Maritime Asia, Past and Present

Asia, Hong Kong
A Model of Jin Dynasty Catamaran (3rd - 5th Century AD)

An Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD) Boat Model

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, American-Spanish philosopher and novelist

Since the invention of raft which eventually led to the creation of ship, humans have wandered not only across rivers and lakes, but also seas and oceans to reach terra incognita, lands that only existed in their imaginations before. As human population grew trade became a major drive for erstwhile explorers to brave themselves to risk their lives in return for gold and glory. From frankincense to silk, tea, coffee, ceramics, and spices, intercontinental trade was made possible by the invention of stronger, bigger ships equipped with more sophisticated navigation equipment.

In the Far East, in the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC), rudder technology was developed, opening the way for successive dynasties to incorporate ships into their military forces. Japan and Korea, too, utilized ships for their political and economic purposes, each decorated with traditional patterns and ornaments to showcase not only their prowess, but also their cultures to other nations.

Amid the sprawling archipelago to the south, indigenous peoples had developed their own seafaring skill and technology. The people of southern Borneo (present-day Indonesian Kalimantan) were among the first settlers of Madagascar, more than 7,600 km apart, while in the 8th century a traditional ship was immortalized on the wall of the enormous Buddhist temple of Borobudur. Srivijaya Empire, a 7th – 14th century thalassocratic empire based on the island of Sumatra whose area encompassed most of Sumatra, Java, and the Malay peninsula depended on its formidable maritime power to control such sprawling territories.

A few centuries later, following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, the Europeans came to the Far East to trade directly with the fabled Spice Islands. Soon Western powers dominated economic and political landscapes in the East and beyond. From the Spanish Philippine Islands, to Dutch Indonesia, British Malaya, French Indochina, as well as cities and ports on China’s eastern coasts, including Portuguese Macau and British Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Maritime Museum, occupying a no-longer-operational pier at Central, showcases some of the relics and models from the maritime-based events in Asia that left profound impact to the nations in the region. Galleries are divided in chronological order mainly related to the history of Hong Kong, including Traditional Maritime China, the China Trade, Sea Bandits, and the development of Victoria Harbor into modern-day Hong Kong.

As with other museums, everything at the Maritime Museum was purposefully displayed for visitors to learn about the history of Maritime Asia, and prevent mistakes from happening again in the future. But not everyone has neither the privilege nor the will to learn about history, unfortunately, allowing the same problems to reoccur sooner or later.

In the early 19th century a pirate named Zhang Baozai operated more than 600 ships with around 70,000 followers in the South China Sea, an insurmountable problem for the Qing dynasty causing massive loss in trade. Today piracy still is a big problem in many parts of the world, from the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia to the Somali waters. The South China Sea itself remains a contested water, a stage of international disputes between China to the north with its smaller, and very much divided neighbors to the south.

As the 20th century American-Spanish philosopher, George Santayana put it, history will keep repeating itself for there are people who cannot (and don’t want to) remember the history. Remembering history does not mean romanticizing the bygone time. It is rather to understand ourselves as humans, and to learn what part we can take to prevent humanity from falling into the same mistakes over and over again, for we all share the same planet and live under the same sky.

An Ancient Heavily-Fortified Warship

A 9th Century Korean Trading Ship


The 8th Century ‘Borobudur Ship’ from Java, Indonesia

A Japanese Warship

An 8th Century Japanese Delegation Ship

Padewakang (Perahu Makassar) with Layar Tanjaq (Canted Square Sail)

Padewakang (Perahu Makassar) with Layar Tanjaq (Canted Square Sail), 16th Century Sulawesi, Indonesia

Portuguese Carrack

A Portuguese Carrack

Nutmeg and Cinnamon, Sought After by the Europeans

Nutmeg and Cinnamon, Sought After by the Europeans


Squiggly Handwriting of A Ship’s Log


A Trade Scene Depicted on A Folding Fan


Pacifying the South China Sea


A Battle Scene in Old Hong Kong

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

43 thoughts on “Maritime Asia, Past and Present”

  1. This is a lovely post Bama. I found myself very interested from beginning to end. I’ve always been amazed by the distances sailors from all nations used to sail, across vast and wild seas in those tiny wooden boats. Human beings are little insane I think with their egos, and wars and fighting, but we are also unbelievably brave and creative and adventurous. If you ever get a chance go to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm where you get a first hand experience of a ship 300 years old.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Alison. Every time I go on a boat trip, I can’t help to imagine how people in the past explored the seas and oceans driven by ego and curiosity, as you said. One of the craziest seafaring expeditions to date is of course Kon-Tiki. To think of the long distances humans have taken by boats and ships and the ordeals that came with it is truly intriguing. I just googled Vasa Museum and it does look impressive!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It wasn’t so long ago when the Maritime Museum was confined to the ground floor of a building (Murray House) in Stanley. I’m thankful it moved to a much bigger space on the waterfront – it is one of the best museums we have in Hong Kong. Every time I go I end up spending hours just marvelling at the exhibits. Being surrounded by all that history just fires my imagination!

    Interestingly, the fan with the painted trading scene is labelled “A complete picture of Wuhan, Hubei” and you can see all the foreign trading posts/factories with their flags (and different architecture) lined up along the Yangtze River.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that makes me think of Indonesia. Despite those maritime-oriented kingdoms that once ruled much of the archipelago, today the country lacks decent maritime museums. You still remember how modest that museum in Kota Tua compared to Hong Kong’s, don’t you? Thanks for taking me to the Maritime Museum, James. It really is one of the best museums that I’ve visited in Hong Kong.

      Ah, thanks for the information! I was looking for the information on that scene, but couldn’t find any. I wasn’t sure which part of China that was depicted on the fan.


  3. Gara says:

    And if we compare the Hong Kong’s with the one in Jakarta…

    I’m so glad seeing the collections in the museum preserved so well. The history about Asia’s maritime is such a long one and rich of stories, spanning from north to south, as well as from east to west. All of them are summarized in this beautiful museum, and that’s indeed enriches and enlightens every people who come to that museum :)).

    My favorite is the folding fan: just how accurate the painter depicted every nation’s flag. Beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every time I visit museums in other countries I always think of what we can do to make museums in Indonesia more attractive. There are ideas but I haven’t really done anything in my part to make that happen. I was really impressed with the details of those ship miniatures, as well as the museum’s overall layout and arrangement. Definitely something we can learn from.

      Asia’s geopolitics has always been, and will always be, affected by the relations among nations at the sea. That’s why it is really important for us all to learn history to better address maritime-related matters to ensure peace and stability in the region.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Gara says:

        Today we could only see and learn, but tomorrow I’m sure there will be something we could do to make these museums be better. We just have to keep our faith, Mas :)).


  4. 1. Do you know why it’s called ‘Borobudur Ship’? Did it came from the kingdom that once built Borobudur?
    2. I always love to see hand-writings, they’re somehow representing one’s personality, right? And my mom’s handwriting is just quite similar like in your photo 🙂 Mine? Hmmmm….


    • It’s because that ship was reconstructed based on that famous depiction at one of Borobudur’s relief panels.
      Ahh, understanding one’s personality through handwriting, known as graphology, is something I would like to learn. Hmmm, I wonder how yours look like. :p


  5. What a complex and beautiful replicas. I remember, I saw one of them in Malacca, a Portuguese ship. I don’t know whether it was in a real size or not.

    Btw, did you see something more simple like Kontiki ship there?


    • I always love ship miniature, and I always envy people who have one inside a glass bottle. 🙂
      Hmm, I don’t remember seeing any model which resembled Kon-Tiki. It’s just amazing to think of the journey those men took to cross the Pacific Ocean to get to the Polynesian islands.


      • It’s amazing to imagine they prepare it, right? More complex than to put an elephant into a refrigerator! Hahahaha 😀

        Indeed, in spite of the lack of the script, Kon Tiki is a worth to be seen movie. Well, wanna have a sea-trip together? 😉


      • Putting an elephant into a fridge is easy — what a classic Indonesian joke. 😀
        I would love a sea trip, but watching movies like Kon-Tiki helps create this imagination of shark-infested seas. Not a kind of imagination that I need. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  6. A nicely-written piece, and I love the photographs. I’ve been to HK a number of times, never went to the museum. Now, I have a reason to return, I guess. I love the history of things, and this is a great piece of ships!


    • Thank you, Badfish. The next time you come to HK you really should go to this museum which is conveniently located at Central. Such a great museum to learn about the history of maritime trade in Asia.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi, Bama. Its funny how China can claim an entire sea. Maybe gone are the days where man could freely traverse the vastness of the oceans, the mystery of the creatures beneath.


    • I know. Such a mind-boggling act they’re doing, especially the reason they use to justify their claim. I really hope we won’t see any further escalation in the region as conflict is the last thing we need.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Bama, sea voyages are really exciting as i think. I always have a strong desire to on such trip hoping very soon it would become true. Thanks for this precious information buddy


    • Seafaring skill and technology are indeed very fascinating. Without them the world would have been a very different place today. Hope you have that dream boat trip soon! Thank you for reading.


  9. Beautiful post and images to match Bama. This makes me wish i could travel back in time and witness those scenes depicted on that fan! Putting the museum down as a must do for a future visit.


    • Thank you, Madhu. If time machine was invented, I would have done the same! The imagination of how erstwhile people lived never ceases to fascinate me. You really should pay this museum a visit should you go to Hong Kong again, Madhu.


  10. TravelLover says:

    Hi , I came across this blog, when i was reading about naval ships and warfare during chozha regime in south east asia between 9 CE to 11 CE. Really surprising to see that this museum doesnt cover any ship from the chozha empire from southern indian region which had south east asia under its control.

    Anyways my comment is based on what i read from historical references. BTW your blog is great . Wish i have a chance to visit borobudur in indonesia someday.


    • Does Choza refer to the Chola Empire? Because if I’m not mistaken the latter also flourished during the same period as you mentioned. If so, then it has indeed made a lot of contacts and conquests in Southeast Asia.

      Thank you for reading and leaving a comment. Hopefully that visit to Borobudur will happen sooner than later.


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