Zhangzhou wares in Binh Thuan shipwreck

The Binh Thuan shipwreck was first discovered in 2001 by fishermen while trying to unravel a trawl net caught in the wreckage. It lies 41 meters (135 feet) below the surface about 65 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Binh Thuan province.  

Nearly 20,000 pieces of early 17th century blue and white ceramics from Zhangzhou were recovered during the salvage operations started in 2001.  Zhangzhou, located in the Fujian Province, produced ceramics commonly termed Swatow wares mainly for export to Southeast Asia and Japan. Zhangzhou wares are generally for heavily and crudely potted.  It lacks the finer finishing of Jingdezhen wares. A common feature of Zhangzhou wares are the sands adhesion found on the outer base of the plates. The blue and white wares recovered are similar to those found in the the Dutch East Indiamen the witte Leeuw wreck,   which had gone down near St. Helena, on its homeward voyage in 1613.

Typical grits adhesion on the outer base

The Chinese junk, carrying the Binh Thuan cargo was likely to have been headed towards the Malay Peninsula or Java. It sank near the Southern coast of Vietnam during the first decade of the 17th century.

During the second half of 16th century, Zhangzhou posed as a serious competitor of Jingdezhen for the ceramics trade.  Zhangzhou blue and white wares are generally coarse in nature but suited the lower end markets in Southeast Asia and Japan.  From some of the 16th century wrecks such as San Isidro, San Felipe and the Nan ao, it is clear that the early Zhangzhou blue and white is characterised by its vigorous and spontaneous calligraphic style of decoration.  However, very likely by the 1580s, Jingdezhen started producing a kraak style porcelain with motif organised within panels for the European market.  Due to its popularity, Zhangzhou kilns also started producing similar version.  Instead of the earlier calligraphic style of execution, the Zhangzhou potter also adopted the outline and wash method for the decoration.  By the early 16th century, the Zhangzhou calligraphic style were gradually phased out and only small quantity were found in wreck such as the 1600 San Diego wreck.  Those found in the Binh Thuan wreck were mainly kraak style Zhangzhou blue and white which are executed using the outline and wash method. I have not seen any using the calligraphic style of execution.

Zhangzhou plate with calligraphc decorative style from Nanao wreck

The Portuguese and the Spaniard were the earliest European traders to be involved in the China and Southeast Asia trade.  However, the Dutch who arrived by the turn of 17th century quickly replaced the Portuguese as the dominant player in the Southeast Asia and Japan ceramics trade. The Dutch East India Company, VOC was established in 1602.  The Chinese continued to be actively involved in the region.  The research by Petter Potters, a Maritime Exploration researcher, throws light on the nature of collaboration between the Dutch and the Chinese.  The archives of The Hague revealed that the Dutch set up trading bases in Banten, Johore and Patani.  Besides sourcing for goods for the European market, they were also actively involved in the inter-regional trade.  Some of the records from the VOC archives revealed how the trade between the Dutch and Chinese were contracted.  Batter trade and cash were involved in the trading.  For example, a Dutch trader, Victor Sprinckel, trading from Patani paid an advance of 148 mirrors, 250 glass panels and 50 pieces-of-eight in cash to the Chinese merchant Teko.  In exchange,  Teko was to deliver a cargo of fine porcelain on the return voyage the following year.  Mr Sprinckel bore the risk of the outward and return voyage. Surety was provided by Teko's friend.  The arrangement was formalised in a simple written contractual agreement.

Dr Michel Flecker, the marine archaeologist involved in the Binh Thuan wreck salvage, suggested that the wreck could be that of I Sinh Ho.  In the VOC archives, there was a report by a VOC representative in Johore, Abraham van den Broecke dated 21st Jul 1608.  He reported that he received news that the Junk of  I Sin Ho, the Chinese merchant, was lost at sea while on the return journey to Southeast Asia.

The bulk of the pieces salvaged  from the Binh Thuan wreck were auctioned by Christies in Australia in Mar 2004.

The cargo consisted of mainly Zhangzhou blue and white, blue and white with over enamelled decoration and lead glaze vessels.  The blue and white plates are decorated using the Jingdezhen kraak style composition, ie use of partitioning for decoration. 

Examples of Blue and white Vessels







Example of Blue and white and overglaze enamelled decoration

Blue and white lion and overglaze red and green enamelled  floral motif on inner and outer wall which is badly degraded


Example of lead glaze vessels


It was suggested in the Christies' auction catalogue that the lead glaze items were from Guangdong.  However, this may not be the case.  In the Zhangzhou kilns, similar examples of the biscuit form before glazing were found in significant quantity.  At least since the Song Dynasty, kilns in Cizao and Nanping were known to be producing lead glaze wares.  There was a continued tradition for the production of such wares in Fujian.


Written by : NK Koh

Reference: Christie's Binh Thuan Shipwreck Catalogue


Written by: NK Koh (20 Oct 2014)

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