An Ottoman Ship in Japan THE FRIGATE ERTUĞRUL

The Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul is finally coming home after 120 years. The remains of the sunken vessel, which sailed to Japan on a good will mission, will be exhibited along with the objects recovered from it in several cities, starting with Mersin.

1889-1890 

Sultan Abdulhamid II, who came to the throne in 1876, decided to develop Ottoman relations with the Empire of Japan, which was on the rise in the Far East. These relations, which commenced with a visit by the training ship ‘Seiki’ in 1878, developed rapidly and were further strengthened when the Meiji emperor gave the sultan the Japanese Order of the Crysanthemum, the empire’s highest honor, in return for which the sultan gave him a ‘Murassa Nişanı’ of the first degree. It was following the visit of the Meiji emperor’s uncle, Prince Komatsu, in September 1887 that Abdulhamid II made the decision to send a ship to Japan.

The vessel chosen was the frigate Ertuğrul. Despite objections raised on the grounds that it was old and in disrepair, the 79-meter vessel set sail from Istanbul on July 14, 1889, with a crew of 609 under the command of Commodore Osman Bey. The ship eventually reached Tokyo’s harbor of Yokohama at the end of a lengthy voyage that was intended to take three months but ended up taking eleven due to a series of accidents and other setbacks.

The crew of the Ertuğrul presented the honors and gifts they had brought  to the Emperor Meiji to great acclaim. After a stay of more than three months at Yokohama, they set sail on the return voyage. But on September 16 a strong wind blew up, turning into a typhoon towards evening. Around 9:30 that night the ship struck the Funagora Rocks at the eastern tip of the island of Oshima off the southern tip of Japan’s main island and was dashed asunder. Upwards of five hundred sailors were killed in the disaster. The 69 sailors and officers who were saved were treated by the people of Oshima and later returned to Istanbul on the vessels Hiyei and Kongo.
Despite this tragic ending, the sailors of the Ertuğrul had successfully completed their mission. And the frigate Ertuğrul, which had set out with the purpose of furthering relations between the two countries, became the cornerstone of Turkey-Japan friendship.

2004 – 2010

The remains of the frigate Ertuğrul have been lying in a well-known spot, the Funagora Rocks off the coast of Japan, since 1890. But on the island the Ertuğrul is fully alive. Looking down on the treacherous sea, the Ertuğrul Museum harbors the history and remains of the ship. Not far away, the Turkish monument reminds us of our loss and the deep bond between the two countries. And at the end of the trail, the lighthouse that guided the surviving sailors to safety stands as it did 120 years ago, still welcoming visitors from Japan and all over the world.

After working many years in the field of underwater archaeology in Turkey, we were asked about the Ertuğrul. A short first visit to the site at Kushimoto in 2004 convinced us of the great potential of the project, and preparations got under way.

The Turkish-Japanese team has been excavating the remains of the frigate since 2007. A hundred and twenty years of storms and waves have battered what was left of the wreckage, but at 13 meters under the surface scattered remains of the ship and its sailors are still visible. An eerie feeling transports the visitor back in time when he discovers, among the sand and seashells, the buttons, belts and shoes of naval officers lying side by side with gold and silver coins, guns, bullets and parts of the broken ship: nails, pulleys, engine parts, broken glass from doors, lamps…

Samples of what would have been a rich cargo of gifts from the Japanese emperor to the Ottoman sultan lie at the bottom of the sea, undelivered,  waiting to be admired, among them delicate porcelains and decorative pewter trays, bringing to İstanbul the exotic taste of Japan’s unique arts. One of the most important finds might be a plate bearing a central decoration of 12 petals of chrysanthemum, symbol of the the imperial dynasty.

During four years of underwater archaeological work we raised, cleaned, catalogued and photographed in our laboratory more than 6,000 items, all part of the huge Ertuğrul puzzle that has come to life thanks to the collaboration of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey, and the town of Kushimoto in Japan. A research project that symbolizes the spirit of collaboration between these two faraway nations.