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Singapore Wrecks in the Dragon’s Tooth Strait

By Sean Kingsley, Editor-in-Chief, Wreckwatch Magazine

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For decades Singapore has been a strangely wreck-less coast. Its phantom sunken heritage has been at odds with its centuries-old rich maritime history linked to its strategic location, a choke point between East and West, the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Singapore’s history is often wrongly thought to have begun with the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, in 1819.

A fine historian, Raffles was all too aware that the convenient British assumption was wishful thinking. Raffles planned to revive an ancient seaport based on its glorious legacy. As he wrote to his patroness Princess Charlotte, the Duchess of Somerset, “you will observe an Island to the north of these straits called Singapura; this is the spot, the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays, and within the walls of these fortifications, raised not less than six centuries ago, on which I have planted the British flag.”

Now, 198 years after Raffles left Singapore, two wrecks have come to light by good and bad fortune, shattered onto the Pedra Branca in the Singapore Strait, 24 miles east of the country’s shore. In late December 2014 a barge carrying two massive cranes hit bad weather on its way to Kuantan in Malaysia and ran aground. The cranes rocked about, running the risk of collapsing onto the Pedra Branca Horsburgh Lighthouse built in 1851 to safeguard the eastern entrance to the Straits of Singapore. To prevent the collision between freighter and historic landmark, the barge’s captain took the desperate decision to dynamite the two cranes, throw them overboard and save his own vessel. Metal scattered into the deep.

It was when divers were sent in to investigate the fallout that an ancient wreck from the 14th century came to light under the modern debris. And then when excavations were begun by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute archaeology a second wreck emerged 300 metres away. The remains are believed to be the Shah Munchah, a merchant trader built in India and lost while sailing from China to India in 1796 with goods ultimately destined for transhipment in Bombay for the British market.

After extensive excavations between 2016 and 2021, the first results have been announced. In accordance with Singapore’s Merchant Shipping Act, a one-month notice was published for potential claimants. None came forward and so the Singapore Government now owns the old ships and their finds.

Jurisdiction over the waters of Pedra Branca has been disputed for some years between Singapore and Malaysia. In 2008 the International Court of Justice ruled that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore and the Middle Rocks to Malaysia. The issue of the South Ledge remains under debate.

The first wreck holds a rare cargo of Chinese ceramics thought to date to the 14th century. Similar high end goods are known to have been enjoyed on the island based on parallels excavated at the Empress Place and Fort Canning Park.

The Shah Munchah site contains a diverse range of Chinese ceramics and copper-alloy, glass and agate objects, as well as parts of ship’s anchors and defensive cannon. The guns are types used by Indian 'country' traders working for the East India Company. Details of its loss were recorded in The Naval Chronicle of 1806 as “December 1796, SHAH MUNCHAH, of Bombay… burthen about one thousand tons, from Canton bound to Bombay, was lost on Pedro Branco, the entrance of Sincapour Strait. The crew arrived at Malacca on the boats.”

Exactly how the ship sank is remembered in Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, Cape of Good Hope, and the Interjacent Ports of 1811:

Although Pedro Branco is steep to, on the North side, it should not be approached very close, for navigators are liable to estimate their distance from it sometimes greater than the truth; and as the tides run strong, ships are in danger of being drifted quickly towards it without warning, if they borrow near it in light breezes… The Shah Munchah, a large and valuable ship, from China bound to Bombay, standing into the strait at mid-day, with a strong flood tide and scant wind, stood too near Pedro Branco before tacking; and was totally lost, by the tide horsing her upon the rock whilst in stays.

Singapore rose to significance as a port soon after 1300 when a settlement along the Singapore River sprung up and prospered throughout the 14th century. It was known as Longya, Dragon’s Tooth Strait, since at least 1320, when a Chinese text mentioned that in “the ninth month of the seventh year of the reign of Yen You [1320], Ma Cha Man and others were sent as envoys to Zhan-cheng [Champa], Zhanla [Cambodia], and Longya men [Singapore], asking for tame elephants”.

The island inhabitants imported goods from China and India, some of very high quality, such as have now turned up on the first wreck. Traders from across Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka settled in Singapore, forging a multi-ethnic society. Migrant Chinese traders and families also put down roots in a time when the Song dynasty and then the Mongol Yuan’s open gate maritime world encouraged its people to take to the oceans. The seas from China to Persia became one giant lake, complex East-West trade long before Europe's Age of Exploration kicked in.

Dragon’s Tooth Strait had a mixed reputation. While the city enjoyed peaceful, cosmopolitan relations with the wider world linked along the Maritime Silk Roads, Professor John Miksic has shown in Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 that the western entrance to Keppel Harbour, 8 kilometres from Singapore town, was an infamously dangerous pirate lair based on an account left behind by Wang Dayuan from the silk city of Hongzhou in China. Wang described how “The inhabitants are addicted to piracy”, pillage and plunder, while the peaceful indigenous population and Chinese lived side by side, selling local lakawood and tin and trading in “red gold, blue satin, cotton prints, Chu porcelain, iron cauldrons and suchlike things.”

All were shipped back to China by traders from Quanzhou, China’s leading port city. To escape the pirates of Keppel Harbour unmolested, “when on their return the junks reach Ji-li-men [Karimun, Indonesia], the sailors prepare their armour and padded screens as a protection against arrows for, of a certainty, some two or three hundred pirate perhaps will put out to attack them for several days.”

The early wreck discovered at Pedra Branca now sheds light on what was previously shadowy history. According to Dr Michael Flecker, a Visiting Fellow at the Archaeology Unit and Project Director of Maritime Archaeology Projects at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute, “Remarkably, the first ancient shipwreck found in Singapore waters seems to be contemporary with 14th century Temasek. Apart from a large cargo of Longquan green-ware and other ceramics, she carried more Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain than any other documented shipwreck in the world. Many of the pieces are rare, and one is believed to be unique.”

The early Pedra Branca shipwreck seems to consist of broken and largely intact finds scattered across the reef and buried on its lower slopes under ground shells and coarse sand. The cargo’s riches – large bowls with painted Chinese characters, huge Longquan dishes and small bowls and jars, white Qingbai porcelain side-saddle rider and horse figurines from Jiangxi province and blue-and-white teacups – would have been cherished by wealthy buyers.

Many questions wait to be answered. What was the size of the 14th-century Chinese trader? What survives of its hull and where was the cargo headed, Singapore or further afield? In the Yuan dynasty the Mongol emperors ruling China encouraged sea trade as far West as the Persian Gulf. The discovery of the Pedra Branca wreck too promises to shed rare light on the role of local Indian ‘country’ ships in bringing goods to and from Bombay and feeding into the massive East India Company mercantile machine.

The survey and excavation of the Pedra Branca wrecks were initiated and sponsored by Singapore’s National Heritage Board whose mission is to preserve and celebrate the shared heritage of the country’s diverse communities for the purpose of education, nation-building and cultural understanding. Once the conservation, research and documentation a, a merchant trader built in India and lost while sailing from China to India in 1796 with goods ultimately destined for transshipment in Bombay for the British market.

All photos: © National Heritage Board and ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

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