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Ming shards found in Malacca

As a hobby, I am currently researching into the history of Malacca and the commerce of the town during ancient and colonial times. I have found that one of the main products of trade was porcelain or Chinaware, which the Europeans of those times had taken a fascination to. The narrow Straits of Malacca must have at one time be crowded with ships of many nationalities carrying this delicate works of art to be transported from China to Europe. Through the many years of using the Straits as a trade route, there must also have been many occasions when these trading ships would have encountered problems from the elements or otherwise and as a result sank with all their precious cargo.

I am of the opinion that after hundreds of years, some of the pieces of the porcelain from the cargo of those ships that sank near Malacca can now be found washed ashore. Evidence of my suspicions can even now be found littered on parts of the rocky shores of the coast at Malacca.

I have taken samples of the pieces of porcelain, which are all blue and white, but I was recently fortunate to find a piece with a mark on it. With this piece, I am hoping to be able identify the period of the porcelain and therefore make a guess on the year when the sunken treasure goes back to. However, I am not able to identify the mark on it and I am hoping that you will be able to help me out on this.



Thank you very much for your opinion of the shards. I'm really very excited with the information you have provided and the period you gave for the shards is much older then what I would have guessed.

Your description of the "Feng birds" as being a rather dark blue on even darker outlines is most accurate and consistent with almost all the shards I found there. However, I did find some shards where the design does not seem to have the darker outlines - none that I can see, anyway.

All the shards I found are of the same 'blue and whites' and are mostly made up of small broken pieces. However, the scan of the shard with the particular 'Fuku' Mark that was forwarded to you was the biggest piece I had the good fortune to find - so far.

The shards are found in abundance concentrated at one particular area on the rocky shore. I have checked along the surrounding shores but I could hardly find any shards. In the future, I also plan to visit the surrounding islands to see if I can find any more shards there. I think this would give me a rough estimate of the distance of the wrecks from the shore.

If your estimate of the period circa 1540 is accurate, I think the shards may not necessarily be only from a wreck of a Chinese Junk, maybe also European - Portuguese or Dutch.

In the 16th century, Portuguese ships already held mastery of the seas. They arrived here to conquer and ousted the Sultan of Malacca in 1511. My research also shows that as early as in 1514 the Portuguese had began to carry back Ming blue and white porcelains, which was received with surprise and delight by European kings and nobles, who thought they had been brought "The products of a heavenly host/ Indeed the fruits of a paradise sublime." Art historian Hugh Honour writes "all but the poorest monarchs could boast a few choice specimens in their treasuries." In the late 16th century, Holland's sea power began to grow, and it was the Dutch too who brought porcelain onto the dining tables of rich merchants and even the middle classes.

The Dutch put their feared cannons to good use and in 1604 the Portuguese merchantman Santa Catharina, fully loaded with Eastern goods including at least 100,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain, was captured in Asian waters by a Dutch ship and brought back to Holland, where the cargo was publicly auctioned in Amsterdam. According to research by mainland Chinese scholar Shen Fuwei, after 1607 the Dutch continued to frequently attack Chinese sailing ships and seized their cargoes. Much Chinese porcelain was obtained "free of charge" in this way and I guess the Chinese would have also lost some ships in this similar way.

The Dutch called the blue and white porcelain which was imported in large quantities, "kraakporselein" or "carrack ware." A "carrack" was the type of merchant vessel of the captured Portuguese ship. A leading European authority on export porcelain, Dr. C.J.A. Jorg, Head of Collections at the Groningen Museum in Holland wrote that the name kraakporselein was applied to mold-made porcelain produced especially for export at Jingde-zhen in Jiangxi Province during the Ming dynasty. The ware had a very thin body and was mostly blue and whites, and much of it was decorated around the edges with panels depicting Buddhist and Taoist symbols, and in the center with landscape scenes or animals. This blue and white export porcelain of the Wanli reign (1573-1619) thus became the archetype of Chinese porcelain in the eyes of Europeans and I'm guessing that the shards I found (with the flying "Feng birds") are of this same kind.

I've still been visiting the same site, collecting some more shards.

I have attached herewith some more scans of some other shards for you to have a look at.

In your last mail, you also mentioned that the shards would rather belong to a group of 'tribute exchange wares'. This really caught my interest and got me thinking.

Malacca was first founded by a Javanese prince named Parameswara and became the first Sultan in about 1400. Due to its strategic location at the straits, it soon grew from a small fishing village to a large entrepot. This caught the attention of Siam and forced the Sultan to pay tributes.

In 1398 Prince of Yan (later assuming the reign title of Yung-lo), son of the Ming founder had inherited the imperial throne and had launched eunuch-led voyages to ensure that the power of the Ming court was also spread beyond China's maritime borders and to impose a pax Ming over as great an area of the world as possible. The first of these spectacular maritime voyages began in the summer of 1405. At least 60 large vessels (some of which were over 120m long) and 255 smaller craft, manned with a force of over 27,000 men, set sail under the command of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He.

With the arrival of Admiral Zheng He at Malacca, the Sultan saw this as an opportunity to be allies and gain the protection of the Mings to stop the harassment of Siam. It would have probably been beneficial to both parties as the Ming admirals saw it as a way to exercise control over what they recognised as a strategic waterway - the Straits of Malacca. It was thus that Malacca was to play a major part in China's maritime voyages and diplomacy causing Malacca to prosper and grow in power. At the height of the Malacca Sultanate rule, Malacca's territories covered much of Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and surrounding islands.

Envoys were exchanged and the Sultan himself including his family members and attendants (totaling 540 persons) travelled to China on the returning ships of Zheng He's third expedition in 1411. We do not know what he took to China as presents for the Ming emperor, but in exchange he was given 2,600 strings of copper cash, huge amounts of paper money, a gold and jade belt, silk gowns, thousands of bolts of silk, as well as gold and silver bullion. Unfortunately, there is no mention of any Chinese porcelain.

These eunuch-led voyages gave rise to the "age of commerce" which characterised South-East Asia from the 15th to the 17th centuries, through the creation of new maritime linkages, the introduction of exotic goods such as porcelain and silks into South-East Asian markets, the extension of these markets and the wider introduction of Chinese bronze coins as a widely-accepted medium of exchange throughout the archipelago.

When the emperor (Yung-lo) died, many of the imperatives which had given rise to the long-distance ocean voyages had disappeared. As suddenly as the voyages began, they ceased, with the Chinese state losing interest in the maritime realm and state expenditure being directed to other spheres causing China to adopted a close-door policy. However, that is not to say that diplomatic contacts between Malacca and the Ming court ended. Prior to the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511, envoys from Malacca continued to travel to China, but it appears that many of the visits were as much trade missions as diplomatic embassies.

The officially-sponsored voyages having ended, maritime trade and transport between China and South-East Asia was gradually taken over by private Chinese traders, despite the prohibitions which existed at various times.

Therefore, since official voyages from China to Malacca (including a cargo that probably contained tribute exchange wares) ended before 1540s and the adoption of China's close-door policy, the shards I found may be from trade vessels bringing the porcelain pieces to Malacca waters for trade rather then 'tribute exchange wares'.

What do you think?


    Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for your many and well researched email which - if you don't mind - I will publish "as is" and, in time add some of our further thoughts to.

    Regarding the date of your shards I previously indicated 1540s a a likely date for the ones you first sent.

    Considering your new scans I feel I now have to say thet tehse shards are not likely to have come from one single shipload any way we look at it.

    Most of them are from the Mid Ming period and would fit in nicely in the late 15th - early 16th century period but at least two of the above would have to be placed in the early QIng dynasty i.e. around 1700 and at least one would merit a Chenghua date i.e. late 15th century.

    Whether these are "tribute exchange pieces" or "trade porcelain", the difference is as I see it maybe mostly a matter of definition :-) We'll get back to this later.

    I am eagerly awaiting your further reasearc and most of all a lot of shards from which I might be able to sort out a few groups which possibly could indicate the precense of several shipwrecks - or - a mid Ming city dump :-).

    Sincerely, Jan-Erik Nilsson