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Ancient Trade Routes

In today's world of globalised trade huge container ships dominate the seven seas. Every day, they transport massive cargoes of goods and food to all corners of the planet. One is tempted to think that such extremely intricate endeavours require cutting edge technology and ultra-modern ports and docks. World trade, however, emerged millennia ago. In the 5th century BC, for instance, a sea trade route already existed between the Mediterranean and East Asia, only interrupted by a small land passage.

In the China Sea, the discovery and excavation of seven overseas junks and local boats (11th-16th century) by Franck Goddio and his team have helped to track some of the crucial instances in the history of world trade. All of the junks are time capsules that give a snapshot of the time that they were lost. The cargoes of the junks included Chinese porcelain of the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. From the end of the 12th century onwards, Chinese merchants seem to have established a regular commercial relationship with the Philippines and used the open sea routes by Palawan island to sail to Borneo. The Ming Emperor, Young-Io (1403-1424) inaugurated a policy for commercial expansion and launched six sea expeditions on the Chinese Sea and then on the Indian Ocean, reaching Malacca, Ceylon, Calicut, Ormuz, Aden and, in 1433, the Eastern coasts of Africa, which was the famous Chinese fleet of the navigator Zheng He. The ports of Southern China were very active and at the beginning of the 16th century nearly all of the sea trade of the Philippines was in the hands of the Chinese.


A diver frees jars from sediments with the help of a water dredge on the wreck of the Santa Cruz junk.
During the excavation of the British East India Company ship Griffin, a curious tetraodon swims up to a tea pot.
The wreck of the Santa Cruz junk from the 15th century.
An archaeologist records the layout of the artefacts during the excavation of the Santa Cruz junk.
A set of 'blue and white' porcelain boxes from the Lena junk cargo

Franck Goddio also discovered and excavated the Spanish galleon San Diego, which sank in a sea battle with a Dutch fleet in front of Manila in December 1600. The Dutch wanted to have their share in the profitable Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, which linked the Americas with Asia and Europe for nearly 250 years (1565-1813). In Acapulco, the cargoes were transported by land across Mexico to the port of Veracruz where they were loaded onto the ships bound for Spain. The galleons delivered enormous quantities of silver from Mexico and Lima to the Philippines, which was used to purchase mainly spices, porcelain, ivory, lacquer ware and silk cloth for European and American markets.

The English were latecomers to trade with China. Up to the late 18th century they only had a trading office in Canton. In 1761 they established their own trading post, which they lost again with the sinking of a major East India Company ship in 1773. Franck Goddio has discovered and excavated the sunken British East India Company ships Griffin and the Royal Captain, which sank with their valuable cargoes: they are both linked to the history of the trading post.

Some examples of these extensive research and excavation projects are presented here: two junks (the Lena and the Santa Cruz), one Spanish galleon and two British East India Company ships.