Preliminary reconstruction of one of Khubilai Khan’s lost ships. The result of generations of Chinese engineering and development, these were the world’s most advanced warships duringthe Medieval period. He squandered his naval advantage with poorly executed attacks on Japan, Vietnam, and Java.

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet

In Search of a Legendary Armada

by James P. Delgado (Author)

On October 19, 1274, a massive Mongol war fleet sailed into Hakata, Japan’s most important harbor for overseas trade. Chinese records of the time claim a thousand ships and more than twenty-three thousand soldiers, though modern scholars believe that the actual numbers of both ships and soldiers were considerably smaller. To the beat of huge war drums the Mongols and their allied Korean troops came ashore in small landing craft. News of the imminent invasion had well preceded the fleet’s actual arrival, and a substantial force of samurai, at least six thousand, awaited them.

Hand-to-hand combat began on the beach. Both sides took heavy casualties. Japanese sources claim that two thousand samurai died on the beach and in the pine grove adjoining the shore. The Mongol forces gradually pushed the samurai back into Hakata town. Fighting continued in the streets and alleys. By nightfall, the invading troops had taken and burned the port. The defending samurai regrouped in the hills above the town.

Through the early hours of night the commanders of the Mongol/Korean force debated tactics. One faction favored an immediate night attack to press their advantage. Other commanders argued that the troops were exhausted and needed sleep. Finally, it was decided to continue the battle in the morning, and the troops returned to their ships. In the morning, however, the fleet was gone from Hakata Bay. Japanese sources report that a strong, “divine” wind blew the ships out of the harbor and into the sea.

The likeliest scenario is that the fleet simply sailed away, its commanders aware of problems that the Japanese were not. The fleet was low on arrows, having used large numbers in taking two strategic islands on the way to Hakata. The commanders perhaps also wanted to reconsider their strategy. Struggling ashore and fighting hand to hand on a beach and in trees was probably the least favorable terrain for Mongol troops. They were superb cavalry, trained for plains battles, massed arrow attacks, and group maneuvers, but largely untrained in hand-to-hand sword fighting on foot, and avoided this sort of battle whenever possible.

The results of the first battle of Hakata were perhaps satisfactory to the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. His strategy was straightforward: conquer all China and supplant the Song dynasty. By and large, the war was going well. Mongol armies had pushed the Song into far southern China. The destruction of Hakata meant that the Song would gain no revenue from trade with Japan.

This first battle of Hakata, however, produced no shipwrecks. Even the Japanese sources concede that only a few of the Mongol ships were beached by the mysterious wind that blew the fleet back to “their lands.”

Much had changed between the first invasion attempt in 1274 and the second invasion in 1281. Mongol armies had pursued the remaining Song forces into South China, defeated them, and captured and executed the last emperor. Kublai Khan was, indeed, ruler of a united China, with all the resources and the problems that entailed. He founded a new dynasty, the Yuan, and moved his capital from Karakorum, deep in Mongolia, to Beijing, the better to rule his new conquests.

Kublai Khan sent envoys to Japan, in 1279, demanding surrender. The bakufu, head of the alliance of Japanese nobles, had the envoys executed on the beach at Hakata. Kublai Khan and the king of Korea conferred and agreed the invasion force to conquer Japan would consist of one hundred thousand troops. The king of Korea agreed to construct an enormous fleet, which would carry Mongol and Korean troops across the Korea Strait to Hakata. Kublai Khan ordered a second fleet constructed on the Chinese coast, which would carry Chinese troops to join the Koreans and Mongols at Iki Island off Japan’s west coast.

For more than a year, in both Korea and south China forests were stripped for the ships and harsh taxes levied to equip them. The Koreans, eager to engage, sailed in early May 1281, knowing that the Chinese fleet was not ready. The samurai had constructed a stone wall along the beach at Hakata, which halted the invading force. In heavy fighting the samurai drove the Mongols and Koreans back to their boats. A stalemate set in, the samurai holding the beach and the port and the Mongols and Koreans holding the harbor. The samurai attacked the fleet in small boats, sometimes boarding, sometimes pushing fire-rafts to burn the invader’s ships. The attacks eventually forced the invading fleet into a compact defensive circle in the bay.

The Chinese fleet eventually did arrive but could not assist in the stalemate at Hakata. Instead, the Chinese attacked inland from Imari Bay, thirty miles south of Hakata. Samurai fought the Chinese soldiers in the inland hills, finally pushing them back to their ships. In the end a typhoon destroyed both fleets, which were at anchor through the height of the typhoon season. The fierce storm piled ship upon ship, driving them onto the rocky shore. Casualty estimates are, of course, speculative but run upward of fifty thousand men. Some thirty thousand Chinese soldiers were captured and enslaved. Both Chinese and Japanese sources agree that the second battle of Hakata Bay littered the bottom with wreckage.

The Mongols at War

The two opponents at Hakata Bay had quite different military and political backgrounds. Fifty years earlier Genghis Khan had reorganized bands of steppe cavalry into the most successful rapid strike force the world had ever seen. The important changes were in organization, discipline, and ideology. Genghis Khan reassigned the men of family and ethnic units into mixed units, thereby promoting loyalty to the larger Mongol goals rather than narrow family concerns. The units were arranged on a decimal system, with commanders over one hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand men. Cavalry practiced daily and honed their skills in frequent large hunts. Genghis Khan also enforced discipline on the welter of ethnicities that constituted his army. For example, looting after battle was prohibited on pain of death. The military goal was to annihilate the opposing force, and looting disrupted the process. Genghis Khan promulgated and practiced his belief in “world conquest”—his forces were destined to defeat all opposition and rule the entire world. This ideology is perhaps best exemplified by a letter from Guyuk, grandson of Genghis Khan, to Pope Urban IV. The pope, in an official letter, proposed an alliance between the European kings and the Mongols against Muslims, as their common foe. Guyuk replied:

Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: “We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.” You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe.

Mongol forces were mounted cavalry and used a short reverse-curve bow, which could be shot from horseback. With both hands occupied with the bow and arrow, Mongol cavalry had to control their horses with their knees, commands every horse knew and every horseman practiced from childhood onward. The reverse-curve bow was of composite materials, including wood, horn, and steel. It was enormously powerful, capable of penetrating armor at 150 yards. The preferred tactics of Mongol cavalry therefore avoided charges into well-entrenched positions. They much preferred tactics that included massed arrow attacks from outside the range of enemy weapons; the feigned retreat, which drew the enemy into ambush; or large-scale flanking movements, which resulted in attacking the enemy on three sides. These maneuvers depended on careful tactical coordination, usually by means of large signal flags. Mongol armies were, therefore, at their best in plains battles, with room to maneuver their horses and sweep in large formations.

Commanders of opposing forces quickly learned that they would likely lose a plains battle to Genghis Khan. Those who could, retreated to fortified positions. Genghis Khan’s first siege was in 1218 at Otrar, a typical Silk Road fortified town in what is now southern Kazakhstan. After establishing friendly relations with the king of the region, Genghis Khan equipped and financed a large caravan of Muslim traders to buy luxuries on the Silk Road and bring them for sale to his capital. Four hundred and fifty Muslim traders purchased silks, satins, carpets, and gems. When the returning caravan halted at Otrar, the governor of Otrar seized the goods and animals and executed the traders. In the colorful language of the Secret History of the Mongols (written shortly after Genghis Khan’s death),

The control of repose and tranquility was removed, and the whirlwind of anger cast dust into the eyes of patience and clemency while the fire of wrath flared up with such a flame that it drove the water from his eyes and could be quenched only by the shedding of blood. In this fever Cheingiz-Khan went alone to the summit of a hill, bared his head, turned his face toward the south and for three days and nights offered up prayer, saying: “I was not author of this trouble; grant me strength to extract vengeance.”

Genghis Khan divided his army, half attacking in the north of the kingdom to tie down the king’s forces, the other half investing Otrar, which had been reinforced with thousands of royal troops. Genghis Khan had no clever siege engines, no catapults or trebuchets, only tenacity. The army formed “several circles around the citadel,” fought the sallies from the city, and maintained the siege for five months. In desperation some of the town’s troops rode out and offered service to Genghis Khan. He saw their action as dishonorable and executed them as his troops poured through the undefended gate. “All the guilty and innocent of Otrar, both the wearers of the veil and those that donned kulah and turban, were driven forth from the town like a flock of sheep, and the Mongols looted whatever goods and wares were there to be found.” The Mongol troops eventually fought their way into the citadel and captured the offending governor alive. He was executed by pouring molten silver down his throat, just punishment for his greed.

Though the Mongols are famous for their sweeping cavalry strategies, a majority of Genghis Khan’s battles were actually fought against a fortified hill, palisade, or town. The Mongols quickly copied from their opponents a weapon of war new to them, the trebuchet, which utilized a heavy counterweight’s force multiplied by a long lever arm and an equally long flexible sling. Invented either in Europe or the Muslim West (though perhaps an improvement of an earlier Chinese catapult), the trebuchet hurled a heavy stone (generally more than 150 pounds) with enormous force, capable of knocking down men and horses like bowling pins and equally capable of crashing through gates and walls. Genghis Khan recruited and gave military appointments to Muslim technicians capable of building such a weapon.

Less than two decades later Mongol siege engines from the West and the technicians to build them had moved across all Asia and were attacking fortified cities in China. Only three years after Otrar, the Mongols were using siege engines on the eastern front in their campaign against the fortified cities of northern China. Thus, it is no surprise that the Mongols took great, fortified cities. Baghdad, one of the largest cities in Asia at the time, fell to the Mongols in 1258 (fifteen years before Kublai Khan attacked Japan). It is likely that the great Mongol fleet that attacked Hakata Bay carried siege engines such as the trebuchet in anticipation of attacking forts and fortified cities.

Mongol armies generally suffered defeats in only two circumstances. First, highly trained professional soldiers who knew Mongol strategy and tactics occasionally simply outperformed them. The Mamluks, full-time, trained slave-soldiers, were just such a force and defeated the Mongols in Egypt. Second, problems of adverse terrain limited the effectiveness of Mongol cavalry. Mountains were a serious problem for the Mongols. Horsemen could not wheel and move in large units. Ambush lurked in every defile. Even in defeat the enemy could disappear into the mountains, eliminating the Mongol tactic of annihilating the opposing army. Massed arrow attacks did little against mountain fortresses, which were also almost impossible to surround. Troops from the fortresses could often defend agricultural land nearby, which provided the fortress with food. The combination of mountains, fortresses, and resolute resistance, for example, made the conquest of Sichuan, a southwestern province of China, slow, difficult, and costly. Mongols fought in the mountains of Sichuan virtually every year for more than three decades before conquering it.

China’s coastal plain was equally difficult terrain for Mongol armies. Canals crisscrossed it, and the rice fields were flooded much of the year. Large-scale cavalry movements were impossible. Fortified cities were frequent and were connected by boat more than road. The Mongols had to adapt, and they did, incorporating Chinese and Korean leaders and infantry who knew how to fight in this watery terrain, so different from the dry steppe of the Mongol homelands. Mongol armies traveled by boat and learned siege techniques. They recruited artisans to build the powerful Chinese trebuchet. Chinese troops used gunpowder weapons extensively for the first time.

Samurai Warriors

On the beach at Hakata Bay were six thousand of the most highly trained, most professional, and best-equipped troops the Mongols ever faced. Samurai were the elite product of an entire social and economic system, just as were the Mongols. Within the fragmented Japanese political system, wars between elite families were frequent, and formal training in schools of the martial arts was mandatory for elite men (and a few elite women). A nineteenth-century text of one of these schools well illustrates the focus and rigor of samurai training. Students learned, for example, unarmed fighting, grappling, short sword fighting, quick sword drawing, stick fighting, dagger technique, the use of rope, and crossing rivers in armor on horseback. The training was as much mental as physical:

Because the beginner does not know how to stand with the sword in his hands or anything else, in his mind there is not a thing to be attached to. When he is attacked, without any deliberation he tries to fend off the attack. But gradually he is taught many things, he is instructed how to hold the sword, where to concentrate his mind and other things. So his mind will be attached to those things and when he attempts to attack his opponent, his movements will be awkward. However, as days, months and years pass, due to innumerable trainings, everything, as he stands, as he holds the sword will lose consciousness, in the end getting back to the state of mind he had in the beginning, when he did not know anything.

The samurai code of honor preferred single combat, which was almost certainly a detriment in their first encounter with the Mongols. Samurai quickly learned that Mongols were quite content to fire massed arrows at any opponent who sought single combat. The samurai also learned that their superior sword skills made up for lesser numbers in close combat. A recent scholarly book has persuasively argued that the samurai needed no “divine wind” to drive off the Mongol ships. They repelled the invasion based on their skills, armor, and training.

Shipbuilding in the China Sea

What sort of ships brought the Mongol invasion fleet from Korea to Japan? The evidence is meager but suggests that Korean long-distance trade ships were the likeliest carriers. The decorative back of a lady’s mirror from the period shows such a Korean ship, sails reefed, in roiling seas. Recovered timbers and planks of actual vessels show that these craft had an almost flat bottom. Shipbuilders attached successive planks of pine with overlapping edges and mortise-and-tenon joints. Elm was used for pegs to lock the mortise and tenons in place. Oak was used for a heavy yoke, which was set amidships and served as a sturdy cross member to stabilize the hull. Cross planks of oak were fitted low in the hull for the same purpose. Another layer of heavy oak crossbeams joined the upper planks of the two sides of the hull. The pattern of crossbeam support passing through the planks was apparently unique to Korea. Xu Jing, a Chinese emissary to the court of Korea, noted that the Korean ships were different from contemporary Chinese craft.

Both Chinese and Korean long-distance ships had a stern rudder, a large mast set amidships, and a smaller foresail. Sails were rectangular and reinforced with battens. Chinese and Korean ships used a windlass to raise the heavy anchor (as the scene on the Korean mirror shows). Korean ships had a planked deck, but it is unknown whether the space below the deck was divided into holds, as was typical of Chinese ships of the period. The mirror scene shows piled goods on deck and commodious cabins for the rich merchants who owned the goods. Korean sources assert that seventy people could comfortably sail on these ships. The current state of the archaeological, textual, and visual evidence does not permit even a speculation on the size and tonnage of these craft.

About the Chinese ships, which formed the second fleet attacking Japan, we have good material evidence. In 1974, Chinese archaeologists excavated a hull from the mud off Quanzhou Bay. The ship was amazingly intact from the waterline down. Coinage aboard dated the ship to 1272, only two years before Kublai Khan’s first attack on Hakata Bay. The ship was 113 feet long, with a beam of 32 feet, drew only 10 feet of water, and displaced about 375 tons. Unlike stereotypical Chinese ships with flat bottoms and ends, the Quanzhou ship had a keel, was V-shaped in section, and had sharp prow. Twelve bulkheads divided the hull, which also had stepping for three masts. A flat transom carried the rudder, rather than a sternpost. Iron nails secured the overlapping planking. The cargo of incense wood, pepper, and hematite suggests that this was a long-distance goods carrier, returning from Southeast Asia. Such a ship could have been impressed to carry troops to Japan.

In the last three decades Japanese archaeologists have been searching Hakata Bay for the physical remains of the battle of 1281. Tantalizing evidence has turned up, such as Chinese- and Korean-style anchors, Chinese ceramics, disc-shaped articulated armor, and weapons typical of Mongol fighters. Various scans of the bottom of the bay have revealed clumps of timbers, which are likely the remains of a ship or the mixed remains of several ships. Much of the timber is smaller than that used in big Korean trade ships, which suggests that the Mongols also commandeered coastal craft and probably even flat-bottomed river craft.

Archaeologists in 2013 located a section of an intact hull. Ultrasound scans revealed a thirty-six-foot section of keel with adjoining planking under only three feet of sediment just off the shore in Hakata harbor. Ceramics, stone anchors, and other artifacts surround the wreck. For now, it remains buried, awaiting future excavation.

In a larger geopolitical perspective, Japan, Korea, and the east coast of China formed a complex a maritime world, which was roughly the same size as Europe’s northern littoral. From Nagasaki, Japan, to Shanghai, China, across the Yellow Sea is five hundred miles, about the same distance as Scandinavia to England. Korea and Japan are only one hundred miles apart, roughly comparable to the twenty-five miles that separate England and France across the Channel. Over the centuries, just as the Scandinavians invaded England and the English used their ships to invade the French, so too did Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dynasties invade each other’s territory, trade with each other, sponsor piracy of each other’s shipping, ally in attacks on each other, call in each other to put down indigenous rebels, and constitute places of refuge for defeated or aspiring rulers.

Dynasties of Korea, Japan, and China sometimes chose to close their maritime borders, forbidding traders from entering and citizens from leaving. These legal prohibitions typically were not effective. Traders and travelers found ways to circumvent them. As also happened in Europe, local or regional powers in the China Sea region founded new ports beyond the reach of the central government. One of the most famous of such ports was Hainan Island off the southern coast of China, which served smugglers at the time of the Kublai Khan expedition and for several subsequent centuries.

Since the history of China is usually written as the history of dynasties, we might assume that the royal court of China was always the dominant power on land and at sea, but this is simply not the case. Periods of warring states were as frequent as periods of stable, large dynasties. The south of China was always difficult for a northern-based dynasty to integrate. Declining dynasties sometimes looked across the seas for a Japanese or Korean alliance.


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