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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Feb 15, 2021


Around 40 episodes ago, we discussed Chinggis Khan fighting for control of the Mongolian steppe. Now, some 90 years later in our chronology, we will discuss his grandson sending Mongol armies across the sea to lands beyond Chinggis’ imagination. While Japan, Vietnam and Burma were all subjects of invasions towards the end of Kublai Khan’s life, all of these were regions relatively close to Yuan China, directly bordering its subject territories. Our discussion today focuses on a much less obvious target: the island of Java in modern Indonesia. The expedition against Java was one of the last military campaigns ordered by Kublai in his long life, and like many of these later invasions, cost the Yuan heavily in men and resources for little gain. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


In the 13th century, Eastern Java and parts of the neighbouring islands of Sumatra and Borneo came under the influence of the Kingdom of Tumapel, named for the city of the same name on the island of Java- or atleast it was the same name until the reign of King Jaya Wisnuhardhana, who changed it to Singhasari. You’ll find this state therefore referred either as the Kingdom of Tumapel, or Singahsari.The Tumapel kings were not absolute rulers, with much of their kingdom made up of loosely controlled vassal kings and chiefs. Rather, their significance for our purposes came from their place on a  lucrative position along the maritime trade routes going through Indonesia and across the southern coastline of the Eurasian landmass. By the 12th century, the island of Java was one of China’s chief suppliers of pepper and safflower dye, along with Bali. The island exported rice, and held trade contacts from China to India. In turn, they imported gold, silver, lacquerware, iron goods and ceramics from China. The southeast Asian sea trade was a valuable market which had been expanding considerably since the ninth century- and one which now attracted the attention of a man hungry for conquest and with less and less patience for, well, patience.


By the 1280s, Kublai Khan had completed his conquest of China proper, but good, overwhelming victories were frustraingly eluding him in Central Asia, Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar, and as he advanced in years, the knowledge that he was failing to bring the world under Mongol authority must have weighed heavily on him. Now in his seventies, with his poor health, depression, deaths of his friends and family, increasing removal from affairs of state and awareness of his own impending mortality, Kublai must have been desperate for victories to console his aching spirit. In addition, the economic aspects must not be overlooked -though they were not separate, from Kublai’s point of view, but merely a component of universal rule. Kublai’s Yuan dynasty, while obviously influenced by China’s Confucian norms and traditions, felt no need to bind themselves to it, and kept for instance, the Mongolian practicality regarding merchants. Rather than treat them as inherently lower class, they were invited and rewarded, and trade as a whole encouraged. This took a notable form on the recent completion of the conquest of the southern Chinese coastline. Soon after the imposition of Mongol rule at the end of the 1270s, a new Bureau of Maritime Trade was established as the major port of Quanzhou. The Bureau not only oversaw and taxed the trade in and out of Quanzhou, but sought to actively encourage it as well as the settlement of foreign traders there. Contacts were made across the region- the Southeast Asian coastline of course, but also the Phillipines, Indonesia including Java and Sumatra and to India and Iran’s southern coastline. We, have for instance, south Indian style Hindu temples with Tamil transcriptions in Quanzhou from this period, and knowledge of a significant Muslim population and resettled Persian. To the Islamic world Quanzhou was known as Zayton, by which Marco Polo recorded the name. The Yuan Dynasty had a keen interest in trade, and sought to extend their control over it throughout the region- at the same time extending the Mongols’ heavenly Mandate to rule the whole of the world.


On these considerations, Kublai Khan increased diplomatic missions across the seas of southern Asia, from Malabar to Sri Lanka, ordering the monarchs and peoples across the sea to submit to the Great Khan, as per the wish of Eternal Blue Heaven- something it should be noted, many of these states did do. In fact, for the privilege of  trading with China, most regional states already undertook a sort of yearly tribute to whichever Chinese dynasty ruled the requisite ports they wanted access to. The Chinese dynasties were generally content to accept the trade and maintain the image of themselves as the Sons of Heavens, the centre of the world in name even if it wasn’t  quite so in practice, and the Son of Heaven did not exercise actual authority in these states. The Mongols, as many a state in eastern Asia rudely learned, generally did not share the same view; to be a vassal to the Great Khan was a complete submission, which required making your resources and peoples available to the Khan’s desires, measured through censuses to catalogue them and make the necessary demands. When Kublai sent his diplomatic missions over the seas, they often were sent to not just reaffirm or increase the tribute, but increase the extent to which these overseas monarchs needed to comply to the will of the house of Chinggis Khan.


One such mission, led by one Meng Qi, arrived in the court of the king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, sometime in the 1280s. Kertanagara had been the King of Tumapel since the 1260s, and had shown himself a haughty individual and firm convert to Tantric Buddhism. Since his ascension he had expanded his kingdom, over the 1270s  subduring parts of eastern Sumatra and by the 1280s, most of the island of Java itslf. By all accounts, Kertanagara was quite keen to solidify his control of the local trade and spice routes, and very, very keen on not having to share it with the distant ruler of China. In the various sources, after feeling insulted by the envoy Meng Qi or his demands, Kertanagara’s either insulted him, branded his face with a hot iron, cut his nose off or outright killed him. In either case, he had committed a grievous insult on an envoy of the Great Khan, which you may remember, was not something the Mongols took lightly. 


Kertanagara’s calculation was likely a simple one. He did not want to increase the share of tribute sent to China for the privilege of trading. However, in order to maintain that wealth he very much needed to keep trading with China, and it's unclear to what extent trade may have been disrupted during the long war between the Mongols and the late Song Dynasty. It was a reasonable assumption that the island of Java was well outside the range of an actual attack from China, leaving him physically secure from a Chinese repercussion. Once tensions had cooled, Kertanagara could send an apology mission and resume trade, without having provided a greater portion of it to China. 


These were reasonable assumptions, but rather incorrect, as they relied on an assumption of reasonable retaliation by the opposing party. By the later 1280s, the deaths of Kublai’s closest confidant, his wife Chabi, chosen heir Jingim and his most important advisers, as well as alcoholism and depression had clouded his judgement, and he was quite beyond being reasonable. Kublai’s earliest campaigns against the Dali Kingdom and Song Dynasty were marked by thorough preparation and intelligence gathering, taking advantage of weaknesses within the enemy to bring the final victory. Now isolated and depressed, surrendered by yes-men who lacked the ability to stand up to him and desperate for victory after the continuous news of defeat across his frontiers, Kublai had come to rely on throwing manpower at a problem, hoping now tactical successes would automatically lead to strategic victories. Kublai’s knowledge of Java must have been minimal, but he was well past the point of caring. The ruler of a puny island somewhere in the sea had no right to insult the Master of the World. And so, Kublai ordered an attack upon the island of Java and Kingdom of Tumapel, to bring its king Kertanagara to heel and resume the tribute payments.


Briefly, we can comment on the rather different version of events which appears in the Javanese sources. In the medieval Javanese and Balinese sources, the incident with Meng Qi the envoy is unmentioned. Instead, Kublai was a friend of the minister Madura Wiraraja, who requested Kublai come provide military assistance to the royal family of Tumapel. In this verison, the throne was usurped by Jayakatwang, whom we shall meet shortly, and Kublai’s forces quite respectfully came, defeated the usurper, placed the rightful heir, Kertanagara’s son-in-law Raden Vijaya, on the throne and took in exchange only a beautiful princess for Kublai to marry. Generally speaking, most reconstructions rely on the Chinese sources instead, though the Javanese sources are interesting for how they justify and depict the Yuan presence.


Regardless of the cause, an invasion fleet and army were prepared in 1292. 20,000 men, mainly from southern China, were mobilizied aboard 1,000 vessels. The army was led by the former Song commander Gao Xing, the navy by the Uighur Yiqmis, and all were under the overall command of the Mongol Shi Bi. Having learned from the disastrous naval assaults on Japan and Dai Viet, onboard they had a year’s supply of grain and 40,000 ounces of silver to purchase more supplies. The commanders met with Kublai himself before their departure: the Khan told Shi Bi to leave naval matters to Yiqmis’ expertise, and that they must proclaim on their arrival they were not an invasion force, but merely there to punish Kertanagara for harming a Yuan envoy. Whether Kublai was serious, or hoping this ruse would allow his forces to snatch victory, we cannot say.  Departing in winter 1292-93, they made a short stopover in Champa, now paying tribute and at peace with the Mongols. There, officers were dispatched on diplomatic missions to Lamuri, Samudra, Perlak and Mulayu in Sumatra, seeking tribute and submission. By March 1293 the fleet was off the coast of Java, and preparing to make landfall. It was decided to send a diplomatic force ahead of the main fleet, as by now the Yuan commanders were under no pretensions their army was inherently invincible, particularly as it had only a minor Mongolian component. It was hoped that by diplomacy, and with a good  threat of violence, they  would convince Kertanagara to submit and avoid having to make landfall in an foreign country with little gathered intelligence. If there was no progress on the diplomatic front in a week, the fleet was to follow up as a show of force.


The diplomatic mission found no success, for matters had changed considerably in Java by the time of their arrival. The haughty king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, was dead. He had been killed by his vassal, Jayakatong of Gelang, based in Kediri. Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Raden Vijaya, based in Majapahit, was resisting him, and the Yuan fleet had arrived in the midst of a civil war. A week after the envoys were sent, the armada landed at Tuban, where part of the army under Gao Xing and Yiqmis disembarked and began to march to Pachekan. The rest of the army was to follow aboard the ships under the command of Tuqudege, sailing through the Straits of Madura to meet the land force in March. At Pachekan, Jayakatong’s navy blocked the Brantas River, but made no move against the Yuan. There, the Yuan commanders landed and set up a banquet, inviting the Javanese to come over and discuss terms. No response was made by the Javanese, and after a while the Yuan fleet and army advanced. Jayakatong’s navy retreated before them and after garrisoning Pachekan, the Yuan forces made their way inland along the Brantas. 


As they moved inland, they were greeted by envoys of Raden Vijaya, begging Yuan help: the young prince had only a small force, and  Jayakatong’s army was now on its way to attack Vijaya’s base at Majapahit. In exchange, Vijaya would submit happily to the Great Khan. Seeing that this could be the key to gaining the submission of Java by supporting Vijaya, Yiqmis ordered Gao Xing to take a part of the army and intercept Jayakatong, while Yiqmis took the rest of the force to reinforce Majapahit. Jayakatong managed to evade Gao Xing, reaching Majapahit. There, Yiqmis had already assembled his forces to meet the tired forces of Jayakatong. Standing off for the night, when Gao Xing arrived the next day with the rest of the Yuan troops, together they drove off Jayakatong’s army. Raden Vijaya once again promised his total submission to the Great Khan if the Yuan forces helped him secure Java against Jayakatong, and after providing them maps, a week later they set off for Jayakatong’s capital of Kediri. 


The Yuan moved in three columns: the fleet on the Brantas River under Tuqudege, with Gao Xing and Yiqmis taking their forces up either bank, while behind them traveled a large force from Majapahit under Raden Vijaya. The army made good time, and only a few days later had reached Kediri, where Jayakatong had a large army prepared for them. The next day, from the morning until early afternoon, Jayakatong’s force advanced three times, and three times they were repulsed with heavy losses by the arms of the Yuan Dynasty and Majapahit. By the end of the day, Jayakatong’s army broke, fleeing across the river or into Kediri itself, where Jayakatong too retreated. The Yuan immediately assaulted the city, and by nightfall Jayakatong had come forward to surrender. 


For the next week, the Yuan were the masters of Java. Raden Vijaya’s promised submission now had to come: for this, he desired to return to Majapahit with a small, unarmed Yuan escort to properly witness his formal submission. While that force departed for Majapahit, Shi Bi sent most of the army back to Pachekan, while he stayed in Kediri with a small force, thinking he had handily conquered Java for his Khan.


Unfortunately for Shi Bi, he was not so lucky. Once he saw that the Yuan troops had let their guard down, at the end of the day Raden Vijaya killed the Yuan escorts who followed him back to Majapahit, rallied his armies and urged the people of Java to repel the foreign invaders. Only narrowly did Shi Bi escape the trap for him at Kediri. He fought his way back to Pachekan, losing in one account up to 3,000 men. Back aboard the ships the commanders argued over whether to counter attack Raden, or to retreat, ultimately choosing the latter. Not knowing the country, outnumbered and unlikely to find local support, realistically they choose the best option to secure the lives of the rest of their men. 


While they did bring back some trophies, maps of Java, population registers, spices, gold, silver, rhino horn and prisoners, this did little to offset the costs of the campaign. Not as disastrous as the invasions of Japan or Vietnam, the Yuan had been unable to turn a tactically well executed campaign into a strategic victory, and paid for it with a humiliating retreat. Kublai was furious, punishing Shi Bi, Yiqmis and Gao Xing, stripping them of a third of their property and rewarding them with 50 blows from the rod. Once Kublai Khan died in early 1294, there was no stomach to avenge that defeat, or those others suffered in Southeast Asia.  By contrast, Raden Vijaya was able to found a new empire based in Majapahit, which would come to dominate much of modern Indonesia and Malaysia and was perhaps the most powerful empire to ever be based in the region, a Golden Age founded in large part due to Mongol assistance. By the end of the 1290s, after Kublai’s death, Vijaya sent missions to the Yuan Dynasty to resume the valuable trade contacts. Despite their reputation for destruction across much of Eurasia, in the Javanese chronicle there is but a single reference to the Mongols destroying towns and sending people running in flight- perhaps due to the mainly Chinese origin of the army. Consider how the memory of the invasion was that of Kublai coming to assist his friends in exchange for a beautiful princess; to excuse, perhaps, their attack on their erstwhile allies or Kertanagara’s murder of the envoy, always a heinous act, the Yuan troops turned into a helpful, legitimizing force, in a way. A rather different view than their forces earned in many other places.


The Java campaign marked the end of the Yuan Dynasty’s overseas expansion, capping off Kublai’s life with one last failed campaign. The campaigns of the 1280s and 90s served as stark reminders for Kublai’s successors, whose attention would mostly turn inwards with rare exceptions. The huge costs of all these campaigns served to burden the Yuan economy, filling its offices with corruption and mismanagement that would never be shed. Further, these campaigns did little to endear the recently taken former Song territories, who provided much of the manpower for these invasions, to their new masters, laying seeds for later troubles for the Yuan, to be discussed in future episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.