KUALA LUMPUR: Seafarers from all over the world have sailed through the waters of Malay archipelago for centuries.
Some of their vessels succumbed to inclement weather, leaks or attack and ended at the bottom of the sea.
Many came from China, the Middle East, as well as within the Malay archipelago.
“The ship wrecks are like time capsules, each with their own tales to tell,” National Museum director-general Datuk Ibrahim Ismail told Bernama after holding a news conference on the exhibition entitled ‘The Miracle of Shipwreck Treasures,’ at the National Museum here recently.
Ibrahim noted that the emergence of Melaka as a trading hub in the 15th and 16th centuries that attracted merchants from around the world.
“No surprise that some of the thousands of ships that crossed the seas to Melaka had sunk before reaching their destination. That is why the nation’s waters are rich with the treasures from the ship wrecks,” he said.
He added that efforts to search and recover ship wrecks in Malaysian territorial waters have been underway since the 1980s.
The discovery of the sunken wreck of Risdam by a Singapore citizen on April 24, 1984 off the coast of Mersing in Johor ignited interest in ship wrecks around the country.
Risdam is believed to have sunk on Jan 1, 1727.
The Dutch East Indies (VOC) vessel was 46 metres long, 15 metres wide, and 12 metres high.
Further, he said, the maritime archaeological work was carried out by the Johor museum authorities assisted by divers from the navy and the National Museum.
Among the items recovered were tin ingots, ivory, timber, and urns.
Another sunken ship, Diana, was discovered on Dec 21, 1993 by members of the Malaysian Historical Salvors (MHS) at the Melaka Straits.
The government outsourced Diana’s salvage operations to MHS.
“Most of the artifacts recovered from the wrecks were ceramics, some 11 tonnes of them that included plates, bowls, and tea sets. Some 24,000 white and blue China porcelain items were also recovered,” he said.
Ibrahim indicated other items recovered from the wreck were herbs, such as green tea, ginseng, ginger, and rhubarb, as well as benzoin and glass beads.
The Malaysian Museum embarked on recovering ship wrecks in 1995 when its salvage team began to retrieve items from the sunken Dutch warship Nassau.
“Nassau sank some 5 kilometres off the Port Dickson coast, Negeri Sembilan. It was believed to have sunk on Aug 16 in the battle at Cape Rachado with Portuguese ships,” he said.
Cape Rachado is now known as Tanjung Tuan.
The salvage operation took place between August and December, 1995 with the assistance from Transea Sdn Bhd, Mensun Bound, and Oxford University.
He said equipment like ‘magnometer’ and ‘side scan sonar’ were used to detect some 5,000 artifacts from the vessel that included muskets, anchors, bullets and ceramics.
The same year, another Chinese merchant ship, Nanyang that was believed to have gone down in 1380, was discovered in the waters near Pulau Pemanggil, Mersing, Johor.
The wreck was found 54 metres under the sea.
“This ship exemplified a typical Chinese and Southeast Asia architecture and was 18 metres long and had a mast 5 metres high,” Ibrahim pointed out.
He said the vessel’s design gave some indication of the type of work ship builders were carrying out in Terengganu at the time.
However, research on the wreck has yet to be carried out.
“400 ceramic items had been retrieved so far. Among the items recovered were pots, small bowls, earthen ware and huge urns with Sisatchanalai patterns,” he said.
Sisatchanalai is an area in Thailand which was a centre for ceramics production in the 14th century.
Royal barge from China
Another shipwreck found in 1995 was the Royal Nanhai.
Believed to be a royal barge from China that sunk in 1460.
The Royal Nanhai was found in international waters some 40 nautical miles from the Peninsula’s east coast and 46 metres under the sea.
The move to salvage items from the 28 metre-long wreck began in May 1998.
The barge was carrying a special consignment of five blue and white ceramic bowls from China.
“The bowls were found in a secret compartment on the barge. They were believed to be from the reign of Jingtaij Tienshun between 1450 and 1464,” he explained.
Ibrahim said black-tinted lacquer boxes, ivory sword handles, and a minister’s stamp made of bronze with an elephant-shaped handle were among the items recovered.
Another barge, Xuande, found in 1996 some 60 nautical miles from the Terengganu coast was believed to be carrying out a special task for China’s Emperor before it went down.
“Six porcelain items recovered from the sunken barge were with markings of Emperor Xuande, who ruled from 1425 to 1436. Also found were porcelain items believed to be made in the 16th century,” he said.
Chinese wrecks galore
In the same salvage operation, Portuguese cannons made from bronze, 170 blue-white China porcelain pieces, and 130 under-glazed ceramics from Sisatchanalai and Sukhothai were recovered.
He said the ship was believed to have sunk in 1540 and, based on its framework, made from soft timber.
Another sunken Chinese barge ‘Longquan’ was found in 1996, thought to have gone down in 1400.
It was found 63 metres under the sea and 23 nautical miles from the Terengganu coast.
“The vessel was believed to be from the Ming Dynasty era between 1368 and 1644. With a size of 30 metres long, the barge was the biggest shipwreck found in South China Sea,” said Ibrahim.
Ibrahim added that about 40 per cent of the ceramics found in the sunken vessel were believed to have come from China, another 20 per cent from Sisatchanalai and an additional 20 per cent from Sukhothai.
“The discovery of ceramics in the ship wrecks has an important historical relevance. Archaeologists had earlier thought that Sukhotai was only exporting ceramics on a small scale, as compared to Sisatchanalai. But it turned out that Sukhotai was a major exporter of ceramics in Southeast Asia at that time,” Ibrahim stated. — Bernama