How the Taste for Tea Created the Tea Clippers

Tea reached Europe from China around 1560 on Portuguese and Dutch ships, but it was a latecomer to England. In London, coffee was the drink of choice among businessmen and Edward Lloyd’s coffee house became the center of shipping insurance. The most English of drinks only gained popularity when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. His wife, Catherine of Braganza, was a Portuguese princess who had grown up drinking tea, so she introduced this new beverage into her aristocratic circle.

Upper-class ladies followed this new trend and it was promoted as a medicinal beverage or tonic. This was great for the British East India Company, which had a total monopoly on trade with Asia. Since there was no competition, there was no hurry to transport tea or coffee. The company’s priority was to minimize costs and become the world’s first “multi-national corporation.” So they built full-hulled heavily-armed ships that took almost two years to complete the round trip to China.

A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a license. This was just the start of government attempts to control, or profit from the popularity of tea. By 1700, over 500 of the coffee houses of London also sold tea; one promised it would “make the body active and lusty.”

This distressed the tavern owners, as tea houses cut into their sales of ale and gin, and the government, which depended upon the liquor taxes and had burdened it with taxes and duties of over 100%. The result was a whole new industry – tea smuggling. The smugglers became so efficient that Britons were drinking more smuggled tea than legal tea!

Tea and Politics in the Americas

The American colonies also had a thirst for tea, which had to be landed in England first and re-loaded for shipment to the American colonies. When the government in London gave permission to ship direct to the colonies from Asia, an extra tax of three pence per pound was levied. The American colonists were outraged by the tax on this important commodity, and the continuing monopoly of the East India company.

When British ships arrived in Boston in late 1773, the townspeople resolved that no tea would be brought ashore and no duty paid. This led to the Boston Tea Party, and ultimately to the War of Independence. The outrageous taxes on tea had also had a dramatic effect in Britain, where more tea was smuggled into the country than imported legally. In 1784, The Commutation Act reduced the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. The smuggling of tea ceased to be profitable, and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight.

When the USA emerged from the war, it began its own tea trade with China using the small handy ships that had escaped the English navy like the Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva. By the early 1800’s, the USA had its own fleet of trading ships and able captains and had established a regular route to China and back. This was a three-part route that could produce huge profits—if they could survive the many dangers!

In Boston or New York they loaded locally-produced goods and foods, rounded Cape Horn and sailed all the way to the remote north-west coast. Here, they traded for furs and timber that they carried across the Pacific via Hawaii to China. The second cargo was turn traded for tea, pottery and textiles that would fetch a good price back in the north-east USA.

The Yankee Clippers

In 1833, the British government finally put a stop to the East India Company’s tea monopoly, and an exciting new chapter in shipping began. New Englanders saw the opportunity and their ship design began to evolve to fill the need for faster cargo ships. This new type of vessel had a sharp bow, slender hull, and acres of sail.

The first real “clipper” was the 159′ Rainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845. This created a sensation while on the stocks because of the concave or hollowed lines forward, which defied all tradition and practice. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days – taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.

Maine yards built most of the clippers, which also carried passengers and mail across the Atlantic, then supplied the gold fields in California during the Gold Rush of 1848-50. The Flying Cloud was was the most famous of the Yankee clippers built by Donald McKay. In 1854, it set the record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco of 89 days 8 hours that was only beaten by modern yachts in the 1990’s.

in 1849 the British Navigation Laws were repealed, opening up the tea trade, so American ships could now deliver Chinese tea and goods to Britain. The first clipper to take advantage of this was Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 – just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified – this was three times as fast as the East Indiamen.

The Tea Races

In 1851, a British ship owner built the aptly named 174′ clipper Challenger on the River Thames, with the stated intention of beating the Americans. Leaving Canton for London in 1852 loaded with tea, she fell in with the 224′ American clipper Challenge, a much larger, older ship, admired for her speed. The news of the race was wired to London where large sums were bet on which would make it to London first. The British Challenger won by two days, amid much jubilation.

The demand for tea was now so huge that the tea merchants’ warehouses depended on the arrival of the fresh crop at the docks. In 1853, this led to the understanding that there would be a race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus. It soon became the greatest sailing spectacle of all time as the great ships raced up the channel to the Thames come hell or high water. Telegrams would be sent with news of their progress and crowds would gather at the docks.

This led to a boom in shipbuilding in Britain in the early 1860’s and over 60 clippers loaded tea in China in 1866; 16 of the best ships assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, downriver from Foochow. Among them were the 185′ Fiery Cross, which had been the first tea clipper home in 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865–and should by all rights be remembered as the “greatest of the clipper ships.” As a slightly older ship, she was built entirely of wood. Nevertheless, she was full of the latest technology: iron masts and riggin and Cunningham’s patent roller reefing topsails and top-gallants.

The 197′ Ariel carried 100 tons of fixed iron ballast, moulded to fit low in the hull and a further 20 tons of moveable iron ballast. This gives an indication of the “yacht like” nature of her design. The 183′ Taeping had already made a fast passage of 89 days to London, covering about 15,800 nautical miles. The fastest ships had all left China on the same tide; Ariel, Taeping and Serica arrived at the London Docks 99 days later and docked on the same tide. The tea brokers declared the race a tie. It made a great story and is remembered to this day.

The End of an Era

When fully rigged and riding a trade wind, these clippers could reach average speeds of 16 knots. But their average speed was closer to 6 knots. What isn’t mentioned is the fact that a sailing ship with auxiliary steam power had departed later than the tea racers and arrived almost two weeks earlier in 77 days. A steamer, SS Agamemnon, had just completed a record outward passage of 65 days and was on her return trip with a very large cargo of tea. Because of their speed and reliability, the rate paid to steamers was nearly twice that paid to the sailing ships, and the insurance premium was cheaper.

The age of the tea clippers lasted only two decades,1849-1869, but this brief reign has gone down in nautical history, famed for its daring and romance. The Cutty Sark was built in 1869, in the mistaken belief that the Suez Canal and steamships would not take over the tea trade. The last race between tea clippers to catch public attention was between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark in 1872.


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