The Arab treasure ship I saw in Singapore

This one sailed the Indian seas around 830 A.D. It was most probably made by the Laccadive islanders of South India. Commanded by an Arab master mariner, it was carrying a cargo of priceless goods from wealthy China to fabulously wealthy Iraq. It had sailed over 10,000 km from Basra to Canton and was heading back, now approaching Singapore (then called Temasek). A few weeks of sailing were all that was left. Then the captain would be home and dry. And very, very rich! “Why on earth did he choose to take a short diversion to the island of Belitung 600 km south-east of Singapore?”, I asked myself as I watched the National Geographic channel’s documentary a few months ago.

The wealth of Tang China -- gold bowls and saucers
The wealth of Tang China-gold bowls and saucers
Image credits: Hugh Mascarenhas: courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

 

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Tang gold drinking cup
Image source: Jacklee at Wikimedia Commons

“Was it the lure of even more wealth to be got by acquiring a few kilograms of the priceless Moluccan nutmeg and cloves? Had he not heard of the howling winds that roar down the thickly forested Indonesian hills and the horrendous storms they kick up overnight?” His ship and 60,000 pieces of the finest Chinese ceramics, stoneware, gold and silver vessels, silk, tea, ink, paper and more, went down in shallow water about 3 km from shore. Recently, it became known that the cargo of the ship had been found almost intact and was salvaged in 1998/ 99. The Singapore government had purchased the entire lot and put some of it on display. “This I have to see”,  I said and visited Singapore in December 2015. The display is set over two locations – The Asian Civilisations museum and the S.E.A aquarium at Sentosa. At the latter location, there is even a sound-and-light show of the actual shipwreck as it happened! But first, some background information:
In the ninth century A.D., Asia was dominated by two great empires – the Abbasid Caliphate with its capital at Baghdad and the Chinese Tang dynasty with its capital at Xian. From their respective ports of Basra and Canton (Guangzhou), luxury goods like exotic woods, coral, pearls, perfumes  and gold went eastward and Chinese goods as mentioned above, went westward. Most of them in Arab dhows.

green glazed stoneware from the Yue kilns , Zheijang

Green glazed stoneware from the Yue Kilns, Zheijang
Image credits: Hugh Mascarenhas: courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

ceramic bowls from the Changsha kilns , Hunan

Ceramic bowls from the Changsha kilns , Hunan
 Image source: Jacklee at Wikimedia Commons 

When I was a boy, my father, a naval officer on tour to the Laccadive & Minicoy islands, brought me a model country craft made by the islanders – entirely of wooden planks stitched together with coir rope and caulked with some tar-like substance. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the boat! I found the Arab treasure ship of Singapore to be similarly constructed. It is known that wealthy merchants of Oman and the middle east commissioned Indian shipbuilders to build their ocean-going vessels – often with special woods imported from  Africa and elsewhere.  The results of their handiwork (and the cargo it carried) can be seen in the pictures attached. This ship was about 60 feet long and probably carried about 50 tonnes of cargo. The entire crew lived (and sometimes died) on deck.

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The Maritime silk route
 Image source: www.nationalgeographic.com

The Maritime silk route, as it is sometimes called, commenced at Guangzhou at the mouth of the Pearl river. The ships sailed southwards, hugging the coast while going  through the treacherous South China sea, past the island of Hainan, down to the Central Vietnamese port of Qui Nhon 1500 kilometres away. Some trade took place here.

The next leg was 1700 kilometres long – again through the South China sea, past the Gulf of Thailand and down to Singapore. Exotic produce from the Malay peninsula and Sumatra was traded here.

The voyage then continued through the straits of Malacca & the Andaman sea to Galle in Sri Lanka nearly 2800 km to the west. Here the precious stones that Sri lanka is still famous for, were bought.

 

cobalt from Iran gave the blue colour to the ceramic dish -- probably from the Ding kilns , Hebei

Cobalt from Iran gave the blue colour to the ceramic dish- probably from the Ding kilns, Hebei
Image credits: Asian Civilisations museum

The next stops were the ports of Kerala in India – Quilon, Pattanam (near Kochi), Calicut & Kozhikode, 700 kilometres away. Pepper & other spices, calico, sandal-wood, beads made from semi-precious stones, and other produce, were collected here.

 

green splashed ceramics from the Gongxian kilns , Henan

Green splashed ceramics from the Gongxian kilns, Henan
Image credits: Hugh Mascarenhas: courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

 

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Square lobed gold dishes
 Image source: Jacklee at Wikimedia Commons 

The last leg involved sailing north-west through the Arabian sea (with sometimes a stop at Barygaza  (Bharuch) in Gujarat, up the Persian gulf, past Oman, to Basra on the Tigris-Euphrates delta. This last and longest leg was 3500 kilometres  and reportedly took 45 days  even when the ships were aided by the North-east monsoon winds.

The volume of goods transported through the Maritime silk route was huge in comparison to that carried by the overland silk route. This was increased several-fold during the reign of the Chinese Ming Dynasty ( 1368 -1644 A.D.). That would be the subject of another blog of mine. Stay posted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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H.J.M.

My name is Hugh Mascarenhas. I am a graduate mechanical engineer and a post-graduate in business management. Having worked in Industry for nearly 40 years, I retired in 2010 as chief operating officer of a group of companies and now live in Nasik, India. During the course of my work,​ and thereafter, I visited many countries, worldwide. While engaged in work related activities, I collected information on various aspects of each country I visited. My interests include history , archeology , travel , wildlife , philosophy , & geneology. You will find strands of these woven into the various blogs of my website www.wideworldexplorer.com. I would appreciate your comments on the blog posts or write to me directly at hjmascarenhas@gmail.com

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