Fishermen working off Vietnam’s Ca Mau peninsular in 1998 snagged their nets on a submerged obstacle. As their nets rose bulging with cups and saucers rather than fish, the men realized they had stumbled upon a treasure trove of centuries-old Chinese porcelain. They began dredging up and selling as much as possible before the authorities moved to secure the site.
The fishermen had stumbled upon the 300-year-old wreck of a Chinese ocean-going junk en route from Canton (now Guangzhou) to the Dutch trading port of Batavia (now Jakarta).
Disaster struck the heavily-laden vessel as it passed south of the Mekong Delta around the year 1725. The ship had been crippled by an onboard fire that raged so severely that some of the porcelain was fused together.
By the turn of the 18th century, tea was the drink of the elite throughout Europe and the principal traders – ahead of the English – were the Dutch East India Company, (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) of Amsterdam. With the spread of tea came a demand for porcelain tea wares. China was the main source because Europe had not yet discovered the method for making porcelain.
This 1725 wreck contained work from several Chines kilns and multiple artisans. Best of all, the teapots found in the hold exemplify a period of innovation in design.
In all, 130,000 pieces were recovered from the wreck and 76,000 of the finer condition pieces were cataloged and sold by Sotheby’s. I have spotted porcelain examples from the Ca Mau site at both the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Seattle Art Museum.
I had the good fortune to acquire one of the tea bowls for my collection.