Beneath the world’s oceans lie sunken vessels carrying stories of a bygone era, their holds bursting with a rich trove of material culture. These shipwrecks, silent witnesses to the vibrant ebb and flow of historical maritime trade, hold cargoes that speak volumes about our ancestors’ craftsmanship, taste, and their far-reaching trade networks. From the blue and white porcelain of Ming Dynasty China to the mass-produced export wares of the Qing period, each shipwreck cargo has its unique narrative. This feature dives into the captivating tales of six such shipwrecks: the Hatcher, Vung Tau, Ca Mau, Diana, Nanking, and Tek Sing cargoes. Their stories not only span different centuries and nations but also illuminate the intricate threads of global trade and artistry that bind humanity together. We also take a look at a few examples of the treasures, curios and items that have appeared at auction from these Shipwreck Cargoes.
These incredible cargoes recovered from these underwater time capsules have been making waves in the world of auctions, becoming highly sought-after items among collectors and museums. The auction of the Hatcher Cargo in 1984 at Christie’s Amsterdam, marketed as “The Hatcher Collection”, set the precedent. It was a breakthrough event that brought shipwreck porcelain to the limelight, with sales exceeding all expectations. The Nanking cargo, also sold by Christie’s in 1986, fetched over 17 million dollars. Subsequent auctions of the Vung Tau and Ca Mau cargoes held at the same auction house saw immense interest from bidders. The Diana Cargo saw significant interest from the Swedish market, given the ship’s historical link to the Swedish East India Company. In 2000, the Tek Sing’s porcelain was auctioned by Nagel Auctions in Stuttgart, dubbed as the largest sale of shipwreck ceramics ever
1. The Hatcher Cargo (1983)
In the mid-1980s, one of the most significant shipwreck discoveries occurred off the coast of Indonesia: the Hatcher Cargo. The English adventurer and marine salvor Michael Hatcher found an ancient Chinese junk filled with ceramics dating back to the Ming Dynasty. Amongst the almost 30,000 artifacts, the ship contained over 25,000 blue and white porcelain items, including vases, dishes, bottles, and kendis (a type of drinking vessel). The cargo’s discovery proved to be a critical event in the world of antiquities, as it demonstrated the booming global trade during the Ming era, and revealed an invaluable cache of Ming porcelain, previously only known in sparse examples.
2. The Vung Tau Cargo (1690)
The Vung Tau cargo is an impressive collection of 17th-century Chinese porcelain, salvaged from a shipwreck discovered in the South China Sea near Vung Tau, Vietnam in 1990. Thought to be part of a Chinese junk that sank around 1690, the cargo comprises over 48,000 items. This porcelain was designed for the European market, primarily the Dutch, and it included plates, bowls, vases, teapots, and cups decorated with motifs popular in Europe at the time. Not only does the Vung Tau cargo provide a unique insight into Chinese export porcelain, but it also sheds light on the trade relations between China and the West during the late 17th century.
3. The Ca Mau Cargo (1723–35)
The Ca Mau shipwreck was discovered by fishermen off the coast of the Ca Mau Province in southern Vietnam in the late 1990s. This vessel, which sank sometime between 1723 and 1735, carried an immense cargo of Chinese porcelain. Over 130,000 items were retrieved, mostly blue and white porcelain, but also polychrome wares. The designs were typically Chinese: landscapes, birds, flowers, and historical scenes. Interestingly, some items bore hallmarks, allowing archaeologists to trace their origin to the kilns of Jingdezhen in China. The Ca Mau cargo offers invaluable information about the quantity and variety of ceramics produced for the overseas market during the Qing Dynasty.
4. The Diana Cargo (1817)
The Diana was an East Indiaman ship, built by the British and commissioned by the Swedish East India Company, that sank in the Straits of Malacca in 1817. Salvaged in 1995, the Diana cargo brought to light an astounding variety of Chinese export porcelain, personal items, ship equipment, and even opium pipes. The porcelain included dinner services, punch bowls, and decorative items intended for the European market. Notably, these items provide evidence of the East India Company’s crucial role in global trade and the European fascination with Asian art and culture during the 19th century.
5. The Nanking Cargo (1752)
In 1752, a Dutch East Indiaman named the Geldermalsen, also known as the “Nanking Cargo”, sank in the South China Sea after striking a reef. It carried a precious cargo of gold, tea, and over 150,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain. Notably, the blue and white and famille rose porcelain were bound for Amsterdam to meet the high demand in Europe. Salvaged by Michael Hatcher in the mid-1980s, the Nanking cargo revealed fine examples of Qing Dynasty porcelain, and the gold ingots found marked with the Dutch East India Company logo are among the earliest known examples of this type.
6. The Tek Sing Cargo (1822)
The Tek Sing or “True Star” was a large Chinese junk that sank in the South China Sea in 1822. Known as the “Titanic of the East,” this shipwreck’s cargo was recovered in 1999. The Tek Sing was loaded with an enormous assortment of goods: spices, raw materials, silks, but most notably a vast quantity of blue and white porcelain, nearly 350,000 pieces. This porcelain, intended for everyday use, depicts a variety of traditional Chinese motifs such as dragons, flowers, and phoenixes. The Tek Sing cargo offers a snapshot into the types of goods traded along the maritime Silk Road during the 19th century.
In summary, these historic shipwreck cargoes not only provide an extraordinary array of treasures but also serve as time capsules. Each cargo tells a unique story about international trade, cultural exchange, and the exquisite artistry of bygone eras, making them invaluable to our understanding of world history.