Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Review: Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet

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

In the late 13th century, one of the largest empires the world has ever seen directed its not inconsiderable attention to the island nation of Japan. Twice, Khubilai sent ships from the mainland carrying his soldiers to the shores of Japan, and twice they failed to add Japan to the Khan's empire. These conflicts would be revived when Japan once again faced the possibility of foreign invasion: both in the waning years of the Tokugawa bakufu and in the latter campaigns of World War II.

So where is the evidence of these two massive fleets? Perhaps the most compelling evidence has come, not from the famous Hakata bay, but the island of Takashima. Marine archaeologist James Delgado attempts to shine some light onto the latest research being performed, while also taking readers through the backstory of the assault itself.

Delgado opens with perhaps the most common images of the Mongol Invasions in English: the kamikaze. He then explores the history of the Mongol empire, including the situation on the mainland in the latter half of the 13th century. For both invasions, he provides maps of the routes, indicating the various naval engagements. The tale Delgado weaves around these events is infused with an emotional characteristic not usually evident in a strictly historical monograph. This quality may be due to the book having evolved from his work for National Geographic's series The Sea Hunters.

This, however, is as much about the history as generating interest in the archaeology. Delgado's account of the progress of the underwater dig around Takashima, and his hopefulness for the future, are compelling.

Delgado's forte is maritime archaeology and history, and this shows. His coverage of Japan is perhaps less in depth than serious readers might want, but he makes up for this with a broad look at Asian history in general, connecting events on the mainland with the invasions. He shows how the initial assault, even though it was repulsed, would have disrupted trade between Japan and their allies in the Southern Song dynasty; this may have been one of Khubilai's goals for the invasion in the first place. Following the second invasion, Delgado briefly looks at the Yuan dynasty's other failed maritime ventures against Vietnam and Srivijaya, which truly marked the end of the Mongols' attempts to take over the Southern Song's position as a naval power in East Asia.

If there were any main criticism of the book, it is the lack of actual archaeological finds. While much talk is directed at the research and its importance, the fruits of most of the labor will need to be found elsewhere. He does point out the remains (including armor) of one of the Mongol soldiers, and describes the contents of the "tetsuhau", or Mongol ceramic bombs. A series of photographs in the center provide further teasing glimpses of what appears to be a treasure trove of historical evidence. Fortunately for the serious student, Delgado provides an extensive list of references, including web links to the reports and recent scholarship which may provide enlightening.

Delgado does a terrific job of exposing the organizations and individuals behind the research, such as KOSUWA, ARIUA, Mozai Torao, Hayashida Kenzo, and Randall James "Randy" Sasaki, whose work has helped and continues to help expose these ages old relics to modern scholarship. Delgado's own part in all of this also comes through, adding a personal quality to his descriptions of the site that could not be acquired merely by reading books.

All in all, this book is a wonderful look at the famous Mongolian fleets, providing an intriguing read for both the novice and experienced scholar. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Mongol invasions.

For this and other interesting titles, check out the Samurai-Archives Bookstore, hosted by Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I am interested in this period of history and wouldn't have seen this book otherwise. Great blog by the way!