Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet

What became of the world’s largest armada?


The Lost Fleet of Khubilai Khan, or should that be Kublai Khan?

A Chinese Fleet
A Chinese Fleet

It was the year 1281 and over 70,000 men and 4,400 ships were launched to conquer Japan. But the largest armada the world had ever seen … vanished without a trace.

700 years later, one man believes he has found the lost fleet. Kenzo Hayashida is Japan’s leading marine archaeologist and he has spent the last 15 years devoted to the search for the lost fleet of Kublai Khan. Salvaging clues from the seabed he fits the pieces of the puzzle together, hoping to solve the riddle of the lost armada.

Kenzo Hayashida’s task will not be easy, for 700 years the fate of the fleet has remained one of Japan’s most enduring mysteries.

Khubilai Khan’s ancestors were nomads, tribes of horsemen who roamed central Asia. In the early 1200’s his grandfather, Genghis Khan, united the tribes and led them on a rampage of conquest. In Kublai Khan’s lifetime, the vast area of eastern Asia was under his control, then he conquered China. But this was not enough.

The Mongol Empire
The Mongol Empire

Having declared himself as the new Emperor of China and the ruler of most of Asia he needed to demonstrate his power and so, he summoned his greatest general and gave him a challenge no Mongol had ever faced before.

He wanted him to cross 500 miles of ocean and conquer Japan. The Mongols were not accustomed to fighting at sea.

On the eastern coast of his empire, Khubilai Khan forced thousands of Chinese subjects to construct the fleet. Under the tyrannical rule of their Mongol masters, they achieved the task in breakneck speed. Khubilai Khan had allowed them about one year to build this enormous fleet. By August 1281 Khubilai Khan had 4,400 ships at his disposal. The biggest invasion fleet the world had ever seen. The next biggest comparable fleet was the 4,000 ships assembled by the allies for the D-Day landings in 1944.

As soon as it was ready the Mongol invaders set off, target Japan. The impact of an invasion force of this size, on the Japanese, would have been enormous.

Hakozaki Scroll
Hakozaki Scroll

Kenzo Hayashida¬†would prefer to explain the disappearance through scientific investigation as he doesn’t believe it was an answer to a prayer that saved his country. The earliest known records are held on a priceless scroll held in the Hakozaki Shrine. Painted in 1293, just 12 years after the attempted invasion, it is the only surviving pictorial record of the Mongol ships. The scroll does not explain the fleet’s disappearance, but images of Mongols and Japanese fighting suggests that the fleet reached Japan’s shores.

Kenzo Hayashida wants to start his search for the lost fleet on the coastline of Japan, but this is no easy task. Japan is composed of a chain of over 3,000 islands, stretching for 2,000 miles. A chance find gives him his first clue. On the shores of the tiny Takashima island, a fisherman has stumbled on a metal object covered in a foreign script. When Kenzo first sees it he, at once, knows it is a perfectly preserved brass seal with distinctively Mongolian markings. With this discovery< Kenzo has narrowed his search from thousands of islands to just one. Kenzo now assembles an international team of divers, archaeologists and marine scientists.

Using side-scan sonar they locate a number of large objects, However the objects are under a thick layer of silt, so they must dive and clear the silt. To do this they employ high-powered vacuum pumps, which is a very slow process as the silt in some places is 12m thick. After months of painstaking work, they find a large wooden structure which turns out to be an anchor. Analysing the wood reveals that, without a doubt, it came from China.

Returning to the dive site, hoping to find the ship that the anchor came from, results in more intrigue as what they do find are nine more anchors. After many more weeks of searching, their luck changes and they find the helmets of the Mongol warriors, weapons such as sword blades and quivers of arrow-heads, and human remains. All of this is sufficient to convince Kenzo that the lost fleet sank off the coast of Takashima.

Kenzo Hayashida
Kenzo Hayashida

Kenzo Hayashida may have found the lost fleet, but this only deepens the mystery. What happened to this large, technologically advanced, well-armed force?

The Mongol force had the attacking advantage and the better armaments. Long range bows and an exploding shrapnel-loaded bomb called a tetsuhau. While they attacked from the ships, they had superiority, but when the Mongol infantry attempted to land, they were driven back by the greater skill of the Samurai. With the Mongols unable to establish a beach-head and the Japanese unable to attack the ships of the fleet a standoff was reached. This continued for many weeks and it was likely that the invaders, on the ships, were running out of food and were suffering illness and low moral.

Kenzo revisits the information they have gleaned so far looking for further clues. He is sure that the ten anchors they have found are significant. The fact that they were all aligned in the same direction, towards the shore, suggested that some force was driving the ships landward.

Kenzo recalls an old legend that was once used to explain the fleet’s disappearance. The legend speaks of their saviour being a divine wind. However, the Hakazoki scroll makes no mention of a divine wind or any other phenomenon.

It is possible that a typhoon was responsible for the sinking of the ships as August and September, when the fleet was anchored off Takashima, is right in the middle of the typhoon season. However, after consulting typhoon experts, Kenzo learns that it is very unlikely that a typhoon would have sunk all of the ships. At the time, the Chinese were among the best shipbuilders in the world and these ships should have been very sea-worthy.

Further investigation of the artefacts recovered from the seabed revealed that many of the craft making up the fleet were simple riverboats that would not stand up to a storm. Furthermore, of the ships that were constructed for the endeavour, many were of of poor build quality due to the use of a conscripted workforce.

Given these final factors, a typhoon would certainly have caused colossal damage to this ill-equipped, ill-manned mission.

Further Reading

[amazon asin=0520067401&template=add to cart] Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times РMorris Rossabi

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