Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the Japanese and the Chinese had established trade networks with Indian and Arab connections.From as early as the 13th century the Chinese had been a huge consumer of not only spices, but consumer goods such as aromatic resins, sandalwood, camphor, ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoise shell, black coral and pearls. These were traded for silk, iron products and ceramics. Even before the arrival of the Europeans well established entrepots had been established at Malacca and in various places along the East coast of Sumatra. Every north east monsoon fleets of Chinese junks would sail southwards tracking the coast of Vietnam, exchange their cargoes and sail back on the south east monsoon. At a single entrepot the Chinese could load a full and diverse cargo without the need to travel to different ports and the Indonesian ships then distributed the highly sought after Chinese products through the other entrepot ports in the archipelago.
|Malacca in the seventeenth century|
By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Portugese had well established entrepots in India, modern Malaysia (Malacca) and Macau but they were coming under increased pressure from the Dutch who, realising that there was force in numbers, had founded the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) which sent merchants in heavily armed ships manned with troops to non-Portugese entrepots such as Banten in Java and Johore on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. By 1619 the VOC had established its base in Batavia but the Chinese refused to trade with the VOC, distrusting these agressive newcomers. The little Chinese junks continued to ply their annual cycle of trade on the monsoons to the long established entrepots, forcing the VOC merchants to source their Chinese ceramics from elsewhere in south east Asia.
One such junk set sail from southern China in the first decade of the seventeenth century, carrying a cargo of Zhangzhou porcelain (or Swatow porcelain). It was not a fabulous cargo, the pottery made in that region was known to be work-a-day ware, quite coarse with kiln grit adhering to the bases of the bowls but the designs were free spirited and the characteristic blue and white of the pottery was popular with both European and Asian tastes.
|A Chinese junk in a storm|
It may be that this was the junk of one I Sin Ho. In July 1608 the VOC representative in Johore, Abraham van den Broecke wrote a report to Banten stating "...we have received the news that I Sin Ho, the Chinese merchant, while returning with his junk...was lost at sea somewhere about Cambodia (the generic term the Dutch used for Vietnam and Cambodia). For that reason the VOC loses 10 piculs of raw silk and other Chinese goods..."
In early 2001, Vietnamese authorities were alerted to stories of local fishermen from the village of Binh Thuanh, selling porcelain from a hitherto unknown shipwreck. The wreck had been discovered when the trawl net had become entangled in the wreckage. The fishermen were persuaded to reveal the location of the wreck and in September 2002 an official excavation led by an Australian maritime archaeologist, Dr. Michael Flecker, commenced.
Dr. Flecker found a typical Chinese junk in an amazing state of preservation. Still in situ looking exactly as they had when they had been packed in the boxes and baskets that had carried them were over 20,000 pieces of Zhangzhou pottery. Several pieces were identical to other china found in the wreck of a Dutch ship of the period so the dating to the early years of the seventeenth century is consistent with the story of I Sin Ho and his ill fated voyage.
And what is my personal connection to this story? Well I am the owner of several pieces of the Binh Thuan pottery. In 2004 Christies auctioned some 900 pieces, raising over $2million. Nothing like it had ever been seen in Melbourne before and the interest was extraordinary. I brought my 5 bowls and 3 little jarlets home and laid them on the dining room table. The pottery is rough, the imprints of the makers fingers can be seen on the bowls and the kiln grit still adheres to their bases but for several days I just marvelled at these simple pieces of pottery that had been loaded on to a ship, maybe in Canton somewhere around 1608 and then disappeared for nearly five hundred years. It was almost as if I had bought them straight from the hand of the potter.
(A full account of the excavation of the Binh Thuan wreck by Dr. Flecker can be found here.)