Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet

The great and fierce Kublai Khan was a Mongol prince who built the largest empire in the world. He was a hero to some but for others he was barbaric. As the grand-son of Genghis Khan, he proved his power and legitimacy as a Mongol ruler during his victory over the Song emperors who ruled China. After his victory and the terrible drowning of the last child-prince of the Song, the Mongol Empire stretched over Asia, Russia and even dreamed of taking rein of power in Europe. Kublai Khan’s conquest surpassed the Great Wall of China, built to obstruct the power of the Mongols. His battles caused more casualties than some of the fiercest European wars.

The strength of the Mongol empire was its mythical horses but the dream of expansion was destroyed in a legendary storm known as “Kamikaze” causing the greatest naval disaster in history.

In 1274, after conquering Korea, Kublai Khan sent a fleet of 900 ships to conquer Japan. That impressive fleet manned by 15,000 Chinese and Mongolian soldiers and 8,000 Korean warriors, engaged in a difficult war on the island of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago. However, the Mongols were humiliated by defeat from a small troop of courageous samurai at the battle of Hakata Bay.

The rage of the Mongol prince was terrible. Kublai Khan did not give up. While the Japanese built in a desperate effort walls along the coast to defend their country against the next attack of the Mongols, a second army consisting of 140,000 soldiers on 4,400 ships, assaulted the Japanese in the spring of the year 1281. All the Japanese could do was to pray for their safety. A divine miracle was the only thing that could still save them. And a miracle did take place. According to Japanese legend, a terrible storm raged for two days. The typhoon known as “Kamikaze” meaning “divine wind,” devastated the Kyushu coast and destroyed most of the Mongol fleets in the Imari Bay, saving Japan from invasion.

This story of the “divine wind” indulges the imagination to doubt and admiration. As time passed by, the fable and the truth was lost. It was even forbidden to talk about it. The real story was forgotten, but legend survived.

But was this biggest naval disaster in history indeed a legend? Underwater archaeologists have proven the truth of the legend. Exciting artifacts and even several wrecks of the fleet of Kublai Khan were found at the Japanese coast.

Already in the 1920s, Japanese archaeologists discovered the remains of a defensive wall built around the ancient port of Hakata as a testimony to the invasion of 1281. Their search was part of a national plan to find and restore portions of the wall to reinforce the history of the miraculous rescue of Japan by the emperor and his divine ancestors who sent the “Kamikaze.” These attempts by Mongol occupancy represented milestones in the history of Japan and have given rise to expressions of national pride. Besides World War II, the Japanese have never seen such a threatening disaster such as the fleet of Kublai Khan in the last 1500 years. The name “Kamikaze” was hence also given to Japanese pilots of World War II who sacrificed themselves for their nation by charging their planes loaded with explosives at enemy ships.

But where is the fleet?

Professor Tarao Mozai of Tokyo University was one of the first to embark on a search for evidence of the naval invasion. During his first trip to Takashima in 1981, a fisherman showed him ceramic pots and other impressive objects found in Imari Bay. A particular object on the beach caught the attention of Mozai. It was a square piece of bronze with engravings in Chinese and Phagspa, the scripture used by the Mongols. The artifact was known to be an actual seal of a Mongol commander. This provided proof for Mozai that it was a relic belonging to the fleet of Kublai Khan. Research on the seabed has produced many artefacts since, including iron swords and explosive stone catapult balls, which were probably the first bomb in the world.

The discovery by Mozai paved the way for a new generation of Japanese archaeologists who continued the research in Imari Bay off the coast of Takashima. Among them was Kenzo Hayashida, Director of the Institute of Asian Research in underwater archaeology in Japan. He questioned the divine force that saved his country from Mongol invasion. “I hope we can scientifically explain what happened because I do not think it was a divine wind,” said the researcher in a documentary on the Discovery Channel. His research provided an initial idea of what actually happened.

Since 1991, Hayashida and his team surveyed the bottom of Imari Bay and excavated it in order to inventory the number of shipwrecks and artifacts left on the seabed. In 1994, Hayashida discovered three stone and wooden anchors in Kozaki Harbor, a small cove on the south coast of Takashima. Buried in the mud about 500 feet from shore, the anchor provided a tantalizing indication for the potential presence of a wreck. Hayashida assumed it was a vessel of Kublai Khan and began excavations. In October 1994, after years of investigation and fieldwork, the water of Imari Bay finally yielded the discovery of the remains of a ship. The main part of the wreck was located 45 feet in water, buried deep in the thick and viscous mud. Excavations revealed different fragments of the ship and artifacts, including ceramic objects, weapons, supplies and personal belongings of the crew. Dispersed into many fragments by the storms, the ship contained many artifacts that have been remarkably well preserved over the centuries. They proved that the fleet of Kublai Khan was probably made in a hurry and the quality of the boat’s construction was poor. Ordered by Khan to build 4,400 ships, the warriors apparently constructed the boats with materials that were already deteriorated. Therefore, they fell easy victims to the “divine wind.”

The most impressive discovery was a skeleton and armor belonging to a young man, whose tragic fate was sealed the night of the disaster in the dark waters of Imari Bay. How many other people shared the same terror during the terrible catastrophe…thousands? Much remains to be discovered.

In a further excavation campaign in October 2011, archaeologists found several fragments of another shipwreck. It was lying relatively intact at 20-25 meters deep and about 20 meters long. With a wide layer of sand that covered the ship, much of the hull remained virtually intact. The research team, led by Professor Yoshifumi Ikeda, a specialist in archaeology at the University of Ryukyu, is convinced that the ship belonged to the army of Kublai Khan.

“This discovery is of major importance for our research. We plan to extend our searches to find other information that might help us to reconstruct the entire ship,” said Ikeda during a press conference. During underwater excavations, researchers identified a portion of “keel about 12 meters long and 50 cm wide, with pairs of frame 1 to 6 meters long, still clinging to its sides.” According to Ikeda this section will help specialists identify all the characteristics of the ship and enable them to recreate the lost ship of the fleet of the Mongol emperor.

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

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