The Desaru shipwreck (+/- 1830) and its 19th century
Chinese porcelain and other Ming pottery pieces
Brief report about the The Desaru shipwreck
The 'Desaru' ship was a Chinese vessel which sank in the 1830s with a cargo of Chinese ceramics. The name relates to the resort village of Desaru near the wreck site, in the southeast of Peninsular Malaysia. The original name of the ship is unknown.
The blue and white porcelain found on the ship is attractive and of very high quality, but the quantity does not match that found on other shipwrecks like the Diana (1817) or the Tek Sing (1822). The many large and crudely-potted storage jars found onboard suggest that more practical objects were in higher demand than decorative objects or wares for fine dining - although the discovery of over 50,000 soup spoons unmatched with bowls also demonstrates the scale of contemporary trade and the danger of extrapolating too much from a single cargo.
Yixing teapots first appeared during the Ming dynasty and they became particularly popular both in Europe and Asia in the 17th century. By the 18th century imitations were being made in Europe. Genuine Yixing pots are made from a distinctive purplish red clay found only in Jiangsu province, and each of the examples from the Desaru displays a mark on the base giving either a potter's or a supervisor's name. A number of the teapots carry the mark of Shao Youlan who is known to have been active in the Daoguang reign (1821-1850) and this, for the time being, is the best indication for the age of the shipwreck.
The Desaru Shipwreck was fully excavated in 2002. The below sketch shows the vessel's remains at that time
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Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. was incorporated on the recommendation of the Malaysian authorities. This was done in order to formalize and to expand on the company’s researcher’s extensive knowledge of Asia’s ceramic developments and maritime trade. The company’s researchers have been engaged in the search for historical shipwrecks for more than two decades and another decade researching maritime trade. Most of this work is concentrated to the South China Sea, a virtual highway for ancient shipping linking China to India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in an extensive maritime trade system. This ancient trade started sometime around the 4th century and lasted well into the 19th century.
Following a successful shipwreck discovery, the company obtain a government permit to excavate the wreckage, and then carry out detailed marine archaeological procedures in recovering the artifacts, mapping the ship's remains and securing other data for future research. After each concluded project and following conservation of recovered artifacts, we search for and pinpoint ruined kiln sites and compare its wasters with the recovered ceramics until we are satisfied we located the place in which the shipwreck pottery was made centuries earlier.
Our arrangement with the Malaysian authorities is such that we finance all operations and train young Malaysian nationals (on our initiative) in maritime archaeology and related research. After giving all unique and single artifacts and thirty percent of all recovered items to the National Museum (and assisting with exhibitions of artifacts from each project) we are allowed to sell our portion of the recovery to finance future projects. The findings from ongoing research and the compilation of reports, books and catalogues are available on these pages as well as on a separate Internet site: http://www.maritimeasia.ws Due to the unquestionable authenticity and precisely dated shipwreck pottery, many International Museums now display our shipwreck pieces as reference material.
The artifacts sold on this website are therefore legally and properly excavated and can be supplied with an export permit from the Department of Museum in Malaysia should this be required. This unique working arrangement makes us one of the few Internet sellers that sell from own excavation and deliver a meaningful Certificate of Authenticity with all artifacts with a serial number.
So, if you are interested to purchase some of our Antique porcelain, old time pottery or other shipwreck artifacts from the Song dynasty, Ming porcelain or Chinese blue and white porcelain or the famous Yixing teapots, you can rest assured that every piece is excavated through proper archaeology by our own staff. We do not sell anything that is not excavated by ourselves or properly recorded and researched before offered for sale so every piece comes with the “Best possible provenance” WE ENCOURAGE YOU TO EMAIL OUR PRINCIPAL RESEARCHER; Sten Sjostrand SHOULD YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR POSSIBLE PURCHASE
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Historical and production background
Nine large dragon jars was found on the site
The Desaru ship was divided into lateral wooden compartments, between which the cargo was stacked with no trace of boxes or other packing material surviving, except that some of the storage jars contained smaller ceramics. The wreck lay almost flat on the seabed, with the lower part of the hull, the compartments, and some 90cm of cargo (the height of two layers of storage jars) well preserved. The ship is estimated to have been around 34m long and 8m wide - which is narrow for a cargo vessel - and carried no ballast other than the ceramic cargo, so may have been somewhat unstable. Some aspects of construction, particularly the lack of large bolts and of support for the ceiling boards, appear slipshod. The square bow and the mast step for the main mast are structurally interesting.
Artefacts from the Desaru ship are on display at the Maritime Archaeology Malaysia exhibition at Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur. This web report is based on 'The Desaru shipwreck excavation: final report' by Sten Sjostrand, submitted to the Malaysian Department of Museums and Antiquities in January 2003.
Desaru shipwreck site
The wreck site is two nautical miles off Desaru beach, on the east coast of Johor in the south of Peninsular Malaysia. The wreck was buried one metre below a muddy seabed, at a water depth of twenty metres. Due to a thick layer of silt deposited by nearby river outlets, underwater visibility was limited. During the surface investigation, visibility was zero at high tide and a maximum 1.5 metres at low water. Tidal current varied between 1.1 and 2.5 knots. The current is predominantly in the direction 150 degrees, away from the river outlets
Winds in the South China Sea are mainly generated by two monsoons. The stronger of the two, the northeasterly, prevails between mid-November and early March. The 'southwest' monsoon, which is actually southeasterly in this southern region, blows between July and September. The two transitional periods, April-May and October-November, are characterised by light and variable winds, interspersed with calms and short-but-violent storms
The site when discovered was level with the surrounding seabed, without any protruding wood or pottery, but with scattered pottery shards littering a large area of the surface. The usual mound of pottery, which could have represented as much as thirty percent of the cargo, was shaved flat. The top edge of a few transverse bulkheads were seen level with the seabed. These were 1.55 metres apart, indicating that this was the standard distance between individual cargo compartments. However, in one such compartment an additional bulkhead was found. This was believed to be the mast area, with an additional bulkhead inserted for extra strength. After light hand fanning, a short section of a hull and transverse bulkhead planks became visible
The site is aligned 30-210 degrees, with the apparent bow pointing 30 degrees. The scattered shards are found up to 4 metres either side of the ship, and up to 20 metres to the north and south, along the trawling directions.
Ceramics found in the port bow area were more broken and disorganized than in other sections of the ship. The hull has a slight list to port, so more of the hull planks survive on the port side than on the starboard. No other cause of sinking was evident, so the hypothesis is that the port bow was first to hit the bottom.
The wreck site is off the coast of State Johor in Southeast Malaysia
Porcelain as seen on the seabed
The impact of fishing trawlers
Fishermen were key to locating the wreck, but trawl nets have caused significant damage to this and other sites.
The Desaru shipwreck was discovered in May 2001. Initial information came from a bottom trawler, which twice snagged its nets, and in them found a few pottery shards and one piece of ship's timber. The position provided was imprecise, but a local fisherman was able to point out three spots where he had snagged his drift net. While
moving about the area to obtain his locations, a few spots with fish were noticed on the depth sounder. Fish are often attracted to wreck sites, and one of these spots was indeed part of the wreck. The discovery was timely, as the site had already been damaged by bottom trawlers, and might soon have become undetectable using today's technology.
The timing of work on the site was dependent on necessary official approvals, as well as on the seasons. A surface investigation was conducted in June 2001; the ship's cargo was recovered in Oct-Nov 2001; and site measurements and mapping continued during April, May and September 2002. Returning to the site in early April 2002, it was found littered with broken planks and misplaced bulkhead frames. The official buoy requested to protect the site was first installed on 13 Dec 2001, a full month after the first recovery season ended; meanwhile trawlers had been active. Missing bulkhead planks showed that the site had been damaged after the recovery phase and before the buoy was in place. Newly deposited sand and mud, again level with the surrounding seafloor, was higher than the missing planks. Further damage to the site occurred between May and September 2002, despite a marker buoy close to the wreck. On returning to the site for final measurements, a long steel chain and parts of a trawl net were found stuck in the ship's timbers. Three large and heavy longitudinal beams belonging to the mast support had vanished altogether.
The remaining ship structure
The only remains of the ship were from the lower hull, including parts of transverse bulkheads and associated frames, and the mast step.
Edge-joined hull planks were nailed to transverse frames, to which bulkhead planks were also afixed. The distance between the main transverse bulkheads averaged 1.55 metres. Hull and bulkhead planks were six centimetres thick, the frames varying between nine and nineteen centimetres. The bulkhead frames were made from logs split longitudinally without much additional trimming - ie, one side was convex while the cut side was flat and used to attach the bulkhead planks. These main frames ended about ninety centimetres above the keel, flat with the surrounding seabed. This height coincides with the two tiers of storage jars (49 and 41 centimetres high) stored inside the hull; the seabed was about level with the rim of the uppermost jar.
The bulkhead frames were cut in one length, except the frames at bulkheads 18 & 19, which had scarfed joints above the keel. The end of the frames were joined to a futtock which once continued up the ship's side. (A futtock is a curved rib which is not a floor frame.) The lower end of additional hull-reinforcing ribs was seen between bulkheads. These ribs started at abut the same level where the futtocks were installed. Probably the ribs, like the futtocks, once reached all the way to the deck.
Between bulkheads 10 & 11, an extra frame was inserted, adding support for the main mast. Yet another frame was inserted between bulkheads 16-17 and 18-19, and this one is believed to have supported a foremast.
The length of the ship's remaining hull was around thirty metres, and the beam slightly wider than six metres. Allowing for a bow and stern section, extending past the present remains on the seabed, the ship could have been around thirty-four metres long at deck level. By plotting the bilge keel and projecting the curvature of existing bulkhead frames to a predicted deck level, it is estimated that the ship was about eight metres wide. This is an unusually low beam-to-length aspect ratio (ie the ship was long and narrow).
Longitudinal partitions between bulkheads divided some of the cargo holds into smaller compartments. These additional divisions were probably never any higher than eighty centimetres, as the frames guiding the planks terminated at this height. These vertical guide frames had grooves into which each plank was loosely inserted, allowing its height to be adjusted as required.
Longitudinal partitions between bulkheads
Profiles of transverse frames
Bulkhead planks were originally secured by square nails to their respective frames. Hull planks were similarly nailed to the bulkhead frames and additional hull reinforcing ribs. All the nails had corroded, leaving only oxide stains around square holes. During excavation, structural members were held in place only by the ceramics and the surrounding compacted mud.
Although the use of nails would be an expected system of securing planks, the total lack of stronger penetrating bolts to secure highly-stressed structural members was a surprise. Despite heavy transverse and longitudinal loads throughout the ship during sailing, no bolts (or holes, or oxide stains) were found on the hull, between overlapping bulkhead frames and futtocks, or on the mast-supporting structure which is subjected to enormous loads in all directions.
Repairs to the hull were immediately noticeable. Extra planks, two and a half centimetres thick, had been added both inside and outside the hull. The external planks were nailed directly to the hull without any caulking material in between. The internal planks, fitted in patches wherever needed, were cut in shorter lengths and fitted between the bulkhead frames.
The use of sacrificial external planks, which could be replaced after worm attack, had been common practice in China for centuries(1) - as it had in Europe, but by the 18th century many European ships were fitted with copper sheathing. The Diana, built to British specifications in Chittagong in 1812, was sheathed with copper (2).
Another unusual feature of the Desaru ship was its internal cargo deck: ceiling boards carried the load of the cargo. Such cargo decks were normally supported, directly or indirectly, by a bulkhead frame such that the weight of the cargo was distributed along its full length. In this case, horizontal transverse frames, placed between the bulkhead frames, supported the boards. To allow for the curvature of the hull, a few wedges were placed between the hull planks and the supporting frames, which would have been dangerous in heavy seas.
The keel, which was completely accessible only at the stern, had no visible bolts or nails securing it to the transverse frames. Projections of bulkhead profiles and their respective heights indicate that the ship had a slightly curved keel. Aft of bulkhead 6, the inner part of the keel bent upwards, ending at the stern even with the seabed. The lower part of the keel continued to the stern in a slight curve, and the keel was one metre deep at the stern. Forward of bulkhead 18, the keel again bent upwards in a curve, ending level with the seabed.
Stern of the Desaru wreck
The depth of the keel could not be measured, but it was generally twenty-two centimetres wide, measured from the inside of the hull. It had a recess on each side of about seven centimetres into which the innermost hull planks were fitted. Its maximum width was thus thirty-six centimetres. Forward of bulkhead 18, the keel tapered towards the bow where it was only eleven centimetres wide. The forward end of the keel terminated abruptly in planks secured in a perpendicular direction, each sixty centimetres long. These transverse planks, recessed each side to support adjoining hull planks, formed the lower end of a square bow.
Other shipwrecks found in the region provide interesting comparisons. The Shinan wreck, a Chinese ship found in Korea, dated by a cargo tag to 1323, shows similar planks attached to a tapered keel (3). While the Shinan ship's bow planks form a triangle, flaring out from the keel, another Chinese wreck recently excavated in Vietnam and dated to the early 16th century has similar planks making a trapezoidal section (4). On the Desaru ship, bow planks were placed perpendicular to the keel forming a rectangle.
The bottom of the Desaru ship is rather flat, except in the stern where the hull retracts into a 'V' shape, ending in a deep stern keel. On comparing the ship's profile in the stern with that of the bow, where it is gently curved, it is apparent that the designer wanted a broad and flat bow section, with full buoyancy, allowing for smooth sailing in choppy seas. Although no rudder or rudder attachments were found in or around the stern keel, the straight cut of the surviving timbers indicates the end of the vessel. The foremost part of the bow however had mostly disappeared, and could have extended two or three metres beyond its present measurable length.
Despite the ship's length, only one lower end of a mast foot and supporting structure could be found. This was situated amidships, between bulkheads 10 & 11. In this compartment, there were two additional transverse frames, both directly supporting the mast. The mainmast foot was about one meter high, ending level with the seabed. Despite special efforts to locate another mast, it is certain that no such additional mast remained. However, between bulkheads 16 & 17 there were two additional intermediate frames inserted, similar to those supporting the main mast. As this was the only other compartment with extra bulkhead frames, it is possible that a foremast once stood here. There were no traces whatsoever of a third mast, which would have been expected on a ship of this size. As the mapping and recording proceeded, it was decided to retrieve the remaining mast foot and associated structure. Its unusual features and lack of securing bolts were thought to be of interest, and should be preserved and displayed at a future maritime archaeology museum.
The mast foot was supported by two additional bulkhead frames inserted for this purpose. Three longitudinal wooden beams distributed the load from the base of the mast towards the stern; there it was further distributed by centrally located partitions.
Samples of the ship's timber collected during the surface investigation showed that the ships hull was made from Cedus species (cedar) and the transverse bulkheads from Pinus species (pine) (5). Other samples taken during the excavation were more difficult to identify, due to decomposition. Examination was limited to surface and cross sections, but indicate that the mast was made from Garcinia species (kandis), a tree growing throughout the tropics. Similar examination of a longitudinal mast support indicates that it was made from Dialitum species (keranji), a species growing throughout lowland Malaysia, Thailand and Indo-China (6). Chinese shipbuilders are reported to have imported some timber, which probably explains the intriguing mixture of tropical and temperate climate wood used in the Desaru construction (7). The utilisation of a rather rigid tropical wood for the mast is particularly interesting. Traditionally, the Chinese preferred a softer and more flexible timber for masts, such as pine or cedar, then plentiful in Fujian province (8).
Cause of wrecking
The ship's remains do not reveal the reasons for loss. A small patch of burnt wood was seen in bulkhead frame number ten, next to the mast, but did not appear large enough to suggest that the ship was lost due to fire, although this was a common reason for shipwreck.
All but one of the hull planks were found in place, suggesting that the hull was intact before sinking; the exceptional bow plank is quite likely to have broken when the ship hit the seabed rather than on collision with a reef or another ship.
Pirates could have attacked the Desaru ship, killed her captain, captured passengers and crew, taken the most precious cargo, and set fire to the ship before selling the captured as slaves. If this happened, the pirates would have been likely to take the ship's cannons, valuable commodities at the time. Piracy was virtually uncontrolled during the first half of the 19th century. Writing in the late 1830's, Newbold indicated that pirate activities around the Malay peninsula were seasonal and determined by the wind conditions. From April to May, pirates would focus on the east coast; from June to September the brunt of their depredations fell on Johor and nearby islands. One pirate chief boasted that he had killed twenty-seven captains of European ships with his own hands. Piracy was curbed in 1837 when Admiralty jurisdiction granted prosecuting authority to the Straits Settlements; until then, all cases had to be referred to Calcutta. Around this time, Singapore started to supply ships with anti-pirate cannon, similar to the one found on the Desaru ship.
The mast foot was supported by two additional bulkhead frames inserted for this purpose.
Three longitudinal wooden beams distributed the load from the base of the mast towards the stern; there it was further distributed by centrally located partitions. Measurements in cm.
1. Marco Polo reported in the C13th that additional planks were added after the first voyage, with one more added each year for six years, after which ships were no longer considered ocean-worthy.
2. Dorian Ball, 1995, The Diana Adventure, p.54.
3. Z.G.Kim, 1980, The report on the Shinan seabottom relics excavation: study of the submerged hull. Trans. Cultural Properties Maintenance Office, Seoul.
4. Dr Michael Flecker, 2002, personal e-mail.
5. Analyses by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, 2 Jul 2001. Ref: FRIM 394/Kh665/1/1/Klt.48 (232)
6. Analyses by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, 25 Nov 2002. Ref: FRIM 364/KH665/1/1/Klt. (176)
7. Lo Jung Pang, 'Chinese shipping and East-West trade from the 10th to the 14th centuries', Societés de Commerce en Orient, p.172.
8. Chen Qi and Chen Yingdong, Chinese Fu-chuan, 1991, Proceedings of the International Sailing Ships Conference in Shanghai, p.299.
For more information about the ship's ceramic and non-ceramic cargo: Cargo report To learn more about the production of the blue and white porcelain onboard the Dasaru ship, please go to: Jingdezhen Pottery from the Desaru shipwreck is now for sale. Please visit: our sales pages.
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