March 2022 – Treasure of the Month

March’s Treasure of the Month are these two intact K’ang Hsi porcelain tea cups from the 1715 Fleet.  What is remarkable about these pieces are that they are intact, which is quite rare.
1715 Fleet Society cups on sand 3Produced by artisans in China, these delicate cups endured a trip from the highlands of China to seaports on the Chinese coast and then on to the Philippines. From there they were transported across the Pacific to the port of Acapulco, Mexico. From Acapulco these items eventually made their way across Mexico and ended up in Vera Cruz. There, the New Spain Fleet was waiting to take possession for the trip back home to Cadiz. However, these two tea cups never made it to the dinner tables of European elites. Instead, they ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic where they were destined to remain for almost three centuries.

Our featured porcelain cups were produced during the life of K’ang Hsi (1662-1722) the second emperor of the Ch’ing Dynasty, hence the name K’ang Hsi porcelain.  The blue on white floral pattern is but one of several styles and designs that characterize this porcelain.

1715 Fleet Society Debry Collection 1
Porcelain cups, onion bottle and bronze navigational divider. (Image by John de Bry)

The first documented recovery of intact K’ang Hsi porcelain from the 1715 Fleet was recorded by the Real Eight Company during the1963 dive season. While working the Cabin Wreck site (believed to be the remains of the Nuestra Senora de la Regla) the crew came upon an area of gray-colored mud or clay within which they found blue and white chips of porcelain. This was not unusual as they had found hundreds of tiny chips before. But this time, a little deeper in the mud, they found bowls and cups stacked horizontally. Little by little they dug the porcelain out clearing away the mud with their fingers. By the end of the day, they had excavated 28 bowls and cups, all intact and in perfect condition!

1715 Fleet Society Debry Collection 2
Fine blue on white porcelain cups and containers. (Image by John de Bry)

The amazing part was that these fragile items survived a devastating hurricane. A hurricane so fierce that it destroyed an entire fleet, yet spared these tiny objects. The reason? The porcelain was packed in clay which explains the gray-colored mud that the divers encountered before finding the intact porcelain.

Later, photographs of the recovered porcelain were submitted to Kammar Aga Oglu of the University of Michigan, a leading authority on the subject. She identified the photographs as porcelain from the K’ang Hsi period. (NOTE: Kip Wagner and his colleague Dr. Kip Kelso had suspected that cases of china might be found on 1715 Fleet wreck sites. While researching the 1715 Fleet they found an article written in 1942 and published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, 1942, vol. 21, #1, pp. 25-39 written by Charles Dana Higgs. In the article Higgs notes that blue and white fragments of porcelain were found opposite the Cabin Wreck site which were identified as K’ang Hsi  china. Indeed in a letter written by Higgs to the Florida Historical Society on February 7, 1940 he mentions “an old ship-wreck about two and a half miles South of Sebastian Inlet” that contains a “wealth of material of archeological interest”.  In a subsequent letter of June 17, 1940 he mentions that he had “taken some specimens” to the Logan Museum at Beloit College where they were identified as “Chinese porcelain—K’ang Hsi period type, 1662-1722”. So, it is clear that the existence of K’ang Hsi was known for a number of years before the Real Eight’s discovery in 1963.)

1715 Fleet Society Debry Collection 3
Display of fine porcelain, chains and gold escudos from the Mexico and Lima mints. Also pictured is a gold ring near a clump of silver reales fused together by the action of seawater on the surface of the silver coins. (Image by John Debry)

Returning to our featured treasure, these two tea cups are from the personal collection of diver Mike Blanchard who over the last 22 years has recovered several different types of Chinese porcelain from multiple 1715 Fleet related locations. Mike tells me that one of the two cups was recovered in 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne. The other was found in 2021 at a different location.
1715 Fleet Society cups on rocks 2Very knowledgeable in the area of 1715 Fleet porcelain, Mike is currently in the process of writing a booklet on the subject. He also was a contributor to a booklet about 1715 Fleet and Columbian emeralds.

Many thanks to Mike Blanchard for sharing with us his images of the two tea cups which formed the basis of our story. Also, much of the information used in our text was obtained from several sources including Pieces of Eight, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1966 and Shipwreck “Arti – Facts”: From The Spanish Treasure Fleets – 2, which is part of a five set series written by Ernie Richards and available by contacting Ernie at seascribe@att.net.

For more information about related topics see our prior Treasures of the Month for July 2021 and November 2017.

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