South China Sea treasure

Hidden Treasure in the South China Sea

by Dave Moran

His expanding exhaust bubbles exploded against my mask as I descended hand over hand down the shotline, which was held in the grip by the soft southerly current.

It was like following a diver who, for the first time in his life, knew there was a massive treasure trove at the end of the rainbow. He was bloody hard to keep up with, his jet fins pumping as if connected to a Melbourne Cup winner.

Huge black shapes started to materialise out of the blue whiteness of the bottom. As my eyes became accustomed to the subdued twilight, my mind jumped into ‘need more information’ mode … what my eyes were telling me was absolutely not possible. I felt that we must have been on a Hollywood movie set. Check systems: breathing compressed air at 100 feet (30m) – check, Body wet, water all around – check, fins on feet – check, mask on face – check. Okay, we’re not in Hollywood, but what the hell is this?

Scallop shapes littered the bottom, not your normal scallops, these were blue and white scallops – thousands of them. Mike pointed to a large coral encrusted object jutting from the sand, a quick heave and as the soft current restored visibility, I stared in awe at a large pottery urn, well over two hundred years old … we had been on the bottom less than twenty seconds.

The grinning diver holding the urn was Mike Hatcher, one of the world’s most successful treasure salvors. In the South China Sea he has no equal; he is the best. As with most adventures, it started with a phone call: ‘Dave, it’s Mike.’

‘Hi Mike, where are you?’

‘Singapore’

‘Whats up?’

‘Dave, we are working a huge Chinese junk. Get your butt up here, you will never in your life dive a wreck like this one. The story is bigger than Ben Hur, see you in Singapore – okay?’

As I put the phone down I tried to comprehend what Mike had just said. This was Hatcher, the self made man, who as a boy was found virtually surviving in the gutters of London. World War II had its own way of dishing out its harshness to the most defenceless of mankind – children. Life gave him a break when Barnados Orphanages took over his welfare. The farms of outback Australia toughened him up for the adventures that he could only dream of. Mike Hatcher loves wrecks – he loves the hunt and the cargoes their decaying tombs conceal.

The discovery of Ch’ing Dynasty porcelain aboard the 1742 wreck of the VOC Dutch East Indiaman, Geldermalsen, in 1988 changed Mike’s life forever. The Christie’s auction in Amsterdam achieved record bids, finally closing after five days of frantic buying with 14 million British Pounds having changed hands.

Over the years, Mike has salvaged tons of tin ingots, which is great for the bank account, but discovering valuable historic wrecks and their cargoes adds an aura to a wreck that can only be appreciated by those uncovering their secrets. The public’s imagination is also captured and peoples intrinsic love of wanting to hold their own piece of history adds enormous value to these cargoes.

During the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, over a million Chinese were toiling day and night to manufacture blue and white porcelain plates, cups, bowls and tureens plus numerous teapots and urns to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for fine porcelain by European countries.

The historic sea port of Batavia (Jakarta), then governed by the Dutch, was the staging point where the huge Chinese junks would trans-ship their cargoes to Dutch East Indiamans, (merchant vessels of the Dutch East India Company), which would haul up their sails for the treacherous journey through the Sunta Straits, and into the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope to Europe.

To reach Batavia from China was also a journey through treacherous seas which skilfully blended their soft rolling swells with patches of oily calm, reflecting an eye piercing glare from the whiteness of the burning sun. Shallow reefs cease to exist.

In December 1821 the huge canton junk, Tek Sing lay low in the water, her huge timber beam straining under the cargo of hundreds of thousands of porcelain pieces. The human cargo of two thousand men, women and children hardly disturbed her as they busily claimed their places above and below the crammed and cluttered decks. The slight breeze off the coastal town of Amoy in Fukien on China’s south coast breathed life into the nine tons of mainsail as it crawled inch by inch up the 90 foot mast. The Tek Sing creaked and groaned as her massive timber frame of over 160 feet in length slowly pulled her 2000 ton hull away from the wharf.

The eight ton rudder angled slightly as two men heaved on the tiller, it would take up to 20 men to control in a heavy sea. For the Chinese merchants this was a risky journey – not only because of hidden reefs but because when the Mongols conquered China it became illegal to trade with the Europeans. For hundreds on board it was a voyage to the sugar fields of Java. As our dive continued Mike, Peter Blunden, my kiwi diving mate, and myself all had our own private thoughts as we silently drifted over a fortune in lost porcelain and artefacts.

The uncovered decaying beams seemed to be reaching skywards as if in a final plea to be given a second chance to restore her pride and carry her precious cargo to safety. We were all familiar with the dying moments of the 1200 lost souls aboard the Titanic. Our minds ineptly struggled to comprehend the panic and struggle for survival as people stumbled and fell from Tek Sing’s decks and her bottom was smashed open by the immovable coral heads of Belvedere Reef. For two hours the reef held her life in its hands, then, as if satisfied with its work, let her go to ever so slowly drift southwards towards Gaspar Island. Tons of water relentlessly drowned tons of porcelain as hundreds of people, unable to swim, screamed for a fragile foothold on the descending decks. Only 150 people survived.

My mind switched back to the present when a small object protruding out of the sand caught my eye. Soon a large dragon covered teapot was in my hand. Was it cargo or was it part of a family’s possessions. When and who was the last person to drink tea poured from it. As much as we tried, I am sure we never could imagine the horror of that day in 1822.

Mike and his team of 16 divers and 24 support crew had been working the site for three months; this latest trip was to collect remaining artefacts. The 180 foot long island of steel ‘Swissco Marine’ barge cast her shadow over the wreck site like some Jurassic park monster, her appetite only satisfied by tons of porcelain.

Twelve hours a day the Kirby Morgan hatted divers descend in pairs to the site. Tons of sand vaporises up the thundering airlifts as the Tek Sing slowly reveals her inner beauty. Gloved hands stack the delicate artefacts into black plastic bins which are heaved into a large open steel basket. ‘Up on the basket, up on the basket,’ a diver urges.

‘Roger that,’ the speaker on the barge’s deck barks. Eager hands pull the basket aboard. The saltwater hoses are running and the ocean-blue paint strokes of a long forgotten potter are brought to life after 178 years. The sun dances and sparkles off the whiteness – the sea breeze wipes away the wetness. To hold a piece of history in the very spot where history was made is an experience hard to describe – it is a precious privilege.

Besides the quantity, the diversity of the cargo was also mind boggling! From simply decorated rice bowls to fragile miniature teacups with exquisite picture artwork depicting ferns, palms, birds, even rabbits. Some plates featured more symmetrical artwork with spirals and starbursts, others with curving patterns that are soft on the eye.

A close examination showed, ever so slightly, differences between each piece. A potters brush had flowed over each individual piece … hundreds of thousands of pieces. In today’s world of automation it is almost impossible to picture the scene of thousands of potters sitting on their stools, continually painting the same patterns day after day. I wonder if they had a word for RSI back then?

A large urn arrives on deck, a muddy hand searches the interior, soon six porcelain ‘little blue boys’ are under the hose. From another urn spill miniature sparrows, chooks and a little boy riding a bullock. Every day different items appeared such as axe heads, steel woks and hollow pottery stands used to contain a small fire for cooking, portable urinals, an assortment of tea pots that would satisfy any ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ and a few Spanish silver dollars.

In November this year the cargo will finally arrive in Europe. Nagel Auctions in Stuttgart, Germany are holding a ten day auction for collectors from around the world to bid for over 300,000 pieces of mainly Ch’ing dynasty porcelain and artefacts.

Yes the story is bigger than Ben Hur.

A book about the adventurous life of Mike Hatcher, Treasure From The Deep, is due for release in July. Another book about the Tek Sing by respected researcher and author Nigel Pickford is due early 2001. Both books will be available through Dive New Zealand mail order. A TV documentary is also in the planning.

As I left Singapore I asked Mike, ‘can I expect another phone call?’ His face lit up and his eyes sparkled as that cheeky grin spread over his tanned face, ‘You can bet on it!’

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