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  • Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada
  • Timothy May
Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada. By James P. Delgado. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 240 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Khubilai Khan's attempted conquest of Japan in 1274 and 1281 and the creation of the kamikaze idea in Japan are among the most famous aspects of the history of the Mongol Empire, yet very little understood. In many instances they provide evidence that the Mongols were not a naval power, of the limits of Mongol expansion, and also of the inability of Khubilai to ensure military success. In the popular mind, after the "Divine Winds" save Japan from the Mongols, the idea that Japan had divine protection takes root in the imagination immediately. Delgado does an excellent job of dealing with these issues and dismissing the myths while also explaining their origins.

The volume is divided into twelve chapters plus an introduction, prologue, and epilogue. In addition, Delgado has provided several photographs and illustrations, timelines, and dynastic tables for the majority of the societies encountered in Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet, as well as maps. The selected illustrations connect with appropriate sections of the book and serve Delgado's purpose of demonstrating the long-term impact of the Mongol invasions of Japan while the maps provide sufficient detail for reference purposes.

Delgado, a marine archaeologist, begins his book with an introduction telling of his own dive into Imari Bay, Japan, where he accompanied Japanese archaeologist Mitsu Ogawa to a Mongol underwater site. The introduction gives the reader a sense of immediacy in dealing with [End Page 143] this topic—that it is how our understanding of history can change and that it is not static. Delgado then discusses how Khubilai Khan's expedition fit into the larger framework of maritime history. More important, he argues that it should not be viewed simply as failed invasions, but a more holistic view of the logistics and intention of the Khubilai Khan's fleets need to be assessed.

Then, from the present Delgado takes the reader to the past by examining the writings of a kamikaze pilot during World War II and how these men found inspiration in the Japanese defense against the Mongols. The kamikaze (divine winds) have been often attributed for the defeat of the Mongols, but this idea found new life during World War II, and Delgado vividly captures that idea from the perspective not only of the Japanese, but also of the American sailors who were astonished by the suicidal attacks. From here, Delgado nimbly and convincingly traces the path that linked Khubilai Khan to World War II.

Throughout the book, Delgado bounces back and forth between the past and present to illustrate his point, often discussing his visit to Japan and impressions of particular shrines and historical sites and then placing them in a more full historical context. Chapter 1 begins this way with a visit to Hakozai shrine, where there is a Mongol anchor. This practice serves the book well as it adds to the historical narrative, but also lends a bit of useful knowledge for prospective tourists.

The second and third chapters are expository chapters on Asian maritime traditions as well as the rise of the Mongols. The details in the chapter on the Asian mariners are stronger than the one on the Mongols. In chapter 2, Delgado provides details on the size of Asian ships, often comparing them to more familiar (for many) European ships of the medieval and early modern periods. The chapter on the Mongols is basic and very general as one might expect for such a chapter. For novices it will suffice, while scholars of the Mongol Empire will not gain much, if anything, from it.

Chapter 4 is where the real meat of the book begins. Here Delgado focuses on Khubilai as a historical figure. In this chapter, Delgado is very reliant on Morris Rossabi's classic biography1 and of course the writings of Marco Polo. He provides a succinct and useful biography before discussing the Song dynasty, which Khubilai ended in 1276. As with all of his...