The Forgotten Story Of The Titanic Of The East

“Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell / Then shriek’d the timid, and stood still the brave, / Then some leap’d overboard with fearful yell, / As eager to anticipate their grave.” —Lord Byron

In A Nutshell

On February 26, 1822, a junk ship by the name of the Tek Sing sank beneath the treacherous waters of the South China Sea, claiming hundreds of lives together with a vast cargo of antique porcelain. It wouldn’t be until over 150 years later that it would be rediscovered and its amazing cargo brought to the surface.

The Whole Bushel

The Tek Sing, which means “True Star,” was a vast and magnificent junk ship that operated in and around the busy South China Sea trade routes during the 1800s. Its purpose was to transport vast consignments of cargo between different ports in the area, where it would then be bought by merchants and passed onto the European consumer market.

The Tek Sing set out on its fateful journey from the port of Amoy, an amazing hive of activity in its day, alive with the shouts of sailors and bustling with dozens of ships, many of which were adorned with brightly colored banners and flags used for identification. The Tek Sing was carrying 1,600 Chinese immigrants and 200 crew members. Its hold was laden with high-quality porcelain, fresh from the local kilns and destined for the merchants of Batavia, now known as Jakarta. Usually the ship would have been accompanied by other vessels, but on this occasion the Tek Sing was on a solo voyage.

The journey was harsh and unforgiving, and crew morale wavered. Following a month of hard sailing, the ship’s captain decided to take a shortcut though the Gaspar Strait. This snap decision would prove fatal. Navigating the strait was a difficult task even for the most skilled of captains, and it wasn’t long before the ship had run aground. The ship hit a reef at such a speed that jagged rocks tore a gaping hole in the wooden hull, flooding it with seawater and dragging it to the depths. In mere minutes, it was submerged beneath the waves, its crew and cargo trapped in the hold.

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The following morning, crew members of an East Indiaman ship traveling between Indonesia and Borneo noticed debris floating in the waters close to the reef. It wasn’t long before they discovered the stricken vessel. A rescue operation was launched and although 190 people were saved, over 1,000 people had perished. The tragedy of the Tek Sing and its final journey marked the end of a long and amazing Chinese maritime tradition, and many years would pass before the Tek Sing was encountered again.

Over 150 years later, on May 12, 1999, marine salvage expert Michael Hatcher rediscovered the wreck. Using logs that had been written by the captain who first encountered the Tek Sing, he was able to pinpoint its location and begin a salvage operation. He and his crew worked tirelessly to raise approximately 300,000 pieces of antique porcelain from the vessel. The Tek Sing’s impressive cargo was cataloged in a meticulous process that took weeks to complete. Owing to the great loss of life, many of the Chinese nationals who aided in the salvage operation refused to handle the recovered cargo, fearing that it was cursed by those who had died in the wreck. The Tek Sing is now often referred to as the Titanic of the East. Its story stands as a poignant reminder of a bygone era and as testment to the men who sailed the South China Sea.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: The Legacy of the Tek Sing, by Nigel Pickford and Michael Hatcher
Final Voyage, by Jonathan Eyers
Dragon Sea, by Frank Pope

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