The lost fleet of Kublai Khan

Mark Staniforth


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Mark Staniforth:
Basically, it runs that Kublai Khan was the first emperor of China in the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai was the grandson of Genghis Khan. He was a Mongol. They had invaded and taken over China and Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty in the 1200 AD period.
Subsequently, Kublai wanted to expand his empire, and there were several directions in which he could go. One was East towards Japan. And in fact he sent a fleet to Japan in 1274, and that was destroyed by the Kamikaze, or the 'divine wind', which blew up and sank all the ships.
Having been unsuccessful heading East, he decided to head South and so he went an invasion fleet to invade Vietnam. And at that stage, the people of Vietnam, the Dai Viet, really couldn't defeat the Mongol army in open combat. There was no way in which they could beat the Mongol army, its cavalry, etc.
So what they did was they basically retreated ahead of the invading Mongol forces. The capital, which at that stage was known as Thang Long but is now known as Hanoi, was completely destroyed. And this was in 1287. The Mongols decided that they'd had enough. They were going home to China. They thought they'd won.
So they retreated down what at that stage was the main river to the open ocean, a river called the Bach Dang River. And at a point on the Bach Dang where it opens up into a series of channels that led out to the open sea, they were basically ambushed by a Vietnamese general called Tran Hung Dao. And Tran Hung Dao had set up a situation where he had put wooden stakes into the water, which at low tide became exposed and prevented the retreating Mongol fleet from getting down the channels into the open ocean.
They got caught up in the stakes, they were attacked with fireboats, and all of the dry land in the area was basically held by the Vietnamese army. And so the Mongols really couldn't get ashore, so they couldn't use their army in the way in which they would have liked to.
And it was a massive defeat. The Chinese records at the time suggest that there might have been as many as 500 vessels and 50,000 men, of whom the majority were killed. So it's hard to really know from the records because they're not hugely accurate, but there's a suggestion that 30,000 men were killed in the battle and 400 vessels were sunk and burned.
And so it's an enormous battlefield site. And there are remains from the battlefield site which have been found by the Vietnamese people since the 1950s.
Matt Smith:
Tran Hung Dao's tactic, that sounds brilliant for the time. How much of this was known from the records?
Mark Staniforth:
There is a historical record of this. There is some descriptions which are probably not contemporary, but it was such a massive battle loss that there have to be records. So there is some historical record. The problem with the records is that they're not accepted as fully accurate. It's hard to know how many vessels, for example, the Mongol fleet had. It's hard to know exactly how many men Mongols brought with them. It's hard to know how many men Tran Hung Dao had in his army.
But there must have been a massive battle with literally hundreds of vessels and tens of thousands of men. How many tens of thousands, how many hundreds of vessels, we really don't know. But there is records in the Chinese archives and each dynasty of the Chinese emperors has a record of its history. And so they record that they were soundly defeated in 1288 by the Vietnamese. So we have that kind of record.
We have some information about individuals who were involved: on the Chinese side, the general who was a man called Omar; on the Dai Viet side, the general was Tran Hung Dao.
And Tran Hung Dao, over recent times, since the big battle, has really become a kind of minor deity in Vietnam. The Vietnamese have a form of ancestor worship in which they revere their own family ancestors, but they also revere certain key historical figures in the Dai Viet past. And Tran Hung Dao is one of those. And he's a very, very important person in Vietnamese history because the Vietnamese think of this as one of the turning points of world history.
They think that they saved the rest of the world basically from a massive Mongol invasion which, if it had succeeded, would simply have rolled over the rest of Asia and potentially gone further than that. And so they see their place in history as central to defeating Kublai Khan's imperial ambitions. And so that, they see, is quite important.
Matt Smith:
Tell me a bit about the site. You said it was discovered in the 1950s.
Mark Staniforth:
OK. The Vietnamese have been digging this site up since the 1950s. And what they found was these stakes. They were digging things like levy banks because this whole area, which was in the 13th century a marine estuary, is now very largely rice paddy fields. So it's all fresh water.
And what they've done to do that is they've built a whole lot of levy banks around the areas up to five meters high. And to do that, of course you've got to dig up a certain amount of earth to create the bank. And when they were digging the earth, what they did was they started finding these wooden stakes.
The problems that they've had with the wooden stakes has been that they really didn't know whether this was the remnants of the 1288 battlefield or the remnants of a battlefield in the 900s.  The Dai Viet had actually used this very clever technique of stakes back in 938, and they had defeated the Song Chinese who had invaded Vietnam at that time using exactly the same technique. So the Chinese hadn't learned despite being defeated 300 years before. They hadn't learned from that.
They had found these stakes, but they didn't know whether they were from 900 or whether they were from 1200. So one of the things that we've been doing with the project is getting some radiocarbon dates done and date cluster in the 1200-type period so they're perfect for the battle that we want to look at.
So from the 1950s, they've been finding these stakes in a number of locations in the Bach Dang area. The Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi did some excavations back in the 1980s and the leader of this particular project, Dr. Lien, has been working on that project since the 1980s. And she's a great person to work with, and we've been working with her for the last couple of years now.
What we're trying to do is we're trying to establish the extent of the stake field, because the extent of the stake field is going to tell us basically where the battle took place. And the other thing that we're looking for is that when the vessels were destroyed, damaged, burned, etcetera, some remnants of those vessels will survive because this is a very wet and muddy area.
Matt Smith:
Plus out of 500-odd ships, you'd hope that there would be some...
Mark Staniforth:
We would hope that there would be some of the vessels. Perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds, but there should be a whole lot of Mongol ships there.
And so what we're looking for is evidence of the ships, because vessels from China at 13th century is not an area which we know very much about. There aren't very many examples of 13th-century Chinese ships that have been excavated anywhere in the world. So we're interested both in the battlefield but also interested in East Asian ship-building of that sort of 13th century period.
Matt Smith:
OK. So I suppose the first place that you'd start there if you were looking for something like that is you'd say, what were the ships made from? Or what were they likely to be made from? And you can maybe extrapolate that if they were worried about being sunk by these stakes, what were the stakes made from that could damage ships like that? Is that reasonable?
Mark Staniforth:
That's how we're working. We're trying to find out where the stakes are and we're trying to find out how they were made.
So there's a couple of options with the stakes. One is that you could hammer them into the seabed and the other is you could basically try and wind them into the seabed.
And we really don't know which method was used. We have learned from recent excavations that once the stake was in place, that was the point at which they probably sharpened up the point that was stuck up. And the reason that we know that is that there are wood shavings gathered around the base of many of the stakes that we'd been excavating in the last couple of years. And so that's telling is that they've been shaving the wood to sharpen up the points.
So that's something we've learned from this process. And what we're hoping is that eventually we're going to find one or more of these ships.
The last trip that we made last year, we've also been doing a lot of kind of landscape archaeology to work out where the channels were, where the dry land was, and therefore where the ships are likely to be. And we've also been talking to the local people about oral histories, and in particular, what kinds of myths, legends, stories come down from that kind of period.
One of the issues is that nobody lived in this particular area in the 1288 battlefield period. Settlement in that area didn't happen for probably another 200 years. So nobody who lives there now is descended from people who lived there at the time of the battle.
Nevertheless, many of the people who live there now are descended from seven families who first moved to the area in around the 1400s. Now that's only 200 years after the battle, and there's a very good chance that people knew about the battle and saw evidence of the battle where they were living.
And in fact, that's what we're finding is that people are starting to tell us that they have stakes in their fields or they have fields in their duck ponds. And in the last trip that we made in April of last year, we started to hear stories about something that they call 'the shipwreck place'. And that gives us evidence that when they first moved to the area in the 1400s, somebody saw at least one shipwreck.
And we're not entirely sure exactly where that is. It's a fairly large area. But it's a lot better than we had, say, two or three years ago when the battlefield was an area of approximately five-by-three kilometers. Vast. Now we're down to an area where we suspect there is at least one Mongol shipwreck, and that area is probably no more than 500 meters by 300 meters. And that's a much better situation to be in.
Matt Smith:
Do you know what these Mongol ships would've been made of?
Mark Staniforth:
They are, of course, all wood. They do have iron nails because the Chinese had been using iron nails from about the 10th century. We know a little bit about the kind of size the vessels that was possible for them. They built quite large vessels. We know a little bit about the kinds of timbers that were being used at the time.
What we also know, though, is that there wasn't a lot of metal in them. So if we were looking for a 19th century European British ship, we'd be looking for things like metal anchors or metal chain or cannon or something like that. There's various geophysical ways of looking for metal in the environment.
Unfortunately, we think that the magnetic signature of these Chinese vessels is likely to be quite small. It's going to be difficult to find that using some of the geophysics methods. Ground-penetrating radar, for example, doesn't like water. And there's a lot of water in these rice paddy fields. So we're trying out ground-penetrating radar on our next trip, but we're not confident that it's going to provide us with the answers that we want.
So it's probably going to be a combination of some geophysical research, some paleo-landscape research to try and figure out where things are, a lot of talking to local people to see what they've seen and whether they can narrow it down.
And hopefully, eventually, we will find one of these things because, in the end, it's a very interesting project. National Geographic, for example, have funded us in the past, and so it's of wide interest. And if we find one of these things, it will be of enormous public and widespread archaeological interest.
Matt Smith:
It's unlikely that any of the ship itself has been preserved?
Mark Staniforth:
Oh, I think, because of the environment, it's very likely that large amounts of the ships have survived. The thing is that the environment is basically very thick mud. Two meters of mud. And in terms of long-term preservation, wet mud is one of the best things in the world. You only have to look at things like the bog bodies that they have pulled out in Europe, all sorts of other things. Shipwrecks that have been protected by mud have been excavated 3,000 years old.
So wet mud is perfect for preservation. All we've got to do is really locate it, because there's two meters of mud over this whole area and you can't just keep digging holes in the vague hope that you're going to strike the right place. You've got to have some indication that you're in the right place before you start digging vast holes. So we're working towards that stage.
Matt Smith:
Would these ships have had any cargo on them? What about the spoils of war?
Mark Staniforth:
Possibly. More likely that that has been salvaged, if at all possible. The Chinese would've salvaged material at the time. The Vietnamese certainly would've salvaged material, and anything you need from vaguely shallow water would've been salvaged.
What we're hoping is that there will be a lot of material associated with the men because we're quite interested in the Mongol army. Again, if the preservation conditions are right, we could find armor, weapons. We could also find personal belongings. We could find the whole lot of material associated with keeping them fed and watered, so large ceramic pots, for example.
And in a number of places, we're already turning up quite a lot of some broken ceramic. And luckily, that broken ceramic is associated with around the 12th century period, not, say, the 14th century period when we know there's settlement there. So we're seeing Vietnamese ceramic at the moment.
We haven't yet found any Chinese, genuinely Chinese ceramic, so it's hard to say that we're getting closer to the wrecks by that means. But again, once we find any of the shipwrecks, we would expect to find considerable quantities of ceramic because they used it widely.
Matt Smith:
As a bit of a postscript, what happened after the defeat of Kublai Khan's fleet?
Mark Staniforth:
Basically, the few surviving Chinese who got away went back to China and Kublai decided that he wasn't going to try again.
The Vietnamese rewarded Tran Hung Dao. He became a very important person within Vietnamese society. He was actually the cousin of the Vietnamese king at the time, so he became very important.
We would imagine that, given there's not particularly deep water in the area, the Vietnamese would've salvaged what they could. They may well have burned quite a lot as well, deliberately burned it, but they certainly would've salvaged as much as they could actually reach.
Nevertheless, given that they've lost hundreds of vessels and thousands of men, you would expect to find a lot of that still remaining. And I think, within a fairly short period of time, most people would've left that area because it wasn't an easy area in which to remain. It was a series of very small islands among basically a marine estuary. It would've been a real lack of fresh water and it would've been generally a difficult area to live.
So, really, nobody lives there and nobody salvages for a good couple of hundred years. And then after that, certainly in recent times, the land surface has been raised by the rice-growing process and the mud now is much thicker than it would've been even, say, a hundred years ago. So it's just getting further and further into the mud effectively as the mud level rises. It's very well-protected.
Matt Smith:
That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at Dr. Mark Staniforth, thank you for your time.
Mark Staniforth:
A pleasure.