The Mongol Armada

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.

The attempted invasion of Japan was, with hindsight, the moment when the Mongols’ legendary invincibility was called into question for the first time – a sign that the tide of barbarian invasion had finally begun to ebb. The Mongols had experienced setbacks in the past, but had always, eventually, returned home with, at very least, the nominal submission of their enemies.

Logistically, the Japanese invasion project was no smaller than the Mongol enterprises to take the empires of the Tangut, Jurchen or the Southern Song. However, historically, it became literally world famous. It is in Marco Polo’s awestruck account of the plan to invade Japan that the island kingdom first enters European consciousness. When, 200 years later, Christopher Columbus waded ashore on a remote Caribbean island in search of ‘Cipangu’, he was merely the latest inheritor of Khubilai’s propaganda, convinced that Japan was an island of untold wealth, there for the taking.

Many Japanese accounts leap straight to the arrival of the first great Mongol fleet off the coast, and the heroic efforts by the samurai to hold them back. However, Chinese and Korean annals present a very different story, and show the size of the Mongol threat steadily growing throughout the 1260s. The first approaches to Japan were little more than honeyed words and oblique threats, escalating in severity as years passed without a direct Japanese submission to Khubilai.

The first signs of the Mongol invasion are rumours and tall tales from mainland visitors, the mere ghosts of direct contact, as careful Korean obfuscations kept the Mongols and the Japanese from making actual contact. Although history largely remembers the two great, apocalyptic battles in Hakata Bay and their almost supernatural ending, lesser accounts record a number of skirmishes long before the infamous days of reckoning. There were kidnappings and secret deals in the Korea Strait years before the Mongol armada officially set sail, and there was even a pre-emptive Japanese strike on the Korean coast, which saw part of the intended invasion fleet burned where it stood in the shipyards. Small parties of emissaries travelling aboard the ships of others, gradually transformed through the 1260s into an ambassador with his own honour guard and his own military escort: two ships, then a dozen, then hundreds.

If we piece together the scattered references to ‘Dwarf Pirates’ or the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ in mainland chronicles, we become witness to the inexorable gathering of a terrible storm. The question that remains for the modern historian to ponder is whether the Japanese or Mongols ever appreciated the terrible odds they both faced.

Jonathan Clements is also the author of Marco Polo, available now in paperback and on the Kindle (US/UK).

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