Off the coast of the Japanese island of Kyushu, a team of archaeologists are battling against the changing seas. Why? Because beneath the surface, they have discovered an ancient shipwreck that sank more than seven centuries ago. Could the vessel be evidence of a thwarted invasion by the infamous Mongol Empire? And what might it tell us about this forgotten time?
When Temüjin Borjigin was born sometime in the mid-12th century in what is now Mongolia, his homeland was troubled by violence between its clans. Furthermore, when Borjigin was just a young boy, his father was killed by a group of enemy Tatars. And the tragedy subsequently led to Borjigin’s entire family being abandoned by their community.
Despite these early hardships, though, Borjigin ultimately made his name by forging allegiances between different tribes. Apparently, he came to believe that leaders should earn power rather than inherit it – something that may have helped him gather great support from the lower classes. Then, in 1186, he became the elected leader, or Khan, of the Mongol people.
And although Borjigin’s reign was not without its difficulties, he laid the foundations for arguably one of the greatest empires in human history. By the time he died in 1227, the man known as Genghis Khan had overseen a series of invasions that brought vast swathes of Asia and Europe under his control.
However, Genghis Khan’s power came at a price. His invading hordes developed a reputation for exercising brutal violence during their campaigns. Some believe that the ruler was even accountable for a staggering 40 million deaths during his reign. And by the time his grandson Kublai Khan took over in 1260, the name of the Mongols was enough to strike fear into hearts around the world.
Then, six years into his reign, Kublai sent a message to Japan threatening war unless the country handed over money or goods to the Mongol Empire. And when his advances went unanswered, he began to consider invasion. However, it wasn’t until 1274 – after an alliance with Korea had allowed Kublai to amass a naval force – that an attack on Japan was launched.
By this time, Kublai had established his own dynasty and was keen to expand the Mongolian Empire even further. To that end, then, he sent a large force across the East China Sea to Japan. Amazingly, some historians have estimated that some 15,000 soldiers, spread across as many as 800 vessels, made the journey.
So it was that in November 1274 the Mongol armada arrived on Kyushu. But even though the battle seemed to go in their favor at first, bad weather eventually forced the invaders to return to their ships. And while the fleet eventually headed back out to sea rather than be marooned, the number of ships was ultimately decimated when a typhoon destroyed the vast majority of the vessels.
Despite this failed invasion, the Mongols refused to give up, though. So, in 1281 they sent another armada – this time rumored to boast more than 140,000 fighters – to conquer Japan. But history practically repeated itself, as the Khan’s men were defeated by another typhoon that tore the fleet apart while it waited in the waters off Kyushu.
Today, such extreme weather conditions are unusual in this part of the world – which makes the two typhoons that put a halt to the Mongol invasions seem somewhat of an anomaly. In fact, the storms have since become collectively known as the “kamikazes,” with “kamikaze” translating as “divine wind.”
The Japanese would then reclaim the word “kamikaze” – albeit with a very different meaning – almost seven centuries later. At that time, it became a way to describe the fighter pilots who launched suicidal flights while defending Japan during World War II. However, it would be another half a century before the truth about the original kamikazes started to emerge. And when it did, it came in the form of a wreck buried at the bottom of the sea.
In July 2015 news outlets began reporting that a team of archaeologists from the University of the Ryukyus had made a startling discovery on the seabed off the coast of Kyushu. Working alongside the local authorities, the researchers had found what they believed to be the remains of a Mongol ship. What’s more, the vessel was possibly one of those that had been left to rot when Kublai’s armada sank some 700 years ago.
Apparently, the discovery was made near to Matsuura, a city on the island’s western coast. And, fascinatingly, experts believe that the vessel may have attempted to find shelter before it met its watery end. By the time the archaeologists recovered it, however, the hull had become partially buried some 75 feet below the waves.
Regardless of its age, though, the shipwreck seemed to be in an impressive state of preservation. In fact, experts were able to recover a number of relics, such as Chinese porcelain, from the site. “We hope to learn the kind of materials used by the Mongolians 730 years ago as well as the techniques used in the construction of the ship,” the Matsuura board of education’s Atsuyuki Nakata explained to The Daily Telegraph in 2015.
At around 65 feet in length and some 23 feet across, the wreck had once been a substantial vessel. The ship’s hull had apparently been split into sections, too, with rocks placed inside – probably as ballast. And, excitingly, the archaeologists involved were able to recover relics such as iron tools and tiles from the site.
Amazingly, though, this wasn’t the first time that archaeologists had discovered a Mongol shipwreck in Japan. Back in 2011 individuals from the University of the Ryukyus had found the remains of another vessel near Takashima Island off the coast of Kyushu. As a result, they were able to recover thousands of artifacts from the area – including anchors and cannonballs.
Now the team from the university hope that they could be on the verge of even more discoveries. Using ultrasound technology, they have been able to identify an additional three sites that may be the locations of shipwrecks. And according to Nakata, there might be even more ancient vessels in the depths.
Meanwhile, although the story of the kamikazes has become nothing more than a myth to many, these discoveries have lent new credibility to the theory. And in 2014 geologist Jon Woodruff revealed that he had discovered physical evidence of the ancient typhoons; his proof consisted of sediment layers from Japanese lake beds affected by extreme weather.
Furthermore, Woodruff has claimed that he was able to date those sediment layers, with the results seemingly indicating that they correlated with the sinking of Kublai’s fleets. “This is one of the earliest historic examples of atmospheric and oceanic conditions having a significant geopolitical impact,” he told National Geographic in 2014.
But despite the fascinating potential of the wreck, there are currently no plans to raise it to the surface. Instead, archaeologists have reburied it under silt in the hope that it will remain preserved for the future. If they ever do decide to retrieve the ship from the depths, though, there will be many waiting with bated breath for a glimpse into the world of the Mongol Khans.