The original kamikaze: Kublai Khan’s invasion shipwreck found?

We are still learning about the Mongolian invasions, 750 years after they happened. Hanoi History Museum, James Delgado

Archaeologists from the University of the Ryukyus in Japan have discovered part of a 13th century ship that apparently belonged to Mongolian warlord Kublai Khan.

The ship is believed to be a remnant of a fleet that took part in one of Kublai Khan’s failed attempts to invade Japan, in 1274 or 1281.

The discovery could provide archaeologists and historians with new insights into medieval shipbuilding and about Kublai Khan’s multiple invasion attempts.

The wreck of the 20-metre-long vessel was discovered under 25 metres of water and one metre of sand, in waters off Takashima Island in Matsuura, Nagasaki prefecture.

The archaeologists uncovered a 12-metre-long section of keel and more than 4,000 artifacts, including ceramic shards, bricks used for ballast, cannonballs and stone anchors.

According to lead researcher, Yoshifumi Ikedia, there are no immediate plans to salvage the hull. The first step was to conserve the find by covering the site with nets.

On several occasions, from 1274 AD onwards, Kublai Khan dispatched armies aboard fleets of ships in an attempt to expand the Mongolian empire into East Asia (Japan) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam).

In 1281, he amassed an impressive armada of 4,400 ships carrying at least 140,000 Korean, Mongol and Chinese troops in a second attempt to invade Japan.

But Kublai Khan’s plans were thwarted when a two-day typhoon – known as a kamikaze (or “divine wind”) – hit the Tsushima Strait, apparently destroying approximately 80% of his fleet. Historians believe Kublai Khan’s troops either drowned at sea or were killed on the beaches by samurai.

The shipwreck discovered off Takashima Island is not the first archaeological evidence we have of Kublai Khan’s failed invasions.

Since 2008 an international research team, the Bach Dang Battlefield Research Group – comprised of archaeologists and scholars from around the world (myself included) – has conducted archaeological surveys and excavations at the Bach Dang River in north Vietnam.

We have been investigating the topography, archaeological evidence and later memorials, temples and shrines associated with another historically significant naval battle.

A 19th century copy of a 1293 painting of the Mongol invasions.