’s Liberation Army artillery battery opened fire on the vessel. The PLA battery rained a deadly barrage of shells on the ship, quickly disabling her and mortally wounding her captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The vessel quickly found herself aground and unable to return fire due to the geometry of her grounding and damage sustained in the initial barrage to her fire control mechanisms. Non-essential personnel were ordered to evacuate the frigate, but the PLA began targeting the small boats with artillery and snipers. By the time the firing ceased at 11am, 22 Royal Navy sailors and officers lay dead with another 31 wounded.

HMS Consort arrived at 11am to lend her support and quickly suppressed the PLA fire. Unable to take the Amethyst in tow, the Consort concentrated on lashing out at the gathering horde of PLA soldiers. Another ten sailors were killed and three wounded during the Consort’s efforts. Not until later that night was Amethyst refloated, however, she was unable to escape and thus began a tense ten week siege during which the PLA refused to allow supplies to reach the vessel.

Finally, on the night of July 30th, the Amethyst slipped her chains and snuck down the Yangtze behind a passenger ship. Sadly the PLA, in their efforts to sink the Amethyst, sank the passenger ship with heavy civilian casualties. After a short sail of two days under escort from another Royal Navy vessel, the Amethyst arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. The Amethyst had been trapped 101 days and upon her arrival famously signaled “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King.”

For those to whom the British Empire represented, despite its flaws, a force for the rule of law and economic development, the Amethyst Incident represented the beginning of the sunset on Her Majesty’s Government’s influence in China. For those who viewed the expulsion of foreigners as the beginning of a great socialist experiment, the incident instilled pride which, unless one were a party elite, was crushed in the years following “Liberation” as Frank Dikotter has so eloquently elucidated in his latest book The Tragedy of Liberation.

Taiwan missile corvette

Tuo Jiang

Late last week the Republic of China launched the first of a new class of stealth missile corvettes. Christened Tuo Jiang, the vessel is designed to operate with a low radar signature and is aimed at countering the threat of the People’s Republic of China’s growing aircraft carrier capability. The Tuo Jiang’s armament has not been fully publicized, however, Taiwanese news sources are reporting that it will be outfitted with a battery of Siung Feng III (HF-3) ramjet-powered supersonic anti-ship missiles. Combined with the stealth of the Tuo Jiang, the missiles give Taiwan’s navy a formidable indigenous option to discouraging and/or defeating an attack by the People’s Republic.

Despite the United States’ “Asia Pivot,” the new US policy of “leading from behind” has justifiably worried Taiwan and other Pacific nations. As such, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines are prescient to increase their indigenous options to defending their sovereignty in the face of an increasingly belligerent People’s Republic of China. With reports of hesitation in the Chinese economy, saber rattling in the Diaoyus/Spratlys/Senkakus/South China Sea will most likely increase much like Argentina and the Falklands in the ’80s and more recently under Christina Kirchner. If the People’s Republic’s saber rattling ever becomes more than mere noise, then the stealth missile corvettes of the Tuo Jiang class will allow Taiwan’s navy to punch above its weight class much like Israel’s missile boats did in the Yom Kippur War.

The Spratlys

March 14, 2014 — Leave a comment
Spratlys

Boomerang Island in the Spratlys
CC Image Courtesy of Storm Crypt on Flickr

As relations continue to deteriorate between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, it is easy to forget that China has had previous conflicts over other island chains that exist in close proximity to its borders. One such conflict occurred on March 14, 1988 between Vietnamese forces and elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Taiwan, the PRC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have all laid claim to the Spratly Islands, an uninhabited collection of 750 islands, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. Apart from rich fishing grounds and possible oil and gas deposits, the islands have no economic value; their primary value being geopolitical in nature. In early 1988, Vietnamese forces began landing forces and construction supplies at one of the reefs in order to further their claim to the area. A short skirmish erupted when the Vietnamese forces encountered a PLAN squadron.

Despite this confrontation, the two countries continued to operate in the area until March 14 when PLAN and Vietnamese forces again collided. This time the firefight was more intense and by the time it was over two Vietnamese transports had been sunk and another heavily damaged. While the Chinese suffered no casualties, the Vietnamese lost more than 70 sailors in the short and sharp encounter.

The Chinese victory, now known as the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, allowed the PLA to occupy several more reefs in the area and expand their area of influence at the expense of Vietnam. A resolution to the issue between the multitude of sparring countries has yet to occur and provides simply one more smoldering match to the growing powder keg that is the South and East China Seas.

China submarine

In his new book, Poseidon, expat journalist and diver Steven Schwankert brings alive the unfortunate sinking and mysterious salvage of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Poseidon. Over the course of several years, Schwankert meticulously researched the history of the Poseidon via trips to UK archives, Chinese museums and libraries and even a dive on the wreck of her sister ship in the Ionian Sea. Schwankert’s research shows in the compelling manner in which he unfolds the story of the Poseidon, her crew and their fate, and the subsequent history of the vessel in the context of greater Chinese/world history.

The book especially shines in Schwankert’s dogged determination to get to the bottom of the story. His investigative efforts bear fruit in the later pages of the book as he brings to life the terrestrial surroundings of Poseidon’s sinking on Liu Gong Island. Readers will be engrossed by the dramatic escape of some of Poseidon’s trapped crew members and the mysterious disappearance of the wreck from the sea floor. Poseidon helped make a trans-Pacific flight pass by in almost no time at all and is well worth the read. China history buffs, maritime historians, lovers of detective novels and any fan of Dirk Pitt will enjoy the tale told by Schwankert in Poseidon.

For All the Tea in China

January 17, 2013 — 1 Comment
clipper ship

Tea Clipper Hallowe’en Aground
Photo: http://www.wrecksite.eu

The ghostly image above resulted from the wreck of the record breaking clipper ship Hallowe’en on January 17, 1887. The Hallowe’en was loaded with 1600 tons of tea from Shanghai, China and she ran aground in a storm off Soar Mill Cove in the United Kingdom. Tea clippers were designed to quickly bring the latest crop of tea leaves from China to western markets. The Hallowe’en briefly held the record for fastest voyage from Shanghai to London in 1874 when she made the voyage in a mere 91 days. The ship eventually sank and can now be visited by divers.

chinese shipwrecks

Li River, Guilin, China
CC Image Courtesy of olly301 on Flickr

Xinhua News is reporting that China is building its first dedicated marine archaeology vessel. The ~175 foot ship will displace 860 tons and have the ability to both locate and excavate shipwrecks within Chinese coastal waters. Operated by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, it will be put to use finding and preserving China’s numerous ancient shipwrecks.

Much like Vietnam, China has the potential to be the location of a vast number of discoveries due to its society having been stunted from revolution, insularity and the ravages of communism. Today, the increase of both nations’ wealth and openness to the world has created opportunities for marine exploration to blossom.

Currently, Chinese marine archaeologists must rely on rented fishing vessels to serve as expedition platforms, although in the case of the Awa Maru project, the Chinese government spent millions on a dedicated salvage barge.