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Tea Ware Buried 300 Years at Sea

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.


Chinese tea set that was found at sea
Tea set from the Ca Mau Wreck site.

First, a bit of teapot history.

Until the early 1700s, most teapots had only a single opening on the interior where the spout joins the body, thereby allowing the tea leaves to accumulate and clog the spout. Kilns were just starting to include a three-hole strainer at the base of the spout which eliminated clogs.

And the lids had no perforation (air hole) which allowed the intake of air to facilitate pouring. Both of these design improvements would be standard features of Chinese teapots after the 1730s.

The Ca Mau wreck yielded both old-style and improved teapots. These disparities in form, construction, and design suggest that these teapots not only were produced at different potting centers but most certainly did not represent the fulfillment of a single company order.


Teaware found from the sea in the Seattle Museum
Salvaged porcelain display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Chinese porcelain expert Shirley Mueller speculates that “the coexistence of more advanced models with those of a pre-existing type most likely resulted from the amalgamation of the supply of wares transported to Guangzhou from various kiln sites at which the ceramists were dependent on the instructions transmitted by their masters, who in turn received their orders from the European supercargoes and their Chinese agents.”

Merchants in Holland, England, and the American colonies often ordered specific designs and patterns for their customers. In the age of wind-sails, it took three or more years for the order to be delivered, manufactured and shipped half a world away.

I’m sure 18th-century tea drinkers appreciated the addition of the vented cover and self-straining spouts found on these improved teapot models because they are still in use today.

Tea bowl and saucer from Australia found at the bottom of the sea

Read more about the history of tea and tea wares in The Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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