Sunken Treasures: Secrets of the Maritime Silk Road
The Princessehof will present the exhibition Sunken Treasures from 7 September 2019 to 28 June 2020. The exhibition features ceramics and other objects found aboard eight shipwrecks dating from the ninth to the nineteenth century. The ceramic treasures tell fascinating stories about the Maritime Silk Road in Asia and reveal a hitherto unknown world of international trade and exchange.
Ships from all over the world sailed the Maritime Silk Road for centuries in search of pepper, silk and porcelain. Sometimes the ships that perished lie on the seabed for centuries as time capsules. The wrecks and certainly the well-preserved ceramics provide a trove of information.
The ship San Diego demonstrates that Spain was already a major player in international trade around 1600. It sank during a battle because it was overloaded with cannon, ammunition and provisions. Salvage operations revealed that the San Diego contained products from all over the world. For example, the Kraak porcelain in its hold was purchased from Chinese traders in the port of Manila. The Dutch VOC ship Witte Leeuw sank thirteen years later, after attacking two Portuguese vessels. Greed cost the Dutch their lives: the powder room exploded and the merchandise aboard ended up at the bottom of the sea, a great loss for the VOC.
Because of their valuable cargo, shipwrecks are very appealing to commercial diving companies. In the 1980s, an auction of ceramics retrieved from the Asian Hatcher wreck and the VOC ship Geldermalsen generated millions. However, most of the information about the ships and crew was lost during the salvage operation. This auction resulted in stricter legislation on underwater archaeology in the Netherlands. Maritime archaeologist Martijn Manders illustrates the importance of careful underwater archaeology with the recent salvage of the Rooswijk off the English coast.
When the Tek Sing ran aground in 1822, 360,000 pieces of porcelain and hundreds of human lives were lost. More than 1600 immigrants were crammed onto the ship’s deck, trying to leave China illegally. In addition to the enormous quantities of porcelain, jars with opium residue were also found on board. The British smuggled the drug to the East, fostering mass addiction. Although the Chinese trade was flourishing, the empire was beginning to falter.
Older wrecks prove that there was already a thriving trade in Asia long before the VOC sailed over the horizon. A Chinese ship that sank near Sinan in 1323 was on its way to Japan. This is evident from the wooden labels attached to many of the packages on board. This information is a valuable discovery for archaeologists. Exclusive ceramics for the rich elite were also found, as well as incense burners and statues of saints for Japanese temples. Much earlier, it was the Arabs who were the first to be able to cover long distances on the open sea with their graceful ships. The Tang ship, sunk around 830, sailed to China to buy the desired stoneware and porcelain. But the refined pots, bowls, mirrors and dishes never reached their destination: the captain decided to make a detour on the return trip and encountered a series of dangerous reefs. The ship sank, taking all and everything aboard with it.