Magazine article Geographical

Secrets of the Deep

Magazine article Geographical

Secrets of the Deep

Article excerpt

In 1822 a Chinese junk carrying more than 350,000 pieces of rare porcelain sank without a trace, claiming 1,600 lives. The story of the ill-fated Tek Sing remained a mystery until a shipwreck dive team made a chance discovery.

ON 12 MAY, 1999, the largest and most valuable porcelain find in history was discovered at the bottom of the South China Sea. The cargo of more than 350,000 pieces was found by renowned shipwreck salvation expert Michael Hatcher and his team among the rotting timbers of a Chinese junk. It had been there since 1822, when the ill-fated ship struck the Belvidere Reef, between Sumatra and Borneo. As specialists estimate the treasure's value, and the plates, bowls, cups, teapots and other precious artefacts are prepared for auction, one man has pieced together the remarkable history of the Tek Sing from fragments of clues found across the world. When the junk sank it claimed more than 1,600 lives -- more than the Titanic. But unlike the Titanic, the story of the Tek Sing and its passengers sank without trace.

Nigel Pickford is the man behind some of this century's most important wreck discoveries. He is a wreck researcher, so while Hatcher is zipping himself into his wetsuit and sinking into the warm Sumatran waters, Pickford is sitting at a desk on the other side of the world, surrounded by archaic maps and shipping manuals, in an office in Cambridge, UK. Here he gathers information vital to identifying the ship, understanding who was on it, what it was carrying, where it had come from, and where it was going.

Using logbooks, hand-drawn maps and journals preserved in museums and archives around Europe, Pickford and his late father have been responsible for around 100 million [pounds sterling]-worth of recovered cargoes since 1945. Such treasures have included 16th-century Dutch and Portuguese silver coins, rare gold jewellery from a 19th-century steamer, and a gold bar and coin from a Royal Mail ship.

The costs for a salvage project are colossal, and the clues unearthed by a researcher can make or break a project. The value of the cargo must exceed the money spent on raising it. Usually months of research precede a salvage project so the exact location of the wreck is known before preliminary dives are made. Unusually, Pickford's knowledge of the Tek Sing prior to the discovery was minimal. In April the Restless M (Hatcher's scout yacht) was returning from an abandoned project in eastern Indonesia when the crew decided to make several dives around the Belvidere Reef, based on some very scanty knowledge that Pickford had of the Tek Sing.

"It was the end of the 1999/2000 season," says Pickford, "and we had called off a search in the Spice Islands for a Portuguese galleon lost in the 16th century. The crisis in East Timor had put the safety of the crew under threat. We were looking for the Chinese junk pretty much in desperation. All we knew was that a boat had sunk with a valuable cargo in this particular area."

JUNK BONDS

He was following a hunch. In the fifth edition of Directions for Sailing to the East Indies, written in 1843 by James Horsburgh of the English East India Company, Pickford came across a passage outlining the sinking of a large Chinese junk on `The Belvidere Shoals'. This scrap of information was the catalyst for the world's greatest porcelain discovery. In 1995 Pickford had only pinpointed the exact whereabouts of the 19th-century RMS Douro after months of research. He knew which boat he was looking for and what the cargo was before a penny was spent on salvage work. "Finding the Douro," he said, "was particularly exciting. We found the boat and the gold exactly where I said it would be. The great part is making the connection between bits of paper that are more than 200 years old and a physical piece of the past."

With no guarantee of booty and without even knowing the name of the ship, the Belvidere Reef project seemed little more than an academic's whim. …

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