The lost fleet of Khubilai Khan

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. James Delgado from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Delgado is giving a lecture at HMNS on Tuesday, April 21 at 6:30 p. m. Dr. Delgado will be discussing Khubilai Khan’s failed naval attacks on Japan in the thirteenth century; he was part of the expedition that uncovered part of Khubilai Khan’s lost fleet in 2001.

2a69e61

When people hear the words “Mongol invasion,” they probably think of fast riders on horseback.  They most likely do not think of warriors on the decks of ships.  In 1274 and in 1281, however, Khubilai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongols and conqueror of the Song Dynasty in China, sent invading fleets against Japan.  His troops, consisting of Mongols, Korean vassals and conquered Chinese were defeated, according to legend, by a divine wind sent by the gods in answer to Japanese prayers for victory.  The Japanese term for those divine winds, “kamikaze,” has come down through history as a potent phrase more famous for its use in World War II, when pilots crashed their planes into the sides and decks of enemy ships.  Many people do not remember the legendary events of several hundred years ago, when Mongol invaders twice tried, and failed, to add Japan to the globe spanning empire started by Genghis Khan, Khubilai’s grandfather.

176391

Archaeologists seeking traces of Khubilai’s invasion were finally successful in the 1980s when evidence of the ships and the battles fought around them surfaced from Imari Bay, off the southern coast of Kyushu

I was fortunate to join a team of Japanese archaeologists in 2001 when they found and began to excavate the remains of the Khan’s lost fleet.  What they found and what I had the opportunity to dive on was amazing – scattered timbers, swords, armor, ceramic pots used to store food and water, and amazing technological marvels in the form of clay bombs, filled with gunpowder and metal shrapnel that the Mongols hurtled at the Japanese from ship-mounted catapults.  These bombs, the earliest explosive devices ever found and used in naval warfare, are a reminder that “modern” technology dates back centuries and that China, as one of the oldest civilizations on earth, was an early innovator and inventor of many things that we still use today such as gunpowder and paper.

In my presentation on Tuesday night, I am going to share images and impressions of the invasions of Japan by the Mongols, and show you what was found underwater and what we’ve learned from the excavations including the incredible work done by Texas A&M nautical archaeology graduate student Randall Sasaki.

Join us at HMNS Tuesday night as Dr. Delgado presents the story of Khubilai Khan and the findings from the Japenese archaeological team that uncovered the lost fleet.

A Tale of Two Rulers

This is a story of two powerful rulers. They stand apart from most other rulers because of their achievements; they differ from each other for many reasons. One ruler was much respected, the other was feared. Archaeologists know of the whereabouts of one ruler’s tomb, although they have not excavated it. The location of the other ruler’s tomb is unknown, but that could change. This rather enigmatic introductory paragraph refers to Genghis Khan and Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor.

Genghis Khan ruled over the world’s largest contiguous empire about 800 years ago. (The term “contiguous” is important here; as the British ruled over more territory during the heyday of their empire. However, those territories were dispersed across the globe).

Genghis Khan, or Temuchin (the spelling varies) as he was first called, had a very eventful childhood. Born in 1165 AD, he was betrothed at a very early age. His father was poisoned by the Tartars and his bride was abducted. Genghis was able to regain his wife with the support of other steppe tribes. Temuchin officially became Genghis Khan in 1206. It is thought that this title means “Oceanic ruler,” or “Firm, Resolute Ruler.”

Mongolian
Creative Commons License photo credit: asobitsuchiya

By that fateful year of 1206, Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia into one tribe. The stage was set for him to embark on one of history’s most astonishing campaigns of conquest. Historians suggest that there may have been several reasons why Genghis Khan went down this road: a quest for treasure, seeking revenge for past offenses, even megalomania. His conquests would take him into China and Tibet, as well as farther west into the Khwarazm empire which ruled over most of what is now called Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In 1226, during a campaign against the Xi Xia in northern China, Genghis Khan fell from his horse. He died from his injuries in 1227 and was buried in a secret location. Numerous scientific expeditions have been mounted to try to locate his tomb. Currently yet another attempt is being mounted to find Genghis Khan’s last resting place.

The Mongol Empire continued after Genghis’ passing and his descendants continued to expand it. By the late 13th century, it reached from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. By that stage, the empire was divided into four nearly autonomous areas called khanates: China, central Asia, Persia, and Russia.

In 1294, after the death of Kublai Khan, the empire broke apart. There was a brief resurgence in the late 14th century when Timur (the Lame), who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan, conquered Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and parts of Russia. On the way to attack China, however, Timur died, and the Mongol era was finished.

Pre-dating Genghis Khan by fourteen centuries, an individual by the name of Qin Shi Huang, rose to prominence in what is now China. In 246 BC, when he appeared in the scene, China was going through what historians call its “Warring States” period. In about twenty years, Qin Shi Huang managed to unify the country under one ruler. Qin Shi Huang became China’s First Emperor.  The old feudal system was replaced with a central government. China’s writing and currency was standardized. Commerce benefited from a vast new network of roads and canals. Last but not least, gigantic construction works got started during this emperor’s reign; among them the Great Wall (which would be extended many times in later years) and the Emperor’s mausoleum.

Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

The mausoleum complex was – and still is – huge, covering approximately four square miles near the modern city of Xi’an. While the tomb itself is not excavated yet, the accompanying army of terracotta soldiers was found and partially excavated.

Both men have left lasting legacies. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia today. Moreover, it is said that about 16 million men today can retrace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. This has led to some people getting their 15 minutes of fame, occasionally incorrectly. China looks back at Qin Shi Huang as its founding father. Many aspects of modern Chinese culture can be retraced to this time period, more than 2200 years ago.

But there is more.

Aside from both rulers featuring in Hollywood made movies – one more recent than the other – both Genghis Khan and the First Emperor are soon taking up residence at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Come see for yourself what made these two individuals so special.