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Captain's Log

August 2007

Treasures of the Tek Sing

A three-masted Fukien ocean-going junk similar to Tek Sing.

A three-masted Fukien ocean-going junk similar to Tek Sing.

In 1822, China was a mighty, but declining, maritime nation. The economy was gradually being crippled by a nationwide addiction to opium, which was imported by European merchants.


The port of Amoy had been central to the country’s trading prowess. It was here that a large junk – the Tek Sing, or True Star – was moored. Bound for Jakarta, she was loaded with precious cargo: porcelain, silks, spices, and medicines. There was so much cargo that some was even strapped to the outside of the ship’s hull!


There were also some 1600 emigrants on board who were searching for a better life working on the sugar plantations of Java. Unlike the wealthy merchants accompanying their cargo, these peasants did not have cabins. Instead, they slept out on the deck, exposed to the elements in extremely cramped conditions.


Tek Sing was a huge ship for her time – well over a thousand tons. Nevertheless, she was dangerously overloaded – the slightest mishap could lead to a catastrophic loss of life.


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After nearly a month of sailing, the captain of the Tek Sing decided to try a short cut through the Gaspar Straits – an area that had not yet been thoroughly charted. This was not the usual tried and tested route. However, with so many people on board who would, by this stage in the voyage, have been hungry and lacking fresh water, the Gaspar Straits must have seemed an attractive option.


On the night of 6th February 1822, a strong monsoon wind was blowing from the Northwest, and the ship was making rapid progress along the Gaspar Straits. There were little more than 300 kilometres left to travel when tragedy struck.


There was a considerable swell on the sea, and the white tops of the wind-blown waves could not be distinguished from the waves breaking over the Belvidere Shoals. Suddenly, she ran aground on a small reef – the force of the strike was as devastating as an explosion. The rising tide, and strong Northwest winds, soon pulled her over to one side. Badly holed, and completely unnavigable, the Tek Sing sank to the sandy bottom in around 100 feet of water.


Had her course been 100 metres to the west, the Tek Sing would have sailed past the reef unaware of its presence and onward to Jakarta without incident.


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Almost 200 years later, Captain Mike Hatcher – an experienced wreck hunter – was searching the seas around the Belvidere Reef. His ‘lucky’ vessel – the Restless M – is equipped with some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world. Nevertheless, it was a painstaking task. There would surely have been many wrecks in the area, but it was the large Chinese Junk that held the most promise of finding Treasure.


The Tek Sing had very few metal parts, and most of the wood would have rotted away or been grown over by coral. This meant that the sonar and the metal detectors could not be relied upon to give accurate information, and every fleeting irregularity on the screens had to be confirmed with an exploratory dive.


After several weeks of searching, the team was becoming despondent – they had failed to find any evidence of the legendary wreck. The crew returned to a site where a faint reading had been recorded a few days earlier, but at the time had been deemed not strong enough to warrant sending divers down. The Restless M returned to the site to complete the task.


In the murky, twilight depths, around 100ft down, the divers made a curious find. Firstly, a large iron hoop around a metre wide, then another, and another at regularly-spaced intervals. Later it was realised that these rings were used to strengthen the wooden mast of a sailing ship – and this mast must have been around 100ft in length!


The divers followed the rings to the site of the wreck. Out of the gloom emerged a shiny blue and white porcelain bowl. This was not just a random find - gradually, the divers realised that there were stacks of them rising some two metres from the seabed.


Mike Hatcher returned to the site with a 180-foot salvage pontoon, which was anchored directly above the wreck. Divers worked in shifts from dawn to dusk to bring the treasure to the surface. A crew of 50 cleaned and packed the porcelain for its onward journey.


It was complex work. In addition to retrieving the treasure, the whole wreck site had to be measured, photographed, and recorded for archaeological purposes.


The remains of several bodies were found amongst the wreckage. Many of Hatcher’s crew were Indonesian and Chinese. They believed that bad luck would follow if the divers disturbed the dead, so the corpses were respectfully left aboard the Tek Sing, soon to become buried in silt once again.


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With the identity of the wreck confirmed, Hatcher’s salvage vessel set off back to Singapore with the largest ever haul of antique porcelain.


Antique porcelain from a wreck can be worth more than its weight in gold, so the treasure hunters were keen to have the haul examined by experts. They were surprised to find that the porcelain originated from many different places and dates. Some pieces must have been around 100 years old when they were loaded. Many of the items were new to marine archaeologists, and provided valuable insights into Chinese life.


Tek Sing’s porcelain cargo had been packed so tightly, that even after nearly 200 years under the silt and coral, many examples were in almost pristine condition. Such was the scale of the discovery that, when the goods went to auction in Germany, the bidding went on 24 hours a day for seven days!

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