Small Chinese War Junk used in First Opium War
In 1839, tensions between the British and the Chinese Qing Empire over the opium trade and treatment of foreign government officials escalated into what became the First Opium War (1839-1842). This model represents a typical small, ocean-faring, Chinese war junk during the 1840s. With its rattan (woven fiber) shields, spears, and long guns, this junk was clearly made for war. The V-shaped hull, fenestrated (holed) rudders, and lugsails helped this ship navigate rough ocean waters, and the oar posts and dozens of oars gave this small, navigable ship an extra burst of speed during battles.
This model was originally part of a collection in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia in the 18th century. In the mid 19th century, the model traveled to Boston when the Boston Museum purchased several items from the Peale’s Museum. The model arrived at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology after a fire destroyed part of the Boston Museum in 1899, resulting in the Peabody inheriting part of the collection.
Jump aboard this magnificent, ornate Chinese War Junk! While the ship dates to 1840, it incorporates few of the technologically advanced features of 19th century Western ship design. Rather the vessel is an example of an adaptive ship design that changed gradually over the centuries, designed to sail the difficult winds of coastal China and overpower enemy vessels in close quarter combat. The ship’s lugsails, the tall, sturdy sails with timbers (called battens) running across their width, are designed to be easy to control coastal China’s difficult trade winds. The large square deck on the ship was designed to hold as many sailors as possible, necessary to launch projectiles from close quarters and overcome the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. While the junk only contains two breechloading cannons loosely latched to the rail (cannons strapped down like this would have been nearly impossible to aim and fire effectively), ships like this one were used in combat against the Royal Navy in the First Opium War (1839-1842). It is therefore no wonder that the technologically antiquated Chinese fleet was blown out of the water by the 100gun flagships and technologically advanced river steamers of the British Royal Navy.
John Henry Ronan
Chinese War Junk, ca. 1840.
This model is a representation of the type of junk that the Chinese army used during the First Opium War to fight against the warships and steamers of the British Royal Navy. The shape of the hull and sails, as well as the diamond shaped holes in the keel and rudder allow us to identify the ship as a seagoing vessel from the southern coast of China, specifically the Kwangtung region. The weaponry on board, including several pole arms and a set of breech-loading matchlock firearms called gingall, are evidence of the military nature of the vessel. The rattan shields mounted on the sides of the vessel were used for protection and are consistent with eye-witness accounts of Chinese war junks during the Opium War. Prior to the war, these vessels were mainly used for coastal patrols and anti-piracy operation. Although well suited for that purpose, they proved very ineffective against the larger and more heavily armed British warships. China’s loss in the conflict and the subsequent consequences of the war would shape relations between the West and China for the decades to come.
Norman R. Storer
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.