Tales from sunkenships in Malaysian waters

By Fadzli Ramli - Bernama

At a glance, nobody will be able to guess that Sharipah Lok Lok Sy Idrus is a researcher of ship wrecks, as well as an underwater treasure hunter.

Sharipah Lok Lok, who is the Assistant Curator of the Museum Department, has proven that her petite figure is no obstacle for her to conduct various types of salvaging work, including diving into the sea to retrieve items from sunken galleons, barges and man-of-wars.

"Small physical build is not a big challenge, but what is more important is my interest, and to me diving into the sea to see the treasures buried on the ocean floor is something exceptional," she said.

Sharipah Lok Lok spoke to reporters following a news conference held by the Director-General of the Museum Department Datuk Ibrahim Ismail in conjunction with the exhibition 'The Miracle of Shipwreck Treasures' being hosted here by the National Museum.


Sharipah Lok Lok made her first attempt at diving during the salvaging of 'Wanli', believed to have been attacked before going down in the waters off Dungun, Terengganu in 1630.

Wanli was found on Nov 1, 2003, 42 metres below the surface. However, among the challenges faced by Sharipah Lok Lok while diving was the high pressure at this depth.

This had forced Sharipah Lok Lok to stop halfway through her dive to stablise the pressure on her body and she could only stay two hours under the sea, compared with professional divers in the team who could remain under water for three hours.

She said what was retrieved from Wanli were broken and half-broken porcelain ceramics, similar to what had been recovered from other ship wrecks off the coast of Malaysia.

"This had revealed a picture of ceramics trading in Asia in the 17th century where merchants from Europe, including the Dutch, Portuguese and English, bought many ceramics from China," she said.

Sharipah Lok Lok said among the retrieved items were a mix of motifs including 'Kraak' and 'Transitional Wares' which had earlier been thought to have come from different times.

She said the motifs were crucial in determining the purpose of the porcelain ceramics, such as for weddings or religious ceremonies.

The sunken Tanjung Simpang Mengayau was the first vessel that Sharipah Lok Lok had experienced in research operations on sunken vessels. Tanjung Simpang Mengayau sunk after colliding with a reef some 700 metres from the Kudat coast in Sabah.

The vessel was laden with trade goods from China and thought to be from the Sung Dynasty era (960-1126) is believed to have sunk during that period.

"The wreck was 12.0 metres below the sea's surface. I did not make any dives, but was only carrying out research on the treasures retrieved from the ship," she said.


Meanwhile, during the news conference Ibrahim pointed out that the oldest wreck found in the South China Sea was 'Turiang,' believed to have gone down in 1370 and was found resting 42 metres under the sea.

He said the 26.0 metre-long ship, with its 7.5 metre-high mast, was made from wood and details indicated that the vessel was from China.

"It was found in May 1998 with ceramics cargo from China, Vietnam and Thailand. Among the recovered items were Turiang ceramics from China, a 'green-glazed' variety from Sisatchanalai, Thailand and under-glazed bowls from Vietnam," he said.

Another vessel with a consignment of ceramics that went down in 1830, some 2 nautical miles off the Desaru coast in Johor, was the 'Desaru'. It was discovered in 2001, some 20 metres under the sea.

Ibrahim said the 50 metre-long, 7 metre-wide ship is a junk from China and made from pine and cedar wood.

"No other junks were found earlier," he said, adding that the discovery shed new light on ship building methods in China during the 19th century.

He added that most of the blue-white porcelain discovered aboard the ship was believed to be bound for the Southeast Asian market. Among the items were tea and bowl sets, as well as plates with 'Lotus' markings.

The wreck of the vessel Singtai from China was found in April 2001 and has dispelled the theory that Sisatchanala was the only producer of 'under-glazed' ceramics.

"This was proven when the ship was found with 'under-glazed' Sisatchanalai and Sukhotai ceramics. The ship did not carry any celadon ceramics," he said.

The ship is believed to have sunk in 1550, some 12 nautical miles from Pulau Redang, Terengganu. It was discovered 53 metres beneath the sea surface.

Malaysia Flor do Mar

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