Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado

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Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A fascinating and highly readable history of Khubilai Khan's failed attempts to expand the Mongol empire to Japan in the 13th century, exploring the cultural legacy of the stories and revealing some of the latest evidence dredged from the ocean floor of the fleet discovered for the first time in the last few years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099532583

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When Mongol leader, Khubilai Khan, achieved what his Grandfather Genghis had failed to do in conquering China, he inherited the world's largest and most sophisticated navy. However, in attempting to utilise this to expand his empire further to Java, Vietnam and mainly Japan, he lost the entire armada in a few short years. New marine archeological evidence from Japan, ironically with the site discovered in the 1990s in the construction of new defences from the weather, has raised questions on the traditional view that the defeat of the two Japanese invasion forces of 1274 and particlularly 1281 were solely due to the intervention of the weather and what Japanese culture claim was a Kamikaze (or divine wind) summoned by the Gods.

James Delgado's interest in this story was stimulated when he presented a series for National Geographic Independent Television's The Sea Hunters series. In many ways, it his eye for a journalistic-style story that helps him tell this fascinating history without getting too bogged down in the intricacies of complex maritime archeology or naval history.

I confess that I don't spend much time in the 'Marine Archeology' section of my local bookshop. Indeed, my knowledge of archeology goes little further than Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, and my knowledge of Khubilai Kahn was limited to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic references to Xanadu. But you sense that Delgado is aware of the effects of too much jargon and the complexities of archeology and naval terms, and what he tells is a gripping account of Mongol and Japanese history and its long term cultural implications.

In less able hands, this book could easily have failed. His scope is huge - a history of Chinese boat building, the Mongol expansion, 13th century Japan, the re-use of the Kamikaze term in World War II, the Mongol expeditions to Japan and then Vietnam and Java, as well as the discovery of the smoking gun evidence for the Japanese battle in the late 1990s. All this is told in 178 pages (the rest of the book includes sources, an index and six pages of acknowledgements that would not look out of place in an Oscar acceptance speech).

In truth it is still very early days in terms of the new evidence found - less than 1% of the area has been excavated and exploration has largely stopped now due to lack of funding. Partly, this is a call to arms and an attempt to raise public interest in the subject, but while it is clear that there was indeed a horrific storm, evidence suggests that the state of the fleet may have contributed to the devastating loss. It's a tantalising glimpse of what we can learn from the depths of the ocean.

I highly recommend this book. It's totally engaging and highly readable. And if you pay for the book with a £10 note, you might like to remember that it was Khubilai who first developed the idea of paper money.

Many thanks to the people at Vintage for inviting The Bookbag to review this fascinating book.

If this book has peaked your interest in all things Mongol, then you may be equally interested in Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden, an historical fiction set in Khubilai's Grandfather's time. If it is the maritime history that 'floats your boat' (as it were) then try Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees.

Buy Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kamikaze: History's Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado at Amazon.com.


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