- Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada
When considering the Mongols, probably the last thing that most of us would think about is naval warfare. After all, the Mongols came from the inner Asian frontier, far removed from the sea, and they were rightly known for their cavalry. Nonetheless, as this book, and other recent scholarship, clearly demonstrates, the Mongols also possessed a formidable oceangoing navy and had high regard for maritime trade.1 An important contribution that Khubilai Khan's Lost Fleet makes to this scholarship is its lucid summary of relevant recent maritime archaeological findings on the Mongol navy and its attempted invasions of Japan, Vietnam, and Java in the late thirteenth century. James Delgado is well qualified for the task; he is an internationally recognized expert on marine archaeology and president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
The book is arranged into twelve chapters, together with an introduction and epilogue. Over half of the book is devoted to explaining the historical context for [End Page 223] Khubilai Khan's navy and maritime campaigns. The author does a fine job summarizing the major English-language secondary literature on the Mongols as well as on Chinese and Japanese history in order to explain how the Khan's fleets fit into China's maritime history over the preceding centuries, and in particular how the events in 1274 and 1281 relate to the larger history of Sino-Japanese relations. Delgado also ably weaves the present and near-present with the distant past. He provides interesting insights on Japan's historical memory of the Mongol invasions, for example, how later-day Japanese officials and civilians reinterpreted, manipulated, and distorted the story of the "divine wind" (kamikaze) for political purposes. After a hiatus of several centuries during the Tokugawa Shogunate, in the late nineteenth century the legends were dusted off and polished up for new generations of Japanese. The kamikaze story proved ideologically important for the emerging Meiji state in its bid for modernization and independence in the face of a new foreign onslaught, not from the East but from the West. The story reinforced Japanese identity as a divinely blessed nation and instilled a civic consciousness of nationalism, devotion to the state, and unquestioned sacrifice for the emperor. Of course, the kamikaze legend reached a disastrous crescendo at the end of World War II, when, in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of defeat, heroic Japanese pilots flew suicide missions against the Allied naval forces in the Pacific. Delgado summarizes: "The Mongol invasions had set in motion powerful forces in Japan, not the least of which was an inspiring legend that would last for several hundred years and have tragic consequences for the island nation in the twentieth century" (p. 111).
The book explores two important questions: first, how could the terra-centered-Mongols even contemplate taking to the sea to invade Japan, Vietnam, and Java, and second, why would they even want to do so? The answer to the first question, at least in part, is that the Mongols had inherited a centuries old maritime technology unsurpassed anywhere else in the world at the time, and more directly, they had inherited the superb Song navy, undoubtedly then the best in the world. The Song dynasty represented a golden age for China's maritime with many bustling ports and a vibrant coasting and overseas trade. Only in the eighteenth century did the West catch up to China's shipbuilding preeminence. In answering the second question, the author explains that the expeditions were not simply for military expansion but also to control trade. The Southern Song lasted so long in large measure because of its extensive overseas trading networks, particularly with Japan and Southeast Asia. Thus the Mongol naval campaigns in Japan, Vietnam, and Java were largely meant to break the commercial contacts, and thereby economic benefits, between the Southern Song and those countries.
Despite the fact that the Mongols...