|In about 1690, a Chinese trading junk sank
off the southern coast of Vietnam, taking with it its voluminous cargo of valuable Ching
dynasty porcelain. A large percentage of this same cargo - called the Vung Tau cargo after
the Vietnamese province off which it was recovered - was to sell for approximately 7.3
million US dollars when it was auctioned by Christies in Amsterdam in April 1992.
Imported Chinese porcelain - fine quality, elegant, blue and white - is
typical of that used in great houses in 17th Century Europe in the decades of what
contemporary critics called "China mania". The 'Vung Tau' porcelain is of the
early Ching (Quing) dynasty (1644 - 1912), around the time of the rule of Emperor KangXi
(1662-1722), the third emperor of this dynasty, who ascended to the throne at the age of
seven and ruled for sixty years.
The recovery of this cargo has provided scholars with
unequalled insight into Chinese porcelain manufacture at a moment of transition in
technology, shape and pattern. There are several unique features of the Vung Tau cargo
suggesting that Chinese manufacturers of export porcelain were catering for the specific
tastes and needs of the European market, a factor that has proved an exciting discovery
for historians. Unlike the Chinese porcelain hitherto auctioned by Christies - mostly
'flat' wares for table use - this cargo comprised 'standing' vessels such as goblets, wine
cups and vases. Such pieces had never before reached Europe from Asia in such quantity,
and they aroused enormous interest in cosmopolitan capitals from Lisbon to Dresden.
For over 300 years, these precious pieces lay hidden from the
eyes of the world. In the mid 1980s, a Vietnamese fisherman, trawling the sea-bed, hooked
something altogether different from his usual red snapper: a concreted lump of iron
containing several porcelain items. He was a few miles away from Con Dao Island (south
east of Saigon), which had a long history as one of the last fresh-water refuelling stops
for ships making the long journey from North Vietnam and the south-east Chinese coast, to
the north-western islands of Indonesia. Few of the many ships that went down in this area
- ravaged by monsoon or fire, or victim of piracy - have ever been discovered.
Click on the thumbnails
below to view larger
images of the precious 'Vung Tau' porcelain
found on the ocean
floor. These pieces reveal the effects of
the sea - over centuries
- on certain parts of the
cargo. Normally a gleaming blue and white,
here, clearly visible, are
traces of coral, small
shells and concreted
sand. Far from detracting
from the original
beauty of the pieces,
however, these effects
add a rare, quite special quality.
In 1990, the Vietnamese government decided to raise this
cargo as a commercial operation, calling on the Vietnam Salvage Corporation (VISAL) - a
state-owned company of the Ministry of Transport and Communications with the monopoly on
all salvage and sea bed investigations within the territorial waters of Vietnam - to
commence with the recovery. Although the water depth was only 35 meters, the cargo was
The wreck's timbers revealed that the vessel had been burned
to the water-line. A part of the cargo had rolled off the damaged deck, and lay encrusted
and broken around the irregular remains on the sea-bed. The internal contents of the ship
were, fortunately, in a much better condition, though with inevitable wear and tear
compounded by the effects of the salt water. There was little to date the wreck except for
a few coins and a small rectangular Chinese ink stick, relief moulded with a cyclical date
corresponding to AD 1690. Judging by the wreck's location, the ship was probably bound for
Indonesia, its cargo intended for the major trading center of Batavia (now Jakarta) in
Java, which would then be bought by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and, in turn,
transported to Europe.
|Since the identity of the wreck was not known, there was
little indication of the quantity of porcelain hidden under the sand. After several
unsuccessful attempts, attributed to bad weather - and during which time approximately
1200 pieces were recovered - Sverker Hallstrom was contracted in 1990 to assist with the
archaeological recovery of whatever porcelain and other artefacts remained on the wreck.
Hallstrom's longstanding involvement and good relationship with the
Vietnamese had, a few months prior, seen an invitation extended to him to jointly harvest
red coral from the seabed (over a hundred meters down) as well as to assist with shipwreck
recovery in their waters. However, contractual delays with the red coral project had
resulted in Hallstrom being put on stand-by, thus freeing him to excavate the Vung Tau
cargo. He had already shipped his two submersibles - the LR2 and the Diver Lock-Out Perry
1202 from Scotland to Singapore. After the agreement with the Vietnamese to excavate the
wreck, they were then shipped to Saigon along with other essential equipment.
The Vietnamese salvage vessel 'Dai Lanh' (formerly the
Hallstrom-owned 'Singapore Salvor', which was later sold to VISAL) was hired in September
1990. Its crew of 46 comprised, among others, eight Vietnamese divers and divers from
Britain and USA to man the submersibles. The survey phase entailed establishing the size
and condition of the site (off the Con Dao islands), the depth at which the wreck was
buried, and an indication of the quantity of porcelain on the wreck (to determine if the
excavation would be economically viable). After a month and a half - during which they
were faced with severe weather conditions - they had retrieved a few hundred pieces.
Believing there to be a considerable treasure still buried, Hallstrom was not deterred; he
had a better understanding of the wreck and the conditions of the area to help him
formulate a proper excavation plan.
Click on the thumbnail
to view a larger image
of the probable route
and destination of the
'Vung Tau' Cargo.
(large image is 64K)
The Northeast monsoon had now started and the next available
work window was the transit period from April to June 1991. Back in Singapore, Hallstrom
started to prepare for the excavation phase, but failed to find a partner to share the
financial risk. None of the divers from the previous effort were interested in returning,
doubting the venture's viability. Hallstrom again hired the 'Dai Lanh', and set off with
20 Vietnamese and two Canadian divers, as well as the Australian diver Mike Flecker who
was to be in charge of the archaeological part of the excavation.
The mission proved ultimately to be a huge success. The
excavation, which started on 17 April - with approximately 1364 bottom hours - ended on 2
July. In this time the team recovered more than 48 000 pieces of the precious Ching
dynasty porcelain. Christies - whom Hallstrom had already contacted the previous September
- selected 28 000 pieces for auction, while the Vietnamese authorities selected a few
thousand for their museums.
Hallstrom Holdings has a selection of the pieces - some in
excellent condition, others chipped or broken - which will shortly be available to
purchase through the Shipwreck Explorer Web site. Keep your eye on our "Buy Online" page for more details!