One of the most ambitious emperors in history mounted the biggest naval invasion force in history and suffered the greatest naval disaster in history, changing world history thereafter in the process.
Genghis Khan (1162-1227) has the more famous Mongol name as a great emperor of China and invader of foreign territories. His empire stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Kubla Khan, his grandson, is better known as the kindly host of Marco Polo, the European who wandered east to find the source of the Silk Road.
Unknown to many, Kubla Khan had greater ambitions even than his grandfather. Establishing what is now Beijing as his capital city, he planned to conquer or at least control the whole world. Japan, a rising world power in those times, was one of his objectives. But far from the only one.
In 1280 CE, Kubla Khan ordered the construction and assembly of the world’s largest navy. On target, one year later, his fleet set sail for Japan in May of 1281. His objective was a navy of 12,000 ships. He reached that number in time, but only through a massive construction effort.
(To put that into perspective, the second largest invasion navy ever was involved with the D-Day invasion of France by the Allied Forces, with a fleet of 4,000 ships, many of which were smaller than the Chinese ships of Kubla Khan’s navy nearly 800 years earlier.)
The Khan’s shipbuilders were Chinese, at that time designers and builders of the most impressive ships the world had seen. The warships were about four times as big as European warships of the time. They even included watertight compartments that would prevent water from flooding the ship if one compartment was punctured.
In August of 1281, as the emperor’s fleet approached Japan, a massive typhoon (hurricane)–the top level of storm by today’s standards of measurement– struck the Chinese fleet. Before hapless Japan had a chance to fight to the death to defend itself, 12,000 Chinese ships sank, taking their crews with them to the bottom.
However, not every Chinese ship sank. The ships that held the leaders of the navy (not including the Khan, who was at home spending time with his wives and concubines) survived. Why did the ships of the leaders survive while the rest of their fleet sank? In short, the leaders’ ships were built without flaws.
The Chinese were none too happy to comply with the Khan’s wishes to build naval ships because they had recently been conquered themselves by the Mongols. They toiled as slaves to build the fleet. In response, they built flaws into their workmanship. The ships would not hold together in a bad storm, even though they looked good when they set sail.
It turned out that Kubla Khan’s demand that 12,000 ships be build within one year was far too ambitious. That size fleet should have taken from two to five years. So the naval leaders supplemented the numbers with river boats seized from Chinese fishermen and traders. River boats had little need for keels and were designed more to carry cargo than as warships. They were not designed to withstand the rigours of storms at sea.
In the typhoon, they tipped over easily while most of the other ships in the fleet fell apart and sank.
Japan was saved by the kamikaze (big wind). But the story doesn’t end there. Kubla Khan’s reputation was soiled and the reputation of the Mongols altogether was trashed. Not long after Kubla Khan died, the Mongol reign over China fell apart and disappeared into history.
True, the Mongol tribes were among those who invaded eastern Europe decades later, bringing about the fall of the great empire centred in Rome. But those tribes were not coordinated in their efforts, the invaders integrated into European civilization and the Renaissance blossomed not long (by historical time) later.
But the story doesn’t end there either.
In the time of Kubla Khan, Chinese traders, explorers and settlers had spread over most of the globe. One of their villages has been found in Nova Scotia, Canada, and others are being investigated on the west coast of the USA and in South America. They may even have sailed across the Atlantic to western Europe along with the Norse traders who had been to the Americas before the turn of the First Millennium.
With the defeat of Kubla Khan’s great fleet, China could no longer afford to send ships around the world to explore and to trade. All Chinese ships, crews and settlers were called home from across the globe. From that time on, Chinese culture turned inward, with no significant expansion for centuries.
That left the world open to Europeans. And to Christianity.
The Europeans and their religion did what the Chinese under the Mongol emperor had set out to do, dominate the world.
World history literally changed dramatically and permanently as a result of one storm in August of 1281 CE. No matter where in the world you live, your life is different from what it might have been had that typhoon not occurred.
For one thing, you wouldn’t have been reading this article in English.
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