Fishermen working off Vietnam’s Ca Mau peninsula in 1998 snagged their nets on a submerged obstacle. As their nets rose bulging with cups and saucers rather than fish, the men realized they had stumbled upon a treasure trove of centuries-old Chinese porcelain. They began dredging up and selling as much as possible before the authorities moved to secure the site.

The fishermen had stumbled upon the 300-year-old wreck of a Chinese ocean-going junk en route from Canton (now Kuangzhou) to the Dutch trading port of Batavia (now Jakarta). 

Disaster struck the heavily-laden vessel as it passed south of the Mekong Delta around the year 1725. The ship had been crippled by an on board fire that raged so severely that some of the porcelain was fused together. 

By the turn of the 18th century, tea was the drink of the elite throughout Europe and the principal traders – ahead of the English – were the Dutch East India Company, (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) of Amsterdam. With the spread of tea came a demand for porcelain tea wares. China was the main source because Europe had not yet discovered the method for making porcelain.

In all, 130,000 pieces were recovered from the wreck and 76,000 of the finer condition pieces were cataloged and sold by Sotheby’s. I have one of those tea bowls in my collection.

76,000 artifacts from the 1725 Ca Mau wreck await the Sotheby’s Auction following cleaning and cataloging.

This 1725 wreck contained work from several Chines kilns and multiple artisans. Best of all, the teapots found in the hold exemplify a period of innovation in design. 

A four-piece tea set recovered in 1998 from the wreck.
First, a bit of teapot history. 

Until the early 1700s, most teapots had only a single opening on the interior where the spout joins the body, thereby allowing the tea leaves to accumulate and clog the spout. Kilns were just starting to include a three-hole strainer at the base of the spout which eliminated clogs. 

And the lids had no perforation (air hole) which allowed the intake of air to facilitate pouring. Both of these design improvements would be standard features of Chinese teapots after the 1730s.

The Ca Mau wreck yielded both old-style and improved teapots. These disparities in form, construction, and design suggest that these teapots not only were produced at different potting centers but most certainly did not represent the fulfillment of a single company order. 

This tea bowl and saucer from the National Museum of Australia was made in about 1725 at a porcelain works in Jingdezhen in southern China. The blue and white pattern is called ‘over the wall’. It shows a man climbing over a wall to meet two maidens, and may have been inspired by a Ming dynasty novel. While this is a Chinese design, some of the other ceramics found in the same shipwreck feature European motifs.

Chinese porcelain expert Shirley Mueller speculates that “the coexistence of more advanced models with those of a pre-existing type most likely resulted from the amalgamation of the supply of wares transported to Guangzhou from various kiln sites at which the ceramists were dependent on the instructions transmitted by their masters, who in turn received their orders from the European supercargoes and their Chinese agents.”

Merchants in Holland, England, and the American colonies often ordered specific designs and patterns for their customers. In the age of wind-sails, it took three or more years for the order to be delivered, manufactured and shipped half a world away. 

I’m sure 18th-century tea drinkers appreciated the addition of the vented cover and self-straining spouts found on these improved teapot models because they are still in use today.

Read more about the history of tea and tea wares in The Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. 

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