- 2006/12/06 Wanli: The untold story from the deep

In the year 1625, a Portuguese vessel set off from China on a voyage to the Straits of Malacca. Onboard were tonnes of chinaware and pottery that would bring lucrative profits for the Portuguese.

However, the ship now named Wanli never reached the Malacca as she sank half way sailing through the South China Sea.

The ill-fated voyage of Wanli remained a mystery until almost four centuries later when the wreck and her cargo were discovered off the coast of Terengganu.

A team of researchers led by Kuala Rompin-based marine archeologist Stan Sjostrand discovered the vessel in November 2003. It was later named The Wanli Shipwreck based on the manufacturing date on a few of the porcelain shards collected by the team.

During the team's search and investigation in 2004, parts of the cargo comprising the priceless blue-and-white pottery and ocher wares were also recovered.

Image: Treasures from the Wanli.
Treasures from the Wanli.

Sjostrand says initial investigations determined that Wanli was sunk by the Dutch. Since the 17th century, the Portuguese and Dutch were involved in a series of fierce battles to control Malacca, which was then an important and bustling port for traders from the West and East.

The Dutch finally defeated their rivals in 1641 and staked claim over Malacca.

The strategically-located Malacca emerged as one of the major ports that prospered and enjoyed remarkable development in the maritime industry when it opened its doors to the world during the heydays of the Malacca Sultanate. It also served as a transit point for seafarers before they continued their journey to either the Far East or the West.

This was the pull factor that prompted the Portuguese and later the Dutch to conquer the flourishing port and along the way expanded their empire.

Sjostrand says: "Between 1615 and 1640, some 155 Portuguese ships lost the battle to the Dutch, while many other merchant ships sunk due to accidents."

A trained naval architect, Sjostrand was also involved in the discovery of at least 10 shipwrecks and the excavation of their artifacts in Malaysian waters.

Among them are the Tanjung Simpang wreck, Turiang wreck, the Royal Nanhai, the Nanyang and the Desaru wreck.

With limited resources available on the country's maritime history, Sjostrand says findings from these shipwrecks could provide clues and a clearer picture of the maritime industry's progress in the bygone era.

He likened the shipwrecks as part of the missing puzzle of the early history of maritime trade.

"They (the wrecks) are an important source of information. They provide information that was not known before."

"For instance, shipwrecks of merchant ships of different eras have revealed the trade and commodity patterns of that particular era," he says.

He adds that the highly priced Ming Dynasty's blue-and-white porcelain found onboard Wanli also indicated that the Portuguese had access to better quality Chinese ware than the Dutch, while the Wanli vessel itself was believed to have been built in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, various steps have been taken by the Museums and Antiquities Department to extensively promote and inculcate a better understanding of the country's rich underwater heritage.

Among them is a plan to create a permanent gallery for maritime history at the National Museum, says the department director-general, Dr Adi Taha.

"Visitors can observe the latest artifacts recovered from excavations undertaken by the department and also on the methods and techniques of underwater archaeology excavation," he says.

"For antique lovers, this exhibition gives them the opportunity to have a closer view of various types of ceramics since the 15th century."

"Every ceramic piece tells a unique history of its own, which is very interesting to explore."

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