- 2006/12/11 Wanli yeils treasure trove

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

However, the ship now named Wanli never reached the Portuguese fort of 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 her wreckage was discovered buried deep in the ocean off the coast of Terengganu together with her precious cargo.

A team of researchers led by a Kuala Rompin-based marine archaeologist Stan Sjostrand discovered the shipwreck in Nov 2003.

The finding was later named “The Wanli Shipwreck” based on the manufacturing date discovered on a few of the porcelain shards collected by the team during short investigation dives. During the team’s search and investigation in 2004, parts of the cargo comprising priceless blue-and-white pottery and other ware was also recovered.

Sjostrand said that an initial investigation determined that Wanli was sunk by the Portuguese’s archrival at that time, the Dutch.

Image: Part of the recovered items.
Part of the recovered items.

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 rival in 1641 and staked claim over Malacca. Malacca, being strategically located along the Straits of 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 heyday of the Malacca Sultanate.

Image: Visitors admiring the Wanli treasure.
Visitors admiring the Wanli treasure.

Besides, 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 said: "Between 1615 to 1640, some 155 Portuguese ships had 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 artefacts in Malaysian waters. Among them are the Tanjung Simpang wreck, Turiang wreck, the Royal Nanhai, the Nanyang and the Desaru wreck.

With the limited resources available on the country’s maritime history, Sjostrand said 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 a particular era,” he said.

He added that the highly-priced Ming Dynasty’s blue-and-white porcelain found on board 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 constructed somewhere in South-East Asia.

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

The Department’s director-general Datuk Dr Adi Taha said among the steps was a plan to create a permanent gallery for maritime history at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

“Visitors can observe the latest artefacts recovered from excavations undertaken by the department and also on the methods and techniques of underwater archaeology excavation. “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 story of its own, which is very interesting to explore,” he said.

Adi said the establishment of the Maritime Archaeology Unit under the department in 2001 is testament of its long-term commitment to developing this branch of archaeology, despite being a relatively new venture in the country.

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