CLIPPER SHIPS and the GREAT TEA RACE of 1866

I hope you’ve had a chance to read my blog about THE JOHN COMPANY, formally known as the British East India Company, which led the trading of tea and other exotic goods from the Far East to Europe,  Great Britain and the New World. For more than 200 years the British East India Company dominated trading. No longer a commercial venture, more of a political one and a threat to the British government, the company became too powerful and was dissolved in 1834.

In order to control this vast empire, the East India Company, prior to 1834, maintained an impressive fleet of ships.  Built in India, these ships, known as “Indiamen”, were huge warships, not only carrying goods and passengers, but fitted out for war.  For what they did, sailing millions of miles and bringing millions of pounds of goods into port, they were exceptional.

Unloading tea crates on the East India docks. Early 1800s

Life on board, however, was quite harsh.  One story written by an officer tells what life was like on one of these “Indiamen”.  The voyage from London to China and back to England took thirteen months and two weeks. The cramped accommodations offered no privacy or room to move.  There was never enough water or fresh food and scurvy took the lives of many sailors and passengers.  Petty thefts occurred daily, with the accused being flogged or tied to the shrouds.  As bad as things were during the day, they were worse at night with no lamps or lanterns allowed.  Fire, shipwrecks and pirating were the biggest enemies of these mammoth ships.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland, a shipyard created a ship that was not only fast, but with a cargo hold big enough to carry a significant amount of freight.  These ships came to be known as Clipper Ships … “clip” was slang for run or fly quickly. The design of these vessels, with their massive sails, enabled them to “clip” over the waves at a great speed, which caused a sensation in the shipping industry.  Now ships could travel at speeds of up to 30 kilometers an hour … and traders could deliver goods faster and the freshest tea possible.  Clipper ships became the new force.

When the Company was dissolved in 1834, Great Britain introduced the Navigation Act, which meant anyone, including non-English companies, could bring goods into a British port.  Finally, there would be competition. The Indiamen ships continued to be in service, but the East India Company soon began to see a rise in competition from these Clipper Ships, which would render their slow ships obsolete.  Speed was now the name of the game.

The Tea Clipper, Serica. 1863

At first, the Company wasn’t worried about these little American ships.  The Indiamen had dominated the shipping industry for centuries.  But very quickly these fast, lightweight American ships began to cut into their trade and their profits.  Although the Clippers were transporting all sorts of cargo, it was “tea” that caused the most interest.  The American Clipper, Oriental, made an unprecedented trip from New York to Hong Kong in only 81 days … an unheard of time in 1850.  She was immediately offered the job of transporting 1650 tons of tea from Hong Kong to London, which she did in only 99 days.

The British shipbuilders immediately began building their own Clippers, producing more than 100 ships, five of which became the most famous of all.  At that point, the race was on!  The competitive spirit sprung into action immediately because whoever could bring tea to market first would gain a monetary incentive.  Crews began competing with each other, not only as a test of their sailing, but also how quickly and efficiently the tea could be loaded onto their ships . . . . because they couldn’t set sail from China until every tea chest was on board.

The image above outlines how to efficiently load crates of tea without wasting space. This illustration shows more than 12,000 chests of tea stowed below deck.

The Clipper ship races began in 1850 and lasted only 20 years, but while they did, they caused incredible excitement.  The ships would thunder down through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean, then race to round the southern-most tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. From there, it was north across the Atlantic, past the Azores, and through the English Channel into the Thames.  In the Thames, they would need to be towed by tugs to reach the docks.

The most famous race of all took place in 1866.  By then, the American ships had dropped out, leaving just the English clippers to bring tea to market.  The headline in the DAILY TELEGRAPH announced “The Great Tea Race of 1866” with the main competitors being the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Taeping, the Serica and the Taitsing.

On May 30th, they all left China within hours of each other.  Once the ships left the docks in China, telegrams would be sent from each check-in point en route to England.  The Suez Canal was still under construction so around the Cape of Good Hope they ran, taking over three months to reach the English Channel.  A distance of over 14,000 miles.  At times they came close enough to one another to actually see the crews on the competing ship.  The Fiery Cross had the lead only 20 days out, with the Taeping and Ariel falling two days behind and the Serica and the Taitsing a day behind them.  But the weather around the Cape of Good Hope evened things out.  It wasn’t long before all ships were within 24 hours of each other.  By the time they reached the Azores, they were all within sight of each other.

In addition to the bragging rights, the Captain and the crew would be rewarded for their hard work, earning up to sixpence per pound of tea.  So the incentive to win was great.  The British newspapers reported on the race almost daily.  With the changing weather, shifts in the wind and typhoons, except for the Taitsang, which had now fallen too far behind, the ships were staying neck-to-neck.  Eventually, the Taeping pulled out ahead and seemed to be the clear winner, but it was the Ariel to first spot the Cornish coast.  The last leg of the race was in sight.  But even as the Ariel was at full sail, the Taeping was closing in on her.  Both ships needed tugboats to get them down the Thames.

Crowds of people who had been following the race lined the docks, with merchants ready to be the first to announce their tea had arrived.  The Ariel was headed for the East India dock, while the Taeping was headed for the London dock.  With both ships being taken in tow at the same time going up the Thames, there was concern that the race would be a dead heat.  Knowing this, the owners of the Ariel and the Taeping agreed that whichever ship docked first would claim the prize, with no dispute between them.  Which ship would it be?

It was the Taeping who reached the dock first, with a mere 20 minute lead.  The Ariel was second and the Serica came in an hour later taking third place. No race before or since ever had a narrower margin between ships.  And in the spirit of goodwill, the crew of the Taeping shared the prize money equally with the Ariel.

The Great Tea Race of 1866 was the most famous tea race of all.  This was also the last year that  a bonus was paid for the first ship to arrive in London.  For although the ships were fast, the first cargo of tea from China had actually arrived two weeks earlier, in only 66 days, by a steamship, the Erl King.  This steamer was not part of the Clipper ship race, but the fact that it was faster than the Clippers changed the way tea was shipped from then on.  Although most of the Clipper ships remained in service for a few years, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which was not suitable for them, steamships now offered a more efficient and less expensive way of shipping tea and other cargo.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Homeofohm, Teamuse, Sweetteajunkie, Wikipedia, Smithsonian, Harvard Library, Gutenberg, South Bay Sail, Tea.Co.UK, Vahdam,
_____________________________________________________________________________

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.