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Ancient Trade Routes

Surveying work on the hull of the Griffin wreck. The remarkable state of preservation can be atrributed to the fact that the vessel sank rapidly into the sand after the shipwreck.
Chest of octagonal plates, in crab and shrimp style.
Case of saucers in position since 1761 under four metres of sand.
A row of porcelain bowls stuck together.
Water dredges remove the sand from the wreck site.


The Story

In the 16th century, the Spaniards developed a thriving trade network with Chinese, Japanese and Malay merchants. The result was the establishment of the world’s first world trade route, linking Europe, Asia and the Americas (Manila-Acapulco galleon trade). Unlike the Spaniards, the British at that time did not have the full economic potential of such a trading arrangement in East Asia and had failed to establish a timely trading position of their own in that part of the world. Consequently, they were forced to establish their facilities in Canton, which was ruled by the Chinese.

In the first half of the 18th century, Alexander Dalrymple, an employee of the famous British Honourable East India Company (HEIC) travelled throughout Asia, with the main objective of facilitating trade. In 1760, he made a proposal to the governing body of the HEIC in London, to found a free port in the territory of the Spice Islands on the island of Balambangan, as he had befriended the main Sultan, who resided on the island of Jolo. On the way to Jolo, the lead ship, The Griffin, hit a rock and sank. The crew was saved by the other ships, which then succeeded with the plan and founded the free port.

The British free port did not become very successful, serving as a bridge between China and England. After approximately ten years, the HEIC trading post in Balambangan decided to invest the bulk of their traded goods in the purchase of huge amounts of porcelain, spices, silk, tea and other goods in Canton and planned to ship part of it to Balambangan and the rest to London. The HEIC ship The Royal Captain, a vessel weighing 780 tons, was used in 1773 to transport the goods from Canton to Balambangan. On the way to Balambangan, The Royal Captain hit a shoal and was lost. The captain and most of the crew were able to rescue some of the Company’s treasures and eventually made it to Balambangan. The economic loss, however, was great and it endangered the economic development of the trading post. Finally, the HEIC had to close the post after having been attacked by pirates.


Remains of the cargo of the Griffin.
During the excavation of the Griffin, a curious tetraodon swims up to a tea pot.
Sea life amidst the cargo of the Griffin wreck.
Sea life amidst the cargo of the Griffin wreck.
A cylindrical box made to measure for punch bowls.

The Discovery

A thorough study of all available archive documents has been performed which lead defining an area of survey in the Sulu Sea. After an early survey in 1985 which confirmed the traces of wreckage, another reconnaissance survey was performed in 1986 which enabled to discover the shipwreck under 6.5 m of sand. The archaeological excavation, in cooperation with the National Museum of the Philippines, lasted 14 months. The bottom of the hull was uncovered and a naval architecture study performed. Thousands of artefacts were retrieved which allowed a full study of an HEIC vessel’s cargo of the eighteenth century.

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