[Talk] The Mysterious Malay Jong and Other Temasek Shipping

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Reconstruction of a Javanese Jong

For readers in Singapore, a talk by Dr Michael Flecker in ISEAS on Friday.

Date: Friday, 15 February 2019
Time : 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Venue : ISEAS Seminar Room 2

About the Lecture

Apart from the European square riggers, the eclectic mix of vessels anchored off Kallang Basin during Raffles’ era would not have differed much from the shipping of five centuries earlier. Chinese junks and Southeast Asian traders would have swung alongside a smattering of Arab and Indian dhows in Temasek roads. During the 14th century the Southeast Asians were transitioning from the thousand-year-old lashed-lug tradition to the fabled jong that would fascinate the Portuguese upon their arrival. Sino-Siamese hybrid ships arrived with Siamese ceramics when various Ming emperors banned Chinese exports. While the numbers were slashed, smuggling ensured that junks from northern and southern China kept on sailing. Drawing on archaeological and historical evidence, we investigate the wide range of ships that plied Singapore waters from the 14th to the 17th century.

About the Speaker

Dr Michael Flecker, Managing Director of Maritime Explorations, has overseen some of the most important shipwreck excavations in Asia over the past 30 years. They include the 9th century Belitung (Tang), 13th century Java Sea, 15th century Bakau, c.1608 Binh Thuan, and c.1690 Vung Tau Wrecks. He earned his PhD from the National University of Singapore, based on the excavation of the 10th century Intan Wreck, and specialises in ancient Asian ship construction and maritime trade. He has twice been a Visiting Fellow at NSC.

Lecture: Shipwreck Finds in the Spratlys and The Implications on Territorial Claims

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Dr Michael Flecker will be speaking at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre later this month on the shipwrecks and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Shipwreck Finds in the Spratlys: The Implications on Territorial Claims
Venue: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Singapore
Date: 28 April 2015
Time: 3 – 4.30pm

Way back in 1993, the speaker had the good fortune to investigate some of the Vietnamese-occupied reefs in the Spratly Archipelago, the Dangerous Ground marked on maritime charts. The aim was to discover Chinese, Southeast Asian and European shipwrecks that struck the western-most reefs while sailing downwind on the northeast monsoon. Plenty of shipwrecks were found, but none contained the dreamt of piles of glistening celadon or blue-and-white porcelain.

New evidence of ancient maritime trade was anticipated. Unfortunately, the late 19th century does not qualify as ancient. Fortunately, a lack of discoveries can be as important as an abundance. Such is the case in the Spratly ‘Archipelago’, a group of reefs and islets in the middle of the South China Sea, claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Many islets and reefs are occupied, and several are now being reclaimed. The quest for oil and fish may have been the driving force in the past, but the current push is strategic.

China has been more forceful than most. Their nine-dashed line encompasses pretty much all of the South China Sea down to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. While words have been ambiguous, actions have not. It would seem that virtually the entire sea and seabed are being claimed, along with the reefs and rocks. And this claim is ‘indisputable’, largely on historical grounds. What other grounds could there be when the closest reef lies nearly 500 nautical miles from Hainan?

This lecture delves into the archaeological evidence that may support, or counter, a historical claim. Texts are subject to interpretation and can take us only so far. Shipwreck hulls and cargoes can be definitively identified. They can be reasonably accurately dated. They can tell us who was there, and often why they were there. As far as voyaging throughout the South China Sea is concerned, the Southeast Asians, and later the Arabs, were active well before the Chinese ventured beyond their southern shores in the 11th or 12th century. Having achieved a degree of maritime prowess, did the Chinese have any reason to risk the Dangerous Ground in the distant past? Let’s see.

Registration required, information here.

Public Lecture: Treasure from the Sea

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Readers in Singapore may be interested in this public lecture by Dr. Michael Flecker about the Belitung shipwreck, soon to be exhibited in Singapore and around the world!

Treasures from the Sea: An Arab Shipwreck in Indonesian waters
by Dr. Michael Flecker
Date: 21 August 2010
Time: 4.00pm
Venue: Imagination Room, National Library of Singapore
* Registration required. See here.

The Belitung Wreck, an Arab dhow dating all the way back to the first half of the 9th century, was found in the Indonesian waters. Curiously it carried a cargo almost exclusively Chinese. Dr Michael Flecker, who directed the archaeological excavation of this magnificent find, will discuss the excavation, the ceramic and non-ceramic cargo, dating, identifying the origin and likely route of the ship and the composition of the crew. What was this Arab vessel doing so far from home?

Public Lecture: A Millennium of Shipwreck Artifacts and the Stories they Tell

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Folks in Singapore interested about the wealth of archaeological treasures found in the water of Southeast Asia might be interested in Dr Flecker’s talk at NUS on Tuesday.

Assorted Treasures: A Millennium of Shipwreck Artifacts and the Stories they Tell
Tuesday, 01 Dec 2009, 4.00pm – 6.00pm
Seminar Room II, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
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The Belitung Shipwreck


Earlier this month, I was able to catch a lecture about the shipwreck laden with Tang Dynasty treasures that sunk off Belitung island in the 9th century. What was it about this shipwreck that made it so spectacular? What treasures were stored aboard the ship and where was it headed? And what did the Belitung Shipwreck tell us about maritime trade n Asia and Southeast Asia at that time?


The Belitung Shipwreck was discovered in 1998 – like most shipwrecks, this one was discovered by chance by some fisherman. The wreck rested on relatively shallow waters – about 17 metres below the sea-level and recovery of the wreck took about two years. It is currently the oldest shipwreck in Southeast Asian waters.

The majority of the cargo (some 60,000 pieces) recovered consists of ceramics, most of which are Changsha ware. Changsha ware was mass produced for export in Tang China, and the dates imprinted on a couple of the bowls place the shipwreck from between 826 and 850AD. Other significant finds from the wreck include lead ballasts, some pieces of resin which would have come from Sumatra, pillow-shaped silver ingots, a number of gold vessels and several rare pieces of high-fired blue-and-white, white ware and Yue wares.

The wreck’s construction strongly suggests that the ship was of Arab or Indian origin: stitched hull planks, the lack of wooden dowels or iron fastenings and later, the identification of the wood type. Combined with the large number of export ware, this find suggests the existence of a Maritime Silk Route, a direct trading link between China and the Arab lands as early as the 9th century.

Dr Rosemary Scott, who gave the lecture on the Belitung Wreck in June goes even further to suggest that the wreck is possibly the most important wreck uncovered to date because the evidence strongly suggests the presence of a Maritime Silk Route, rather than through the role of intermediaries like Srivijaya. Besides the ship’s construction, other evidence for this direct link include the small number of Changsha ware inscribed with “salaam” and other Arabic verse, and the presence of the rare ceramics, all of which have a close association with the imperial court. This in turn suggests the importance of this particular cargo as a form of royal tribute. While Changsha ware is found just about everywhere in the ancient world (all the way to India, Persia and the Near East), the Yue and Xing wares have been found only in a handful of Near Eastern sites, including the ancient city of Samarra in Iraq.

An interesting point about the Belitung shipwreck was its location. Ships plying between China and India would have come down the Malacca strait, into the sphere of Srivijaya influence. Ships would possibly call at the Srivijayan capital at Palembang, before sailing to the Riau islands and up north again to China. The Belitung shipwreck is located a little too far south. Given that the majority of the shipwreck’s cargo was mainly for the Persian market rather than the coastal ports of Srivijaya, the ship would bypass the major Srivijayan markets and take an alternative route through the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java), before heading northwest to India – stil Srivijayan territory, but not as important as the ones along the Malaccan strait..

The material for this post was based on my notes during the talk on the Belitung Shipwreck by Rosemary Scott at the National University of Singapore Museum in June 2007, as well as a 2001 paper by Dr. Michael Flecker in World Archaeology.
Books about shipwrecks in Southeast Asia:
The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells

The South-China-Sea Tradition: the Hybrid Hulls of South-East Asia

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March 2007 (International Journal of Nautical Archaeology) – Marine Archaeologist Michael Flecker’s paper attempting to come to a typography-of-sorts of the Southeast Asian marine vessel by examining ship characteristics from 16 shipwrecks in this region. Full article is available from the link.

The South-China-Sea Tradition: the Hybrid Hulls of South-East Asia
Michael Flecker

The South-China-Sea Tradition is a hybrid vessel-type combining structural features of Chinese and South-East Asian origin. It only occurs from the late-14th to the late-16th centuries and mirrors the production period of Thai export ceramics. This article examines 16 South-China-Sea-Tradition wrecks with a view to determining a well-defined list of characteristics, the origin of those characteristics, and the most likely builders.

10 divers to survey Portuguese warship

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15 March 2007 (The Star) – Another shipwreck find being documented. Discovered in 2005, a Portuguese shipwreck lying in the mouth of the Malacca River is currently being investigated by a team of marine archaeologists. The Portuguese established a colony in Malacca in the 16th century and became a powerful maritime influence because of their control of the Malacca Strait and the trade routes between China, the Spice Islands and Europe.

10 divers to survey Portuguese warship

Ten divers and three underwater photographers are in the team conducting surveys to recover artefacts from a 16th-century Portuguese warship lying four nautical miles off the mouth of the Malacca River, said Malacca Museum Corporation director Khamis Abbas.

He said the team members included those from Perzim, the navy, Customs, Archaeological, Heritage and National Oceanography departments, and Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.

Related Books:
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells

Ancient Shipwrecks Found in Straits of Malacca

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30 July 2006 (The Star) – Three shipwrecks, including what could possibly be the oldest European shipwreck in the region have been discovered along the Straits of Malacca by an Australian marine archaeologist.

The Star, 30 July 2006

Ancient Shipwrecks Found

Well-known Australian maritime archaeologist Dr Michael Flecker, who has carried out more than 100 explorations in numerous countries around the region, made the latest discovery during a blanket survey along the Straits last year…

He also revealed pictures he had taken of cannons, cannon balls, bones of animals that were consumed on the ships and broken Ming dynasty porcelain.

Dr Flecker is the managing director of Maritime Explorations and has been involved in underwater explorations for the past 20 years. He said the warship was located in an area between Pulau Upeh and Pulau Panjang off the coast of Malacca.

“So far, based on our research which has been done some four nautical miles from the coast of Malacca (within Federal waters), the ship could have been a Portuguese vessel under the command of Admiral Coutinho. It sank in 1583 during a battle.

Related Books:
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells