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Khubilai Khan's lost fleet : in search of a legendary armada (edition 2008)

by James P. Delgado

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463251,994 (3.3)2
Member:nandadevi
Title:Khubilai Khan's lost fleet : in search of a legendary armada
Authors:James P. Delgado
Info:Vancouver : Douglas & McIntyre, c2008.
Collections:Your library, Read (under construction), Read 2012
Rating:****1/2
Tags:history, China, Japan, maritime

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Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada by James P. Delgado

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There is a bit of a sense that this book overreaches itself when it uses the kind of subtitle more at home in those block-buster movies, 'History's Greatest Naval Disaster'. All that is missing is the exclamation mark. Oddly enough though, this is the only fault I can find with this very well written look at what is known about the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th Century. Delgado, a marine archaeologist, gives a workmanlike account of Mongol, Japanese and Chinese history during this period, and a very restrained account of what has been achieved so far in terms of revealing the sunken Mongol ships along the shores of Japan. On top of this, he leads the reader through a very well argued account of how the historiography and mythologising of those events has evolved over time. It comes as a surprise to learn that the story of the 'kamikaze' typhoon that purportedly wiped out the Mongol fleet at the instigation of the Japanese Emperor had very little currency in Japan until the 19th Century, or that during the period of Japanese isolation prior to the Meiji Restoration all mention of the Mongol Invasion attempt was suppressed. Delgado concludes his account with some observations about the evolution and potential of marine archaeology, noting that efforts to uncover the remnants of the Mongol fleet have fallen away as the Japanese economy has languished. What comes across, however, is Delgado's certain belief that major finds will be uncovered when the money, and the expertise, is available to search in deeper waters around Japan.

There are a few photographs in the book, but as in any paperback, they are limited. There is no doubt that there's a coffee-table sized book with rich illustrations hanging around this story somewhere in the future, but in the meantime there are resources on the Internet for those who'd seek them out, including this from Delgado and this from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and a Japanese archaeologist's Thesis on the shipwrecks, and a journal article from the same writer. All of these links contain photographs of items mentioned in Delgado's books. A 'latest update' report contains details of the latest ship discovery and information about sites in Vietnam mention by Delgado. As for Delgado's book; well it ticked all the boxes for me. It didn't attempt more than the evidence (so far) warranted, it opened up other areas of interest, and it was thoughtful without requiring a huge mental effort. Highly recommended. ( )
  nandadevi | Dec 11, 2012 |
Combining underwater adventure with the solving of a scientific and military mystery, archaeologist Delgado describes how Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan conquered China in 1279 with the world's largest navy, only to squander his naval superiority with subsequent misguided and ill-fated attacks on Japan, Vietnam, and Java.
  zenosbooks | Sep 9, 2012 |
..."very few Westerners have any understanding of how the forces of nature and history brought Khubilai Khan and kamikaze together off the shores of Japan's southern coast in the late thirteenth century. Even today in China and Japan, where Khubilai once reigned and where the battles and shipwrecks that marked his failed invasions played out, most do not have more than a cursory understanding of what really happened."

Khubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, took control of his grandfather's empire and for a time ruled China as Emperor. In 1274 and 1281 he tried to invade Japan, failing both times. The story that most of the world knows is the second invasion was supposedly destroyed by a "divine wind", otherwise known as a kamikaze. This gave rise to the idea that as an island nation, Japan had the divine protection of the gods. No one knew what had really happened to these invasion fleets until the early 1908s when mechanical engineer and WWII veteran, Torao Mozai made a discovery off Takashima Island.

The Good:

Delgado tells a good story around the facts when this book could have easily been a dry academic text. Things are described in layman's terms, making it easy for the average person to understand. As well, the reader gets a good background on ships, sailing and trading in Ancient China, showing how technologically advanced the Chinese were. They invented the stern rudder whereas it was unknown in the Mediterranean until the 13th century. Also, Chinese mariners used watertight bulkheads, something the Titanic failed to faithfully reproduce.

It was fascinating to discover how much of a contribution Khubilai made to China as well as read about his rise to power, despite the machinations of other family members. He introduced paper currency to China and "in his memoirs, Marco Polo waxed eloquent on the novelty and efficiency of the Khan's paper money, manufactured from the bark of mulberry trees."

Despite the face that "nautical archaeology has yet to be developed", we are able delve into what really happened to the Mongol invasion fleets of 1274 and 1281. Several theories are put forward, including the idea that a great storm, a kamikaze, was indeed responsible for breaking up the fleet of 1281. The proposed truth is far more interesting and complex.

The Bad:

This book includes a photo section and Delgado make various references to paintings, artifacts and manuscripts but very few of these examples are accompanied by photos. For example, Delgado mentions surviving portraits of both Kubilai and his wife Chabi, yet they aren't reproduced in this book. Delgado goes to great lengths describing the Great Khan's rise to power and his decisions as Emperor of China so why not let us take a look at the man?

As well I don't believe enough time has passed since excavation began to warrant a book. It's only in the last twenty years that some major discoveries have been made. I would have expected to see a book perhaps twenty years down the road, when a more concrete idea has emerged from Takashima Island. Here the archaeologists and Delgado only scratch the surface of the invasion fleet with less than one percent of the estimated underwater battlefield excavated. Only one chapter out of twelve is actually devoted to the finds made. This was disappointing considering the book seems aimed at answering the big question: what happened to the fleet? Even with the proposed theories, archaeologists admit theres a lot they still don't know.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach. ( )
  theduckthief | Aug 26, 2008 |
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After decades of research and underwater excavation, marine archaeologist James Delgado explores what really happened to Khan's lost fleet. This book is based on original sources as diverse as actual sunken ships, archeological excavations on land, temple inscriptions, hand-painted scrolls, woodblock prints, and much more.… (more)

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