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A white rock yields treasures

In 2008, the International Court of Justice ruled that the island of Pedra Branca (“White Rock” in Portuguese) belonged to Singapore, not Malaysia, ending a 29-year-old territorial dispute between the two neighbours over the rocky outcrop known to sailors for centuries as a hazardous landmark for ships.

A reminder of how far Pedra Branca is from the rest of Singapore and its islands - it is 44 kilometres out in the South China Sea.

Base picture credit: Google Maps.

Now, Singapore’s legal victory has paid rich dividends... in the arena of heritage.

Two shipwrecks have been excavated from the waters surrounding Pedra Branca. The first was discovered in 2016, about 100 metres northwest of the island. The second, that of India-built merchant vessel Shah Munchah, which sank in 1796, was uncovered in 2019, 300 metres east of the island. Both carried Chinese ceramics as their primary cargo; the former had artefacts dating to the 14th century, the latter, artefacts dating to the late 18th century.

Locations of the two shipwrecks. Credit: The Straits Times.
From the shipwrecks: Yuan Dynasty-era blue-and-white porcelain. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
More blue-and-white porcelain. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Longquan celadon dishes, which have a green glaze. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Artefacts include (clockwise from top left) a glass bottle stopper, a betel nut cutter, copper-alloy beads, agate medallions, a bronze mortar, glass beads, a copper-alloy bracelet, and a gold tag with Armenian script. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Figurines include those of (from left) a Chinese couple, a dog, and a Qingbai figurine of a horse with a rider wearing a scholar’s headgear. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

There have been archaeological finds in Singapore dating as far back as the 14th century, but they all have been on land, in places such as Fort Canning Hill, the Padang, and Empress Place. The two ships are a first for Singapore’s waters (and hopefully not the last).

The 14th-century wreck will add a tremendous amount to knowledge of 14th-century Singapore, and both wrecks will add to the maritime history of Singapore in the 14th and 18th centuries, periods falling outside that of “modern” Singapore (1819 to the present). I can only imagine how excited maritime history researchers must be feeling right now!

Looking forward to further discoveries in the waters around Singapore’s newest piece of territory, and to seeing the priceless artefacts go on display in our museums very soon.


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