Archives For Southeast Asian Shipwrecks

Cape Rachado CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

Cape Rachado
CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

From August 16th to 18th, 1606 the seas off Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) in modern-day Malaysia echoed with the sounds of naval gunfire as two European fleets wrestled for control of the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch East India Company had dispatched a fleet of eleven ships from Holland in mid-1605 in an effort to pry the Portuguese from their strongholds in the East Indies. The Dutch besieged the Portuguese garrison at Malacca in May 1606, however, in August a Portuguese fleet of twenty ships from its colony in Goa, modern-day India arrived to lift the siege.

The two fleets engaged one another for several days with long-range cannon barrages but neither fleet gaining an advantage over the other. Finally, the Portuguese decided to close the distance and use their numerical superiority to overwhelm the Dutch fleet. Early on August 18th, the Portuguese closed with the Dutch and boarded the Dutch vessel Nassau. As additional ships from both sides sailed into the fray the cannonade set the Dutch ship Oranje ablaze threatening both the Nassau and the Oranje as well as the two engaged Portuguese vessels. Eventually all four of the vessels were set ablaze and a truce was declared to allow the fleets to lick their wounds and repair back to their respective anchorages. While the battle was a defeat for the Dutch as the siege of Malacca was relieved, it enabled the Dutch to gain favor with the Sultan of Johor, the local leader, and when the fleet returned two months later it destroyed a much reduced Portuguese fleet.

The dates of the final sinking of the four vessels lost in the battle: Sao Salvador, a Portuguese galleon, Nassau and Middelburg vary from August 18th to 22nd. Some sources claim the wreck of the Nassau finally succumbed to the sea on the 22nd, but what is not in dispute is that they were located in 1995 by British marine archaeologist Mensun Bound and successfully excavated. Some of the artifacts from the wrecks are now on display at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

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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.

Operation Gratitude

January 12, 2013 — Leave a comment
cam ranh bay

Photo: US Navy

As war loomed between the United States and Imperial Japan, the US Navy began laying the groundwork for a network of coast watching and weather stations throughout the coasts and inland areas of China and Southeast Asia. Following Pearl Harbor, the US Navy dispatched Captain Milton Miles, an officer with pre-war experience in China, to establish what became known as the Sino-American Cooperation Organization (SACO). The organization contributed greatly to the war effort, but one of its biggest successes didn’t come until January 12, 1945.

SACO’s coast watchers observed a 26 ship convoy drop anchor in Cam Ranh Bay in French Asia. The convoy joined numerous other Japanese vessels and SACO quickly informed Admiral Bull Halsey and his Task Force 38 who were conducting operations (Operation Gratitude) in the South China Sea. Halsey worked up an assault plan and dispatched 82 TBM Avenger bombers to destroy the Japanese convoy. By the end of the day, more than 40 ships and 120,000 tons of enemy shipping lay at the bottom of Cam Ranh Bay. Thanks to a handful of American and Chinese SACO coast watchers, thousands of tons of much needed war material were destroyed and the noose tightened ever so tighter around Japan’s home islands.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain
Photo: history.cultural-china.com

Vietnamese authorities are attempting to protect a 14th century shipwreck discovered earlier this year in the province of Quang Ngai. Local fishermen originally found the wreck and salvaged some of its Yuan dynasty porcelain cargo. Authorities quickly swooped in and confiscated the recovered porcelain. Now, locals are determined to profit from the wreck by salvaging it themselves.

Last Saturday, Vietnamese police guarding the wreck were attacked by a throng of 60 fishermen. Two policemen were injured after the fishermen pelted the guards with rocks and swarmed their boats and vehicles. The mob freed a fisherman the authorities were attempting to arrest and hundreds of police eventually had to be called in to quell the violence. The police presence will most likely continue for the 3 months it is predicted to take to salvage the wreck.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain
Photo: history.cultural-china.com

Earlier this year Vietnamese fishermen in the province of Quang Ngai came across a shipwreck full of Chinese porcelain. The fishermen recovered several artifacts and later tried to illegally sell them, but the items were intercepted by Vietnamese authorities. After examination by archaeologists and porcelain experts, the porcelain bowls and incense burners have been determined to be from the 14th century Yuan Dynasty. The porcelain is among the oldest artifacts found in Vietnam and the find is believed to be relatively well preserved beneath sand and silt. Recovery operations have not been announced, but the wreck would undoubtedly yield increased knowledge about trading patterns from the period along with priceless porcelain.

Porcelain has long been an important export for the Chinese economy. The Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and even the Atlantic Ocean are littered with porcelain carrying shipwrecks from every Chinese dynasty. During the American Colonial Period, Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province was considered one of the highest forms of conspicuous consumption. New England merchants made fortunes importing porcelain from China and one item in especial demand was porcelain decorated with the owner’s coat of arms – “armorial porcelain.” Even President George Washington owned a dinner service set of the trendy armorial porcelain. Pieces of Washington’s porcelain are now housed at Washington & Lee’s Reeves Center – one of the largest collections of Chinese export porcelain in the world.