Porcelain from a storied past
We just returned after a 10-day break in Florida. It was wonderful to exchange the frozen tundra of Rochester, NY for the sun and sand. However, this time instead of just lazing around on the beach my wife and I decided to explore the place. Since we were staying at Vero Beach, which forms part of the Florida's famed "Treasure Coast”, the easiest thing to do was - no prizes for guessing right - treasure hunting.
Well we did not exactly go diving into the sea or comb the beach with metal detectors. Instead we visited two museums in the area dedicated to treasures salvaged from the fleet of Spanish ships that went down in a hurricane in 1715. There were 11 gallons that sank with treasures untold on the shoals between Sebastian and Fort Pierce. Nearly 700 people perished in the disaster but 1500 others survived.
Among the things that were salvaged from the bottom of the sea much later was this lovely tea cup (wine cup?) from the Qing dynasty. This has to be around 300 years old!
How could Chinese porcelain end up in a Spanish fleet that was hauling treasures home from the New World? As explained in the McLarty Treasure Museum, where this cup is presently displayed, treasures from the Orient were first shipped across the Pacific to Acapulco, Mexico. From there it was taken overland to the east coast of Mexico where the Spanish fleet Neuva Espana Armada, or Flota, would take it back to Spain. The other Spanish fleet marauding the region at the time was called Tierra Firma Armada, responsible for collecting riches from rest of South America.
The porcelain found in this wreck is called Kangxi porcelain. Kangxi (1662-1722) was the second Emperor of the Qing period. Unlike his Ming predecessors Kangxi allowed the Chinese porcelain "industry" to open up to the rest of the world. It resulted in a large amount of porcelain to be made exclusively for the Western world. They were of an inferior quality than what was made for domestic use. However, since most of the porcelain of the period has been lost, whatever survives is highly prized.
Of course very few can claim such a story as these pieces that were salvaged from the wreck of “1715 Spanish Plate Fleet”, as it is called. The wealth this fleet bore is mind boggling! Although most of it was salvaged soon after the disaster, it was not until the 1920's that modern day treasure hunters located the sunken bounty. Tons of gold and silver, precious stones like emeralds, other jewels and pearls, exquisite jewellery and of course porcelain were recovered. But a lot more still remains to be found, and professional treasure hunters armed with modern equipment continue to scour the area. Many times the waves will simply wash up a gold coin or a jewel on the beach. Even today you will see amateur treasure hunters combing the beach with metal detectors!
As I look at these pieces, I imagine the stories that have been encrusted in them. The journey it made through the mountains of China, then months if not years on the perilous seas. How carefully then it must have been hauled over the wild terrain of Mexico. Finally making its way into the ships destined for Europe but only to be caught in a storm and sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. For more than 250 years it stayed there, lost to the world. Until dogged treasure hunters locate them and bring them to the surface.
What would happen if you had a chance to drink out of this cup? For me, I would decisively drown in the sea of stories that these cups hold in them. My heart pounds even just looking at them through the glass panes.