Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Mystery of the lost fleet


The Star
By Michael Cheang
September 05, 2005

One of the ships of Khubilai Khan’s lost fleet,
in Khubilai Khan: Fall of the Mongol Hordes.

Khubilai Khan was a man who had everything. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan, and had successfully taken over his grandfather’s rule of China seven centuries ago. Nevertheless, there is one country that defied him – Japan.

So it was, that in the year 1281, Khubilai Khan (also known as Kublai Khan) built an armada of 4,400 ships carrying 140,000 men, and set forth to conquer the Land of the Rising Sun.

However, one fateful night in August that year, the massive fleet and all its crew members mysteriously vanished. It was the largest loss of life at sea in history, and a turning point that changed the history of the world, as we know it.

Discovery Channel (Astro Channel 50) will be screening a one-hour documentary, Khubilai Khan: Fall of the Mongol Hordes, that reveals how the legacy left behind by Genghis Khan was destroyed in one night in the greatest naval disaster of all time.

This programme follows diving expert and marine archaeologist Kenzo Hayashida of the Kyushu Okinawa Society for Underwater Archaeology and his team as they investigate the wreck of a huge Mongol warship in search of valuable evidence of the doomed armada’s final moments.

For nearly 700 years the fleet was lost, and the story behind its demise left to mere speculation, until in 1981 when a Japanese fisherman found a bronze object featuring stylised Mongol writing.

Using the coordinates from the fishing vessel, Hayashida’s team found the wreck of a huge Mongol warship, which helped them discover the truth behind the greatest disaster in military history.

A scene depicting Khubilai Khan as he resolves
to conquer the Land of the Rising Sun.

When Hayashida saw the bronze seal in 1989, he knew that it was a very important artefact.

“It was a written (curved) specimen that was different from the other muted artefacts found at the excavation site,” he explained during a telephone conference from Japan recently.

“The bronze seal belonged to ‘a captain of a thousand soldiers’, and it proves that Kublai Khan’s fleet really was here and that their ships sank here in 1281.”

However, they still could not tell what kind of ship the seal came from until 2001, when they finally excavated some large-sized timbers that belonged to the ship.

Hayashida went to Takashima in 1989 to supervise the search and excavation of Mongol ships that may have sunk there. His hard work was rewarded when, in 1994, the excavation team found a large anchor belonging to one of the ships, which convinced them to concentrate their efforts in that particular area.

Then, in 2001, they had a breakthrough when they discovered a treasure trove of objects that belonged to Khubilai Khan’s fleet.

“We found large amounts of artefacts that might have belonged to the captain’s ship – anchors, bronze mirrors, bronze ornaments, Chinese ceramics and lacquer ware, ink stones and stone figurines. Most of them belonged to Khubilai Khan’s soldiers,” he said.

It is assumed that Khubilai Khan had first sent an envoy to the Shogun of Japan seeking a good relationship between Mongol and Japan. However, from his missive, the Shogun and his clans perceived Khan to be very envious of Japan, and refused to give an answer.

Things then came to a head when Khan’s second batch of envoys completely failed to forge a relationship between the two nations and were killed by the Shogun instead. As a result, Khan decided to send his army to attack Japan.

“Historically, we know that Khubilai Khan attacked Japan twice –once in 1274 when about 900 ships landed in northern Kyushu and the second attack in the same place in 1281.

“However, no evidence has been found about those attacks until now. The discovery at Takashima gave us some concrete archaeological evidence that proved that the ships of Kublai Khan’s fleet sank at Takashima in 1281.”

The theory is that a “kamikaze” (divine wind) destroyed the fleet and saved Japan from invasion. A less supernatural theory derived from the archaeological surveys at Takashima would be that Kublai Khan’s ships were relatively old river boats that were constructed poorly.

Also, iron nails with high sulphur content were used and thus not suitable for ocean voyages.”
According to Hayashida, the program on Discovery Channel will show Khubilai Khan’s attack based on the archaeological evidence taken from the bottom of the Takashima Sea.

“The programme does not attempt to overanalyse or exaggerate the history of what happened at Takashima.

“However, through it, viewers can learn how scholars and specialists deduce the historical incidents that happened at Takashima in 1281.”

Khubilai Khan: Fall of the Mongol Hordes premieres on Discovery Channel (Astro Channel 50) on Sept 11 at 9pm. The repeats are on Sept 12 (1pm), Sept 14 (7pm), Sept 15 (3am, 11am) and Sept 18 (9am).


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