Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet by James Delgado

..."very few Westerners have any understanding of how the forces of nature and history brought Khubilai Khan and kamikaze together off the shores of Japan's southern coast in the late thirteenth century. Even today in China and Japan, where Khubilai once reigned and where the battles and shipwrecks that marked his failed invasions played out, most do not have more than a cursory understanding of what really happened."

Khubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, took control of his grandfather's empire and for a time ruled China as Emperor. In 1274 and 1281 he tried to invade Japan, failing both times. The story that most of the world knows is the second invasion was supposedly destroyed by a "divine wind", otherwise known as a kamikaze. This gave rise to the idea that as an island nation, Japan had the divine protection of the gods. No one knew what had really happened to these invasion fleets until the early 1908s when mechanical engineer and WWII veteran, Torao Mozai made a discovery off Takashima Island.

The Good:

Delgado tells a good story around the facts when this book could have easily been a dry academic text. Things are described in layman's terms, making it easy for the average person to understand. As well, the reader gets a good background on ships, sailing and trading in Ancient China, showing how technologically advanced the Chinese were. They invented the stern rudder whereas it was unknown in the Mediterranean until the 13th century. Also, Chinese mariners used watertight bulkheads, something the Titanic failed to faithfully reproduce.

It was fascinating to discover how much of a contribution Khubilai made to China as well as read about his rise to power, despite the machinations of other family members. He introduced paper currency to China and "in his memoirs, Marco Polo waxed eloquent on the novelty and efficiency of the Khan's paper money, manufactured from the bark of mulberry trees."

Despite the face that "nautical archaeology has yet to be developed", we are able delve into what really happened to the Mongol invasion fleets of 1274 and 1281. Several theories are put forward, including the idea that a great storm, a kamikaze, was indeed responsible for breaking up the fleet of 1281. The proposed truth is far more interesting and complex.

The Bad:

This book includes a photo section and Delgado make various references to paintings, artifacts and manuscripts but very few of these examples are accompanied by photos. For example, Delgado mentions surviving portraits of both Kubilai and his wife Chabi, yet they aren't reproduced in this book. Delgado goes to great lengths describing the Great Khan's rise to power and his decisions as Emperor of China so why not let us take a look at the man?

As well I don't believe enough time has passed since excavation began to warrant a book. It's only in the last twenty years that some major discoveries have been made. I would have expected to see a book perhaps twenty years down the road, when a more concrete idea has emerged from Takashima Island. Here the archaeologists and Delgado only scratch the surface of the invasion fleet with less than one percent of the estimated underwater battlefield excavated. Only one chapter out of twelve is actually devoted to the finds made. This was disappointing considering the book seems aimed at answering the big question: what happened to the fleet? Even with the proposed theories, archaeologists admit theres a lot they still don't know.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach.


Rating: 3.5/5

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