Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet

The great and formidable Kublai Khan was a Mongol prince who constructed the world’s largest empire. He was hailed as a hero by some but considered barbaric by others. As the grandson of Genghis Khan, he established his power and legitimacy as a Mongol ruler through his triumph over the Song emperors of China. Following his victory and the tragic drowning of the last Song child-prince, the Mongol Empire expanded across Asia, Russia, and even aspired to gain power in Europe. Kublai Khan’s conquests surpassed the Great Wall of China, which had been constructed to impede the Mongols’ influence. His battles resulted in higher casualties than some of the most ferocious conflicts in Europe.

The key to the strength of the Mongol empire lay in their legendary horses, but their ambitions of expansion were shattered by a fabled storm known as the “Kamikaze,” which caused the most significant naval catastrophe in history.

In 1274, after conquering Korea, Kublai Khan dispatched a fleet of 900 ships carrying 15,000 Chinese and Mongolian soldiers, along with 8,000 Korean warriors, to invade Japan. This formidable fleet engaged in a fierce battle on the island of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago. Despite their numerical advantage, the Mongols suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a small group of courageous samurai in the Battle of Hakata Bay.

The Mongol prince was consumed by rage. However, Kublai Khan did not give up. While the Japanese desperately erected walls along the coast to defend against the next Mongol attack, a second army comprising 140,000 soldiers on 4,400 ships launched an assault on Japan in the spring of 1281. All the Japanese could do was pray for their safety. They believed that only a divine miracle could save them. And indeed, a miracle occurred. According to Japanese legend, a tremendous storm raged for two days. This typhoon, known as the “Kamikaze” or “divine wind,” devastated the Kyushu coast and destroyed a significant portion of the Mongol fleets in the Imari Bay, preventing the invasion of Japan.

The tale of the “divine wind” captivates the imagination, leaving room for both skepticism and admiration. Over time, the line between fable and truth became blurred. Talking about it was even forbidden. The real account of what happened was forgotten, but the legend endured.

Yet, was this legendary naval disaster truly a myth? Underwater archaeologists have uncovered evidence confirming the truth behind the legend. They have made exciting discoveries, including artifacts and several wrecks belonging to Kublai Khan’s fleet along the Japanese coast.

As early as the 1920s, Japanese archaeologists stumbled upon remnants of a defensive wall built around the ancient port of Hakata, serving as evidence of the 1281 invasion. This discovery was part of a national effort to locate and restore sections of the wall, reinforcing the historical account of Japan’s miraculous rescue by the emperor and his divine ancestors who sent the “Kamikaze.” These events, intertwined with Mongol occupation, hold significant importance in Japanese history and have instilled a sense of national pride. Apart from World War II, the Japanese had never encountered a disaster as menacing as the fleet of Kublai Khan in the preceding 1,500 years. Consequently, the term “Kamikaze” was later adopted for Japanese pilots during World War II, who willingly sacrificed themselves by crashing their explosives-laden planes into enemy ships.

But where is the fleet?

Professor Tarao Mozai from Tokyo University was among the first to initiate a search for evidence of the naval invasion. During his initial visit to Takashima in 1981, a fisherman presented him with ceramic pots and other remarkable objects found in Imari Bay. Among them was a square bronze piece adorned with engravings in Chinese and Phagspa, the script used by the Mongols. This artifact was identified as an authentic seal belonging to a Mongol commander, providing proof to Mozai that it belonged to Kublai Khan’s fleet. Subsequent underwater research yielded numerous artifacts, including iron swords and stone catapult balls, potentially the world’s earliest form of explosive.

Mozai’s discovery paved the way for a new generation of Japanese archaeologists, who continued the investigation in Imari Bay off the coast of Takashima. Kenzo Hayashida, the Director of the Institute of Asian Research in Underwater Archaeology in Japan, was among them. He questioned the notion of divine intervention in his country’s salvation from Mongol invasion. In a documentary on the Discovery Channel, Hayashida expressed his desire to scientifically explain what occurred, doubting the divine wind’s existence. His research provided initial insights into the actual events.

Since 1991, Hayashida and his team have conducted surveys and excavations in the depths of Imari Bay to document the number of shipwrecks and artifacts resting on the seabed. In 1994, Hayashida unearthed three stone and wooden anchors in Kozaki Harbor, a small cove on the south coast of Takashima. Buried in the mud approximately 500 feet from the shore, these anchors hinted at the presence of a wreck. Hayashida believed it to be a vessel from Kublai Khan’s fleet and began excavation efforts. Finally, in October 1994, after years of investigation and fieldwork, the waters of Imari Bay relinquished the remains of a ship. The primary portion of the wreck lay 45 feet underwater, buried deep within the thick, viscous mud. The excavation uncovered fragments of the ship, along with ceramic objects, weapons, supplies, and personal belongings of the crew. Despite being dispersed by storms, many artifacts had remarkably survived over the centuries, indicating that the fleet of Kublai Khan had been constructed hastily with subpar materials. The warriors, ordered by Khan to build 4,400 ships, seemingly utilized deteriorating materials, making them vulnerable to the divine wind.

The most striking find was the skeleton and armor of a young man, whose tragic fate was sealed on the night of the disaster in the dark waters of Imari Bay. How many others experienced the same terror during that dreadful catastrophe? Perhaps thousands. Much remains to be discovered.

During further excavation campaigns in October 2011, archaeologists discovered fragments of another shipwreck. This wreck was relatively intact, lying at a depth of 20-25 meters and measuring around 20 meters in length. The ship remained well-preserved beneath a thick layer of sand. Professor Yoshifumi Ikeda, an archaeology specialist at the University of Ryukyu, led the research team and believed that this ship belonged to Kublai Khan’s army.

“This discovery is of immense significance to our research. We plan to expand our search to uncover additional information that could aid us in reconstructing the entire ship,” said Ikeda during a press conference. The underwater excavations revealed a section of the keel measuring approximately 12 meters long and 50 cm wide, with pairs of frames ranging from 1 to 6 meters in length still attached to its sides. According to Ikeda, this segment will assist experts in identifying all the ship’s characteristics, enabling them to recreate the lost vessel of the Mongol emperor.

Research is ongoing, and more wrecks have been discovered. The site has now been designated as a National Heritage Site.

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