History: How tea trade led to the rise of the clipper ships

I got a book out of the library called, “Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire.” With a title like that, you’d think it’s like the next Star Wars trilogy. Up until today, it was less Star Wars, and more meandering history, until I got to a section on the tea trade’s contribution to the history of sailing in the mid-1800s.

According to author Roy Moxham, there was a mystique around drinking “first-flush,” or the most recently-picked, tea among the Brits, which led to an increased financial interest in ships that would make the long journey around Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa, and the only route from China to Britain before the Suez Canal) faster than before. The East India Trading Company (those are the the bad guys in Pirates of the Carribean, but in real life was the global megacorporation which caused the price hikes which led to the Boston Tea Party) never much cared about speed because they were the only game in town. They would take a couple of years to make the trip in great big, heavy boats. But the company lost its monopoly on India tea trade in 1814, then on China in 1834, opening up the market to the Americans, who developed the fastest sailboats of the time in order to get to the tea first and make the most profit.

For about two decades, the so-called “tea clippers” ruled the seas, and the clipper race — to see who would make it first to Britain from China — was born. (The ships were also used to bring opium, demand for which in England rivaled that of tea). According to Moxham:

The Rainbow, launched in 1845, made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days, knocking sixteen days off the previous record. In 1849, the Sea Witch cut the time to seventy-four days…. The first American clipper ship to carry tea from China to London was the Oriental, which made the journal from Hong Kong in  ninety-seven days. This was three times the speed of the lumbering East Indiamen. There was a furore in London, and a determination to rival the Americans.

The Web site of the UK Tea Council describes the excitement around the Clipper races:

The greatest and most famous clipper race took pace in 1866. 10 clippers bound for London set out from Fouchow on 28 May. Fastest away were Taeping, Fiery Cross and Serica, but Ariel swiftly gained on them. So evenly matched were these four ships and their crews that the clippers were frequently within sight of each other as they raced across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope and north across the great Atlantic. On 29 August the four were dead level at the Azores, but as they entered the Channel Ariel and the Taeping pulled away, the ships magnificent in full sail. Practically the entire population of London was electrified by the news of the race – huge sums had been bet on the ships … At the Thames estuary the two ships were still neck and neck, but tugs were needed to tow the ships down the river to dock, and Taeping was fortunate enough to pick a faster tug. With this slender advantage Taeping reached her berth just 20 minutes ahead of Ariel – an amazingly small gap considering the journey had taken 99 days … Despite Taeping’s tiny lead, in the spirit of sportsmanship the race was declared a dead-heat, and the ships’ owners agreed to divide the winner’s premium, while the two crews shared their bonus.

It wasn’t until the Suez Canal opened in Eqypt in 1867 that the age of the clippers ended. The races still went on, but over the next few years, steamships became the more efficient mode of transport.  The last great tea clipper was the Cutty Sark, which set sail in 1869 and is on display today in Greenwich, London.

Cool bit of history.


About Don Seiffert

I'm a reporter and writer in the Boston area.
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