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Mongol bombing attack
Kublai Khan ultimately bankrupted his khanate and wasted the lives of many Mongols and non-Mongols in mostly unsuccessful attempts to expand his empire. Naval campaigns against Japan (1274 and 1281) and Java (1293) were defeated. Land campaigns into Burma, Vietnam and what is now the Yunnan Province in China were successful but costly.

The leaders of the Burmese kingdom of Pagan decided to flee their capital instead of fight the Mongols. The Vietnamese, however, were willing to fight. When the king of the Vietnamese kingdom of Annam refused passage to Mongol troops in 1281, the Mongols attacked and suffered terrible losses in the jungle terrain. Pagan and Annam both became vassal states of Yuan dynasty in 1287.

Neither Khublai nor Hulegu made a serious effort to avenge the defeat of Mongols by the Mamluks at Ain Jalut in the Middle East. Both devoted their attention primarily to consolidating their conquests, to suppressing dissidence, and to reestablishing law and order. Like their uncle, Batu, and his Golden Horde successors, they limited their offensive moves to occasional raids or to attacks with limited objectives in unconquered neighboring regions. After the failure of two invasion attempts against Japan in 1274 and 1281, Khublai also gave up his goal of expansion to the east. In January 1293, Khublai invaded Java and defeated the local ruler, only to be driven off the island by a Javanese ally who turned against him.*

In 1292, Kublai Khan sent 1,000 ships and 20,000 troops to Java to exact justice from a Javanese ruler who refused to pay tribute to the khanate and branded the face of one of Kublai Khan's emissaries and cut off his ears and nose. The Mongols were successful at first but ultimately their battle tactics were ineffective in Java’s tropical terrain. In 1293, they retreated back to China in humiliating defeatafter losing 3,000 men in an ambush.

Books: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; “Fighting Ships of the Far East” by Stephen Turnbull

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Mongols in South-East Asia

Mongol Empire map 2
Mongol empire expansion

Present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, were the targets of Kublai Khan's last efforts at expanding Mongol lands southward from China. The jungle-covered, hot and humid lands of Southeast Asia were quite different from the steppes of Central Asia and stretched the Mongol armies to their limits. There were also the challenges of a sea transport and unfamiliar styles of warfare.

According to historian Stephen Turnbull: “The Mongols had fought everywhere from the steppes of Mongolia to the snowy forests of Russia, from the mountains in Korea to the deserts of Syria but it was in the jungles of south-east Asia were the Mongols were faced with conditions and factors that were the most unfamiliar to them. These factors, most notably the heat and humidity took their toll on the Mongol military. Dense jungles, tropical swamps and long rivers were not suited to Mongol styles of warfare and although the Mongol army was able to adapt they were essentially never in their element during any of their south-east Asian campaigns.” [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com ^]

The Mongol wars in Southeast Asia marked the southern limit of the Mongol conquests. By this time the Mongol empire had split into various khanates with the most notable being the Il-khans of Persia, the Golden horde of Russia and the Jagadai khanate of central Asia. On top of this was the Yuan dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan. A series of wars between the khanates effectively ended Mongol expansion westward whilst the campaigns against Japan and in Southeast Asia ordered under Kublai ended eastward expansion of the Yuan Mongol-Chinese Empire. These campaigns were very costly and many ended without effectively achieving their goals. The Mongol failures in Southeast Asia and Japan also marked the beginning of the end of Mongol power in China by undermining the Yuan dynasty's formidable military reputation.

Mongol Campaign in Burma

Beginning in the early 13th century, the Shans began to encircle the Pagan Empire from the north and the east. The Mongols, who had conquered Yunnan, the former homeland of the Burmans in 1253, began their invasion of Burma in 1277, and in 1287 sacked Pagan, ending the Pagan kingdom's 250-year rule of the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. Pagan's rule of central Burma came to an end ten years later in 1297 when it was toppled by Myinsaing. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first signs of disorder appeared soon after Narathihapate's accession in 1256. The inexperienced king faced revolts in Arakanese state of Macchagiri (present-day Kyaukpyu District) in the west, and Martaban (Mottama) in the south. The Martaban rebellion was easily put down but Macchagiri required a second expedition before it too was put down. The calm did not last long. Martaban again revolted in 1281. This time, Pagan could not do anything to retake Martaban because it was facing an existential threat from the north.

The first invasion in 1277 defeated the Burmese at the battle of Ngasaunggyan, and secured their hold of Kanngai (modern-day Yingjiang, Yunnan, 112 kilometers north of Bhamo). In 1283–84, their forces moved south and occupied Bhamo. In 1287, Mongol armies invaded farther south once again. Instead of defending the country, the king fled Pagan for Lower Burma where he was assassinated by one of his sons.

Kublai Khan’s Attack on Pagan

In 1277, Kublai Khan attacked Pagan after the conquest of Yunnan, reportedly after the eccentric King Narathihapate — "the swallower of 300 dishes of curry daily"” refused to pay a tribute and murdered an envoy sent by the Great Khan. During Narathihapate'a rule Pagan's resources had been depleted by a massive temple-building campaign and other indulgences, bankrupting the kingdom and making it ripe for defeat.

There some doubts about exactly how Kublai Khan defeated the Burmese. Marco Polo reported that he defeated the Southeast Asian empire with only jugglers and clowns, while the Burmese claim the Great Khan employed six million horsemen and twenty million foot soldiers. Most historian believe the Mongol-Chinese force consisted of 12,000 horsemen and a smaller number of foot soldiers.


Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: In 1271 the Yunnan government in Dali was used by Kublai to demand tribute from the king of Burma, Narathihapate. Narathihapate, who was said to have 3,000 concubines, sent back the Yunnan ambassadors empty handed. In 1273 Kublai sent more ambassadors along with a letter written by himself demanding tribute. This time however the ambassadors were killed over a dispute involving not taking off their shoes in the king's presence. The Yunnanese convinced the Khan that only war would bring the kingdom of Burma under Mongol control. [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com ^]

Mongol Campaign in Burma

The Mongols under Kublai Khan demanded tribute, in 1271 and again in 1273. When Narathihapate refused both times, the Mongols systematically invaded the country. In 1277, Kublai Khan attacked Pagan after the conquest of Yunnan, reportedly after the eccentric King Narathihapate—"the swallower of 300 dishes of curry daily"— refused to pay a tribute and murdered an envoy sent by the Great Khan. During his rule much of the kingdom’s resources was spent on temple building and other indulgences that bankrupted Pagan and made it ripe for defeat.

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: Action was not taken until 1277 when an unwise raid by the Burmese into southern China made a response inevitable. Kublai sent Nasir al-Din, son of his trusted retainer Saiyid Ajall into Burma with the objective of taking the capital Pagan. The Mongols continued their advance until heat and exhaustion forced them to return to China. The Burmese king did not learn from his mistake and after further Burmese raids Kublai sent his grandson Temur on a second campaign against Burma to kill the "insolent king". The capital of Pagan was sacked and Narathihapate fled. Narathihapate was poisoned by his son, who later lost what was left of his kingdom to the Mongols in 1287 at the battle of Vochan.[Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com ^]

sites of Mongol battles in Burma

The crucial battle took place in Vochan (Ngasaungsyan), 350 miles north of Pagan, near the Chinese border. Mongol horses initially shied away when they confronted a Burmese army consisted of 2,000 battle elephants and thousands of foot soldiers. But ultimately the Mongol-Chinese force prevailed after Kublai Khan's forces lured the Burmese army into a forest. Mounted Mongol archers outmaneuvered and "made pincushions of Pagan's vaunted war elephants” and “shattered the elephant cavalry's myth of invincibility."

Turnbull wrote: Burma presented similar challenges to Vietnam and Marco Polo's description of the battle of Ngasaungyyan actually compressed a decade of campaigning in Burma. In one of his accounts his mentions an encounter on the plain of Vochan between the Mongol cavalry and Burmese war elephants. The account described how 12,000 well equipped Mongol cavalry faced a Burmese army of 60,000 plus 2,000 elephants. The elephants were used by the Burmese differently to the Annamese and held between twelve to sixteen men upon wooden castles on their backs. The Mongol's horses could not be made to go anywhere near the elephants so the Mongol general had them tied up to trees and the Mongols fought dismounted. From cover of the trees they fired volley upon volley of arrows into the vulnerable parts of the elephants until they were driven away. Once the elephants had been driven away the Mongols mounted their horses and attacked the Burmese infantry defeating them. After the battle the Mongol commander took some elephants back to Kublai who included them in his armies.

It is not clear whether the Mongols Khan every occupied Pagan. Recent research indicates that Mongol armies may not have reached Pagan itself, and that even if they did, the damage they inflicted was probably minimal. But the damage was already done. All the vassal states of Pagan revolted right after the king's death, and went their own way. In the south, Wareru, the man who had seized the governorship of Martaban in 1281, consolidated Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma, and declared Ramannadesa (Land of the Mon) independent on 4 April 1287. In the west too, Arakan stopped paying tribute. The chronicles report that the eastern territories including trans-Salween states of Keng Hung, Kengtung and Chiang Mai stopped paying tribute although most scholars attribute Pagan's limits to the Salween. At any rate, the 250-year-old Pagan Empire had ceased to exist.

Mongols and Siam and Khmer Empire

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Mongol archer
Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: The Mongol campaigns in Siam were vastly different from those of the others already mentioned. The land we know as Thailand today was at this time a number of separate states. King Ramkhamhaeng of Siam whose capital was at Sukhothai took a very different approach to the Mongol empire than his contemporaries in Burma and Java. The king of Siam actively sought good relations with Kublai and negotiated a treaty of amity with the Yuan dynasty in 1282. He made a personal visit to China to see the khan shortly before his death in 1294. [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: medieval2.heavengames.com ^]

To the north of Siam was the kingdom of Lan Na. It was ruled by King Mangrai whose capital was at Chiang Mai. A border dispute led to war in 1296 but an expedition carried out in 1301 ended in a Mongol disaster.^

The only other kingdom not yet mentioned is that of the Khmers of Cambodia. This once glorious empire that built the wonderful temples, shrines and palaces of Angkor was already overrun by Thais. They had already taken Sukhothai from the Khmers in 1220 and made it their capital. Ramkhamhaeng played a master-stroke in this regard. Whilst the Mongols threatened to destroy their enemies in Burma and Vietnam and with his Northern opponent in Lan Na in a state of concern, King Ramkhamhaeng could prosper at the Khmer's expense. His Mongol allies had no concern over his realm and if matters changed, he still had Lan Na as a buffer in the north. Angkor held out until 1431 when it was finally taken by the Siamese. ^

Mongol Invasion of Java

Chinese ships
Of all the Mongol campaigns in Southeast Asia, Java was the most far flung and ranked with the Japanese invasion as the most disastrous. The process began as it had in Burma and Vietnam with the Mongol envoy demanding tribute from Java's ruler, king Kertanagara. The king responded by branding the ambassador's face. The invasion began in 1292 with a fleet sailing out from Daytoun (Quanzhou). The journey took several months and the fleet did not land in Java until 1293. The landing spot was near present day Rembang on Java's north-east coast. The Mongol commander ordered half of his troops to proceed overland in a show of force whilst the rest of his troops would continue eastward by sea. The rendezvous point was at Surabaya.

The Mongol expedition out in 1292 to avenge the grave insult to the Mongol ambassador. Depending on the sources, the Mongol emissaries' faces were branded with a hot iron or tattooed and possibly had their ears cut-off— punishments usually meted to common criminals. The Mongols took three years to assemble the invasion fleet which is said to have included 20,000 to 30,000, possibly predominantly Chinese forces in 1000 ships. There was also a years worth of grain and large amounts of silver. (Paul Michel Munoz in Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula quoting unreferenced Yuan sources claims a figure of 100 000, including cavalry.) The command structure was interesting with a Mongol, Shi-pi, a veteran of the war against the Song Chinese in overall command. The ground forces were commanded by a Chinese, Kao Xing - presumably not an easily defeated enemy Chinese general from the recent Mongol campaign against the Song. The naval forces were under a Uighur, named Ikh-Musu, he was probably there for his command experience and not for his maritime skill, although China's most famous marinner, Zheng He also hailed from the interior of China. [Source: asianmil.typepad.com ^]

The historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: “A large naval force comparable to that used against Japan 11 years earlier carried out the invasion. The fleet set sail from Quanzhou (the place that Marco Polo calls Daytoun) and took several months to reach Java because they chose an open-sea route, calling at small islands, rather than one that followed the coast through Malacca and Sumatra. We are told that 'the wind was strong and the sea very rough, so that the ships rolled heavily and the soldiers could not eat for many days.' [Source: Stephen Turnbull, January 24 2004 +++]

The fleet departed from southern China and tracked down along what is now modern Vietnam. There is some dispute in the sources as to whether the fleet tried to land in Champa and were rejected (Munoz and Delgado) or whether the fleet headed directly for Java (Man). Man goes further and suggests that Kertanegara had already placed forces in Champa to deal with any fleet and so the decision to avoid that location actually worked in the Mongol's favour. the voyage had been hard and that the army was in a weakened state. ^

Mongols Arrive in Java

location of Java

Turnbull wrote: “The Mongols landed early in 1293 near to present-day Rembang on the north-eastern coast of Java. The Mongol commander landed half his army here and instructed them to march overland in a show of force, while the rest of the troops continued eastwards by sea. Their rendezvous point was Surabaya, where the river, which provided the orientation for the land forces, entered the sea. The two armies joined up around the beginning of May, and the land party expressed surprise that they had met with so little resistance as they crossed a landscape already scarred by recent fighting. An explanation was soon forthcoming. A Javanese rebel had taken advantage of the turmoil caused by the Mongols' arrival and had overthrown and killed King Kertanagara. Kertanagara's son-in-Iaw, Prince Vijaya, was carrying on the struggle in the south of the country near present-day Kediri, which accounted for the absence of Javanese troops in the north. Hoping to use the Mongol army to help him crush the rebels, Prince Vijaya sent envoys to assure the invaders that he had already pledged the homage that his late father-in-Iaw had so steadfastly refused. +++

The Mongol fleet fought a naval engagement with the Javanese fleet at Surabaya. It is possible that these boats were oar-powered barges that would have looked to come alongside and board a Mongol vessel. After that encounter the Mongol commander disembarked a large number of his ground forces for a land campaign while the fleet sailed off to Sumatra to seek the submission of the kings there. While this is not far on a map it could have taken the ships a while to complete this task as the winds would have to be favourable. The fleet must have recovered quickly also to be prepared to make this move. The Mongol commander must have been very confident of success or of his new Javanese allies to have allowed the fleet to move away from him. The fleet carried out their tasking well and secured the allegiance of the Sumatra kingdoms as well as royal hostages. [Source: asianmil.typepad.com]

Fighting During the Mongol Invasion of Java

Hoping to use the Mongols to help him crush the rebels, Prince Vijaya sent ambassadors to the Mongol camp and ensured them that he would pay tribute which his late father-in-law had earlier refused. Vijaya sent supplies to the Mongol force that marched to his aid and despite encountering rebel resistance on their way Vijaya's to assistance they were easily defeated. The Mongols fought a rebel army at Modjopait (Majapahit) where Vijaya had been holding out and drove them back into the jungle. The Mongols finally moved against the rebel stronghold at the fortified town of Daha (modern Kediri) and destroyed their army.

topography of Java

The true ground campaign started with the Mongols heading up the Brantas River valley towards Kediri. Raden Vijaya's forces supposedly targeted isolated Kediri garrisons while the Mongols concentrated on the Kediri armies. Jayakatwang's army was effectively being enveloped by the Mongol Army from the north and the forces of Raden Wijaya from the east. It was not clear how victory was obtained but it appears that Jayakatwang's forces were outnumbered by these two armies and went down fighting in a battle in March 1293. Without an army Jayakatwang remained in Kediri which was invested by the Mongols and he was captured in his palace on 26 April 1293.[Source: asianmil.typepad.com]

Stephen Turnbull wrote: “The envoys also acquainted the Mongols with all the details they needed of the roads, rivers and resources of the country to enable them to march to Vijaya's assistance. Some rebel troops tried to stop them moving upstream from Surabaya, but were easily routed and fled into the interior. The Chinese account tells us: The commanders of the Mongol imperial arrny made a camp in the form of a crescent on the bank of the river and left the ferry in charge of a commander of' ten thousand; the fleet in thc river and the cavalry and infantry on shore then advanced. The commander, seeing this, left his boat and fled overnight, whereupon more than a hundred large ships, with devils' heads on the stem, were captured.” [Source: Stephen Turnbull, January 24 2004 +++]

“The Mongol army continued on its way upriver and fought a battle under the walls of Modjopait (Majapahit), the strongpoint (and future capital) where Vijaya was holding out, and drove a further rebel army back into the jungle. Finally, the Mongols moved on to the rebels' base at the fortified town of Daha (modern Kediri) and destroyed the final opposition to Vijaya. This action is of some historical interest because the chronicle tells us that, in order to co-ordinate their attack, the separate Mongol and loyalist Javanese units agreed to commence battle when they heard the sound of the pao. This word was originally used to identify a catapult, and later a cannon, but its use here referring to a signalling device indicates that these would have been thunderclap bombs -explosive gunpowder devices cased in thick paper which acted like a maroon. The bombs were fitted with a time fuse, and one would probably have been flung up into the air from a traction trebuchet. Its loud bang would then have been the signal to advance. +++

Mongols Retreat from Java

Prince Vijaya seeing that his enemies were destroyed became reluctant to reward the Mongols for their efforts. He made up an excuse so he could return to his capital and was escorted by a small group of Mongol soldiers. On the way back he slaughtered the Mongol soldiers and took back his tribute. The Mongols quickly sent an army against him but they were ambushed and the survivors forced back to the coast.

14th century Mongol-Yuan junk

Stephen Turnbull wrote: “Prince Vijaya then took an enormous gamble. As his enemies were destroyed he no longer had need of a Mongol army to help him, and he was also very reluctant to reward them for their efforts. He therefore made up an excuse for having to return to his capital, and was escorted by a small detachment of Mongol soldiers. On the way back he repudiated his homage, slaughtered the guards, and moved into a hostile position against the Mongols. An army was quickly sent against him, which he successfully ambushed, causing the survivors to flee back towards the coast. [Source: Stephen Turnbull, January 24 2004 +++]

The Mongol forces commenced a fighting withdrawal north-east to Surabaya. The men boarded the ships and after some deliberation the Mongol force decided that further military action would be counterproductive and so they sailed back to China. The expedition leaders probably had some justification as Kertanegara was dead and the initial insult had been avenged. Kublai Khan did not see it like that and had Shi-pi as well as Kao Xing flogged and a third of their property confiscated, although they were both eventually pardoned. Ikh-musu was rewarded for prevention an outright disaster. The Sumatran hostages were allowed to return home while the Javanese hostages were taken back to China, except for Jayakatwang who was killed by the Mongols during the voyage. [Source: asianmil.typepad.com]

Turnbull wrote: “Here the Mongols rapidly considered their position. They had been in Java for four months, and were already suffering from the equatorial heat, so, taking with them what prisoners and treasure they had gained, the fleet set sail for China and home. Three thousand Mongols perished in the Java expedition, and even the treasure, which included gold, silver and rhinoceros horn, was not sufficient to save the campaign commander from receiving 17 lashes and having one-third of his property confiscated. +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Mongol cavalry attack, Washington University; Mongol bombs, University of Washington; Mongol archer, Brooklyn College

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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