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26 Mar 2014

Shipwreck ceramics and the fall of Melaka

Recently-discovered shipwrecks are casting new light on Southeast Asian history

Summary of a talk given by Roxanna Brown, director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, to the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Branch, at Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur, on 21 July 2007. Due to the tragic demise of Dr Brown, this web version has been compiled from the presentation slides, from notes taken on the day, and from the text of an earlier lecture given at Hong Kong University on 16 June 2007. Some minor changes have been made to the sequence, and some notes added. This web version contains links to individual slides from the original presentation, which are in a single 2.5MB Acrobat file; readers may prefer to download the slides and scroll through them in parallel. If any errors or omissions are noticed, or additional information / references can be added, please e-mail

Shipwreck evidence suggests a major change in the pattern of Southeast Asian trade in the early 16th century. A likely cause is the fighting in Melaka in January 1512.

Shipwreck discoveries in Southeast Asia over the last few decades have also been shaping our understanding of earlier history. Between 1974 and 2007, over 150 ancient shipwreck sites were discovered in Southeast Asia [slide 2: map]. From so many sites, we have a huge amount of data, a treasure for historical studies. This is now generating some new perspectives on historical questions - sometimes definitive answers, and in other cases new possibilities to consider. I'd like to talk about six interesting examples:

1. what was the source of wealth to build Borobodur?
2. why the deva-raja cult at Angkor?
3. the Ming Gap and the golden age of Southeast Asian trade ceramics
4. the voyages of Admiral Zheng He and their impact on trade
5. Thai classic celadon and the 1431 attack on Angkor
6. the conch motif and the fall of Melaka

One can divide these shipwreck discoveries into three large groups. The earliest group, up to 1368 CE, carries only Chinese ceramics. The middle group, from about 1368-1580 CE, carries mixed cargoes of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. Later shipwrecks again carry only Chinese ceramics. After the Southeast Asian golden years, China regained its effective monopoly, at least for a while.

The shipwrecks tend to corroborate evidence from land sites, suggesting that the bulk trade in Chinese ceramics did not begin much before 800 CE. Probably it started around 800-850 CE. [slide 4: shipwreck examples 800-1367 CE].

All of the early ships are of timbers and types consistent with manufacture in Southeast Asia, for example in the kingdoms of the Malay/Indonesian archipelago - except for the Belitung ship, which was built in the Middle East, carried a full cargo from China, and is thought to have sailed soon after 826 CE, the date on one of the bowls from the mass-market part of the cargo.1 [slide 5: three Changsha ceramics from the Belitung cargo]

However, the Belitung ship is the only exception. Otherwise, again and again, we see the combination of bulk Chinese ceramics and a Southeast Asian ship. The recently excavated Cirebon ship is another Southeast Asian vessel. 2 [slide 6: Chinese ceramics from the Cirebon ship]

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the early shipping of Chinese ceramics was in Indonesian hands. This situation persisted for perhaps four hundred years, until the thirteenth century, when written records indicate that Chinese ships started to sail as far as India.

The shipwrecks collectively demonstrate the scale of Chinese ceramic shipments, and the wealth of the intercontinental maritime trade through Southeast Asia. Shipping can be a very lucrative business; it may have been the profits from Indonesian dominance of shipping that enabled the building of a massive monument such as Borobudur.

The sudden increase in wealth in Indonesia may have caused jitters in other parts of Southeast Asia. The beginning of the bulk trade, the building of Borobudur, and the founding of the Angkorian dynasty are all dated to the first half of the ninth century. [slide 7: the magnificent temple at Borobodur]. One can imagine that this may not be a coincidence. The Khmer empire was founded by Jayavarman II, who towards the end of his long reign established the deva-raja cult with himself as the god king. The purpose of this cult, according to the eleventh-century Sdok Kak Thom inscription, was 'so that the country of the Kambujas would no longer be dependent on Java'.

Historians have long argued over the meaning of this statement. There has been a consensus that the term 'Java' originally referred to the Malay world and not specifically or only to the island of Java. But no one had resolved the question of what dependence on Java could have meant. With the new evidence that 'Java' dominated shipping, one can speculate that the Khmers did not wish to be overwhelmed by the wealth and power of the Malay world, and so created their own dynasty, according to the same inscription, using Indian tantric concepts to counter the influence of the Sailendra dynasty in central Java.

This desire for independence may have been reflected in a drive for self-sufficiency. Glazed stoneware was produced in Cambodia from the 9th/10th centuries, using technology imported from China. [slide 8: Khmer ceramics]. Indonesia did not bother to produce ceramics, and imported the finished products. Cambodia did not try to compete in the international ceramic trade, but produced just enough for its own needs. By making their own ceramics, the Khmers would have avoided the need to depend on Malay shipping.

Several centuries of Chinese trade being handled by Indonesian shipping may explain many more events in Southeast Asia, but let's move onto the middle group of shipwrecks [slide 9: shipwreck examples 1368-1505 CE] and the golden age for Southeast Asian trade ceramics. Years ago we speculated that this golden age coincided with a shortage of Chinese trade ceramics, but the evidence from land archaeology was never enough to prove it. Maritime archaeology does provide the missing evidence - but with some surprising features.

The term 'Ming gap' has changed its meaning over the years. It was originally used by Tom Harrisson, referring specifically to the absence of Ming blue and white ceramics at the Sarawak river excavations. In the new definition, the term 'Ming gap' refers to:

1. a severe shortage of blue-and-white ceramics to Southeast Asia c.1352-1470
2. a drop in the Chinese percentage of the traded ceramics, from 100% earlier to around 50% c.1368-1424
3. a further drop in the Chinese percentage of the traded ceramics to less than 1% c.1425-1487

There are two wrecksites that, for the moment, represent the earliest Southeast Asian mixed cargoes. One of these sites, in the Gulf of Thailand, has coins from the reign of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, and earlier. Emperor Hongwu proclaimed a ban on private overseas trade at the beginning of his reign (1368-1398). The drop from 100% to 50% Chinese ceramics in shipwreck cargoes is probably a result of that ban.

The first surprise from shipwreck evidence is that the percentage of Chinese ceramics in Southeast Asian trade then dropped again, even more dramatically. This second drop in market share seems to have come after the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-1424). It was probably a reaction to the abrupt ending of the voyages by Admiral Zheng He in the so-called treasure ships following the death of the Emperor Yongle in 1424. Shipwreck evidence clearly suggests that when Chinese goods were in short supply, Southeast Asian manufacturers filled the void.

Zheng He's voyages started in 1405, but similar voyages had taken place from 1369. For example, in 1383, 'envoys were sent to confer upon the kings of the countries of Champa, Siam and Cambodia, 32 bolts each of patterned fine silks interwoven with gold thread and 19,000 pieces of porcelain'.3 Moreover, Zheng He was only one of thirteen named admirals during the reign of Emperor Yongli. The Zheng He voyages were stopped by Emperor Hongxi on the day of his accession in 1424, and at the time the halt probably seemed permanent; under his successor Emperor Xuande there was one more voyage, in 1431-33, but the ships were dismantled in 1435. It may have been due to the Zheng He voyages that celadon became fashionable throughout the region - and then the supply stopped.

A second surprise is that the first bulk shipments of blue-and-white left China much later than anyone ever expected - only in the reign of Emperor Hongzhi (1488-1505), which was already in the middle of the Ming dynasty. There are seventeen shipwrecks with ceramics from the early Ming dynasty, circa 1368-1470, and their Chinese cargoes are overwhelmingly celadon and other monochrome wares - no blue-and-white.

Let's look at examples of these shifts. The Song Doc wreck is dated to the late 14th century, the end of the reign of Emperor Hongwu, and is similar in date to the ship with the Hongwu coins. It contained early Ming celadon, along with ceramics from northern Thailand and Vietnam [slide 13: celadon from the Song Doc wreck]. The 'Turiang' ship4, which sailed during the years of the Zheng He voyages, carried Longquan celadon [slide 14: celadon from the 'Turiang' wreck], along with a good sampling of the Thai ceramics available at the beginning of the 15th century, including painted wares and green-glazed wares [slide 15: Thai ceramics from the 'Turiang' wreck].

However, the Thai ceramics change dramatically on a group of shipwrecks that must begin shortly after the Zheng He voyages ended in 1424. The sudden cessation of the treasure ship voyages had two major effects. The proportion of Chinese trade ceramics dropped to 1% and less during the middle years of the 15th century; and this shortfall was offset by huge quantities of classic Thai celadon [slide 16: Thai celadon from the 'Royal Nanhai' wreck].

Among these cargoes, the earliest Chinese blue-and-white ceramics are six bowls from the 'Royal Nanhai' wreck, dated to approximately 14605, and then thirty to forty pieces from the Pandanan wreck6. By this time, the cargoes were dominated by Southeast Asian ceramics. The blue-and-white bowls on the 'Royal Nanhai' wreck were accompanied by two Vietnamese blue-and-white pieces, twenty-one thousand Thai celadons, and just one Chinese celadon [slide 17: blue-and-white from the 'Royal Nanhai' wreck]. The Pandanan ship carried over three thousand pieces from Champa in what is now central Vietnam.

As the Chinese percentage of cargoes dwindled almost to vanishing point, the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya suddenly had the export market to itself: a windfall of amazing proportions. Moreover, not only did Thailand take over the production and export of ceramics, it also seems to have become a shipping base. While Majapahit may have been weakened after Zheng He's military intervention, Patani increased in importance. The mid-15th century ships found are hybrid types built in Southeast Asia using a combination of Southeast Asian and Chinese construction features. This type of ship is generally thought to be associated with the overseas Chinese. A trade windfall for the Thais would have had local consequences, and it is my theory that it precipitated the attack that officially ended the Khmer Angkorian empire.

Maritime archaeology reveals that unexpected wealth and power suddenly descended on Ayutthaya. What do recipients of sudden riches, such as lottery winners, do today? Usually they want a new house and a new car. The residents of Ayutthaya may have experienced an urge for new palaces, and the artisans to build and decorate them, along with statues, and probably elephants and all sorts of royal regalia. Where was the nearest place the nouveau riche Thai court could find the trappings of an ancient revered empire, with its skilled craftsmen? Angkor. For the first time, one can propose a theory about the motives for the 1431 attack, and the evidence for the theory comes from shipwreck ceramics.

Let's move forward to the fall of Melaka in 1511 for our final historical mystery - what impact did this have on trade? Historians have argued that the arrival of the Portuguese did not significantly change the trading scene in Asia, that the Portuguese simply became one more group among those participating. What do trade ceramics say about this?

The Ming gap ended with the reign of Emperor Hongzhi, 1488-1505. In cargoes dating from Hongzhi's reign, Chinese ceramics become more important again, making up 75% of the total. [slide 18: shipwreck examples 1488-1619].

The Hongzhi-type cargoes contain:

1. the first bulk exports of Ming blue-and-white
2. a great variety of types of ware -
  a. from China, (i) blue-and-white, (ii) celadon & other monochrome ware, (iii) the first polychrome ware found on ships
  b. from Burma, celadon (& Burmese lead-glazed?)
  c. from Vietnam, (i) blue-and-white, (ii) monochrome (& polychrome?)
  d. rare heirloom Champa ware
  e. Sawankhalok post-classic celadon (1 single underglaze jarlet known)
  f. Sukhothai underglaze (1 single jarlet known)

There is a marked difference between Hongzhi-type cargoes, from that reign and a little afterwards, and the later group which I associate with Emperor Zhengde who reigned from 1506-1521, and characterise as Zhengde-type. The later ships which have been found were much smaller (previously a 30 metre keel was typical), and the numbers of ceramics recovered have been in the hundreds rather than thousands. In these Zhengde-type cargoes, the percentage of Chinese ceramics drops back to perhaps 50-60%. It is difficult to be precise about the numbers of ceramics and of each different type of ceramics on most of these shipwrecks, but this is the overall impression. There is almost no Chinese celadon, and absolutely no Burmese ware or Vietnamese ware. There is more Sukothai ware. Cargo sizes are down, the range of goods is diminished, and the quality is not what it was before. [slide 20: ceramics from 'Hongzhi-type' and 'Zhengde-type' cargoes].

A detailed discussion of the differences in the ceramics on Hongzhi-type and Zhengde-type ships may be found on a separate page.

What could have caused this sudden change? My theory is that it relates to the counterattack in January 1512, following the capture of Melaka by the Portuguese in August 1511.

Giovanni da Empoli was present during the counterattack, and wrote of thirty-five 500-ton junks, seventy slightly smaller, and many very small.7 Tomé Pires wrote:

'Meantime Java gathered all its forces and came against Malacca with a hundred sail, among which were some forty junks and sixty lancharas and a hundred calaluzes [rowing boats], and they brought five thousand men. Our ships went out to meet them, at which the Javanese were upset and withdrew with the tide, leaving everything and taking to the calaluzes. And they escaped in the large junk and two others. All the rest were burnt...'8

So about a hundred sailing ships were destroyed, including at least thirty-five large junks which would have been capable of sailing to China.

In China itself, maritime trade had been increasing during the Hongzhi reign (1488-1505). By 1493, private trade was booming in the south of China, and it was reported that 'in the coastal areas of Guangdong, many people are privately dealing with [those who come on the] fan ships. The ships come in an unbroken stream, and without waiting for the examination of their tally-slips, [those on the] fan ships start selling their merchandise. The government forces responsible for guarding against the Japanese pirates have made reports about the growing power and disorderliness of the traders.' The Ministry of Rites response also noted that 'because the prohibition against the private ships has been relaxed, they have proliferated'.9

Portuguese ships started sailing directly to China after their arrival in Malacca, and they may have started to place orders for Chinese ceramics with equal speed. This is a fragment of a Zhengde-type plate found in East Moluccas [slide 23: Zhengde-type plate marked 'IHS']. It is blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, and must have been ordered by the Portuguese, because of the circles with the letters 'IHS'. 'IHS' was later used in the emblem of the Jesuits, but at this stage it was just a Christogram, a symbol of Jesus Christ: the spikes in the circles represent the nails of the crucifixion.

The Chinese found the Portuguese violent and troublesome, but it was not until 1521 that they cracked down again and restricted access by western ships and traders. The Censor He Ao then noted that:

'The Fo-lang-ji are marked by their cruelty and by their guile, and their weapons are better than those of all the other yi. In recent times, they sailed here in their large ships and came abruptly into Guangdong province. The sound of their guns shook the city and suburbs. The persons they left at the postal relay station violated the ban on communication, while those who came to the capital were fierce and reckless and vied for supremacy. Now, if their private ships are permitted to come and go in trade, it will certainly lead to fighting and injury and the calamities of the south will be endless. In the time of the Imperial ancestors, when the yi from the four directions came to Court, their tribute frequency was fixed and the forces engaged in defending against the Japanese pirates were extremely strict in their guard. If fan ships arrived and they falsely claimed that they had been blown to the anchorage by the wind and wanted to trade, they were subject to verification through investigation, after which details were memorialized. They were also subject to a proportional tax in accordance with the regulations. The yi persons could thus not make much profit and the number who came was limited. Recently, the administration commissioner Wu Ting-ju put forward a proposal based on his claim that [the province] lacked aromatics to send to the Court and lacked provisions for the armed forces. Thus, frequency restrictions were ignored and the goods of any ship which arrived were [merely] taxed... These Fo-lang-ji have taken advantage of this situation to rush here. It is requested that the old regulations be examined and restored, that all the fan ships in the bays and all the yi persons who have secretly entered and reside there be expelled, that private communication be prohibited and that strict defences be firmly instituted, so that in that region all will be in its place.

China's responsible ministry supported the recommendation to restrict trade, commenting further that 'Ting-ju's proposals have led to these troubles' and that he should be sacked. An imperial order 'commanded that all matters be handled as proposed'. 10

Note that in China, trade had continued as normal until this 1521 crackdown, nine years after the battle in Melaka. In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, trade had slumped. This was reported by Pires:

'And through the destruction of Malacca they [the merchants from Grisee in Java] do not navigate, nor do they trade, nor have they any junks, because most of the Javanese junks come from Pegu [in Burma], where the Javanese - and other people who bought in Malacca - used to send for them to be made, because the Pegu people bring the merchandise and the junks all as merchandise, and having sold the merchandise they used to sell the junks. And because it is already five years since this stopped, and the Governor of India burned and defeated all the enemy junks, they were all left without any, and they have no junks.'11
'This king [of the island of Tidore] is very desirous of trading with us, because the Moluccas Islands are going to ruin, and for the last three years they have only gathered a few cloves, because of the drop in navigation since the capture of Malacca.'12

After the fall of Melaka, Chinese ceramics became less prominent in Southeast Asian trade, and the quality fell. Vietnamese and Burmese ware dropped out of the picture. Thailand increased the quantity and variety of its exports. The archaeological evidence from shipwrecks suggests that Southeast Asian trade patterns were disrupted for decades by the fighting which followed the fall of Melaka, and the loss of so many big ships.

  1. The Belitung ship was an Arab or Persian sewn vessel, made of African timber, and sank in the second quarter of the ninth century. She was fully laden with a Chinese cargo, some of which was clearly customized for a Middle Eastern market, and apparently sailing the whole route rather than stocking up at an entrepot port. Much of the cargo is mass-market; there are also gold, silver and ceramic items of extraordinary quality. This wonderful 'Tang cargo' is now owned by Singapore, but not always on display. A replica ship, 'Jewel of Muscat', was built in Oman and sailed to Southeast Asia in 2010; she is now housed in Singapore's Maritime Experiential Museum. Details of the excellent catalogue, and many references and weblinks, may be found at the Belitung wreck entry on this site's chronology page.
  2. The Cirebon ship was a lashed-lug Southeast Asian vessel, wrecked in the mid-late tenth century while apparently bound for Central or Eastern Java with a mixed cargo; most of the ceramics were from China. References and weblinks may be found at the Cirebon wreck entry on this site's chronology page.
  3. Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,, accessed 15 Sept 2013.
  4. The Turiang wreck is described in detail at
  5. The Royal Nanhai wreck was a hardwood South-China-Sea ship wrecked close to the east coast of the Malay peninsula, carrying Thai ceramics and supposed 'diplomatic gifts'.
  6. References and weblinks may be found at the Pandanan wreck entry on this site's chronology page.
  7. Lettera di Giovanni da Empoli, written 1483-1517, publ. Arti Grafiche Scalia, Roma, 1970
  8. The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, written 1512-1515, publ. Hakluyt Society, London, 1944; Vol.II p.282
  9. Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,, accessed 9 Mar 2014.
  10. Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,, accessed 9 Mar 2014. Dr Wade advises that the words fan, yi and man in these texts may be translated without apparent distinction as foreign/barbarian (personal correspondence, 26 Mar 2014).
  11. The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, written 1512-1515, publ. Hakluyt Society, London, 1944; Vol.I p.194-195
  12. Ibid. Vol.I p.217

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