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A relic of Invasion

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

This is an unusual sword, both for the fact that I don't usually collect anything in this condition and also that it is part of a subset of swords that have surfaced in western auctions over the years, all in a similar state. They have often been advertised with outlandish claims of medieval dating, presumably because of the 'relic' like appearance. The truth is much more mundane but no less interesting.

All of these weapons seem to in fact date from a similar era and series of events. That of the Tay Son rebellion, an uprising in central Vietnam that grew to encompass the entire geography of modern day Vietnam but also drew in other major regional players including Siam and the Khmer and Lao armies they controlled at the time. The Tay Son rebellion and following dynasty is a short one, from 1777 to 1788 but it had a profound effect on the country and a profound effect on the geopolitics of the region. It was, it can be argued, one of the last cases in which the traditional empires of southeast Asia engaged in wide ranging conflict as Thonburi under Taksin the Great, supported the displayed Nguyễn. He drew on his resources of not only Thai armies but also vassal states of the Khmer and Lao to invade. This lead the the climactic battle of Trận Rạch Gầm – Xoài Mút where the Tay Son forces soundly defeated the invaders when they sank the entire Siamese fleet on the Mekong while many survivors fled to Cambodia. This lead to a great number of weapons falling into the river and being littered around the countryside. 

This appears to be the reason for the fairly uniform condition of many of the recovered swords from this period, which all seem to have been buried, most likely in mud and paddy fields as well as water finds. Many are still in their scabbards, mine in fact had remnants of the scabbard when I acquired it. Swords in similar condition can be seen in Vietnamese museums, noteably the Quang Trung museum in Binh Dinh province. This includes a mixture of Vietnamese swords, Khmer, Lao, Siamese, as well as central Vietnamese and Cambodia mountain groups and Cham swords. The later two groups being part of the Tay Son supporters. 

This particular example is most likely Khmer, with the petite blade profile and pommel being distinctive. The guard is intriguing and likely draws on a Japanese influence (Japanese mercenaries have a long history in Cambodia) and is similar to some Musashi period tsuba in style.

The hilt construction consists of a likely copper and bronze alloy in banded sections, similar to many dha/daab. The slightly flared pommel seems to be a characteristic of Khmer swords.

The blade is interesting in that we can observe differences with other dha/daab of a similar age. The blade is noteably thinner, with no thick v-spine, a much more narrow tip, without the flaired tip that characterises so many northern Thai and Lao daab. In fact it is not exactly an analog of another other style, seeming to take influence equally from dha/daab, katana, dao and other styles.

While the condition is unfortunate, swords of this period in good condition seem to be extremely rare. This is perhaps due to the persecution of Tay Son supporters as well as the later practices of the Khmer Rouge and their views on antiquities. As such I am quite happy to own this example. The piece has been stabilized and while it will never be a polished, 'shiny' example in my collection, enough remains to clearly show the style and form that was in use with the Khmer armies in what we can probably safely assume encompasses the late 17th through the late 18th centuries.