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The Age of Clippers

by Jane Pettigrew



As the Europeans began trading tea with China in the early 17th century, and for the next two hundred years, all the activity of selecting the most suitable teas, haggling over the price, loading the chests on to the waiting cargo ships, and completing all the necessary paperwork went on in the port of Canton, forty miles inland on the Chinese river Zheijiang. The new teas were picked in April and May, processed in the local factories and then carried miles overland by coolies to the various waterways that ferried the chests and baskets of black and green tea down to the port. If the cargo survived wars and storms, raging hot sun and floods, it usually reached Canton some time in September.

By the late 1680s, Dutch, Portuguese, and English merchants were all milling around the port, caught up in the frenzied and noisy business of exporting tea, porcelain, silks, and spices to Europe and America. They bustled around the port for several months, selecting the goods they wanted and bargaining over prices, and by the time the ships were loaded, it was the middle of winter. Once the goods had been stowed away and the heavily loaded ships had set sail, it was a slow and hazardous journey back home. It would take a further six or eight months for the tea to reach the London docks, and so teas that had been picked and processed in the Spring didn't reach the customer in England until the autumn of the following year - 18 months or so after the fresh leaves had been plucked. The East India Company's ships, often known as 'tea wagons' because of the slow and ponderous voyage, were too small and too slow to carry the amount of cargo the growing demand for exotic Oriental goods the public now demanded.

The First of the Fast Ships
In 1812, the demand for more goods from the East and the need for faster transportation led to the construction of the first of the clippers. The two-masted Baltimore Clipper was built in America. Then came the Ann McKim in 1832, designed and constructed specifically for the China trade by Isaac McKim, also of Baltimore. Although her capacity was small, she proved to be the fastest ship sailing back and forth to Canton. Although there had been a short-lived reduction in interest in tea as a result of the Boston Tea Party, the trade in America and Europe was increasing and the public was beginning to clamor for more tea. They wanted it faster and fresher. Merchants had no problems at all in selling new cargoes of tea for a premium rate as soon as they were unloaded onto the London or New York dockside. But apart from the Ann McKim, the frigates were still taking too long and traders and consumers were growing impatient.

In 1845, the first of the true American clippers, the Rainbow, was built by a New York company, and then came Sea Witch in 1846. More followed and by the time the English East India Company realized just how fast these new ships were, the Americans were already in control of the more efficient shipment of tea from China to Europe.

The eye-catching clippers were designed like large yachts - sleek, graceful, and fast - but with enough stowage space to carry more than a million pounds of tea. The weight of the chests and the solidity of the way in which the cargo was packed gave the ships extra stability and power on the homeward journey.

The first of the British clippers, the Torrington, was launched in 1846 and soon she and others were making names for themselves in the competition between the two countries. The only problem for the American companies was that until 1849, the British government forbade foreign ships to import tea into any British port. They could offload their tea in Holland, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy, or Spain, but not Britain. Once those British Navigation Laws had been changed, the Americans took full advantage of the open market and quickly started sailing into London as well as their own home ports. The race was now on with a vengeance,

The Clipper Races Begin
By now Canton was now longer the only Chinese port from which the tea merchants could trade. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking (signed after the Chinese emperor and the British government settled their differences of the Opium Wars) opened up various other Chinese ports to free trade. In the early 1850s, the traders found that the new season's teas were available for loading in Fouchow about six weeks earlier than in Canton or Shanghai and soon the port became the most popular starting point for the journey back to Europe. Instead of having to wait until the autumn or winter to set sail, the ships were able to get away by May or June and sailed up the Thames into London just over three months later.

Because the first teas home now sold for a higher price than teas from later cargoes, and because the members of the crew of the winning ship received a handsome financial reward for their efforts, the clipper captains did everything in their power to get the ships loaded quickly and to set sail from China at the earliest opportunity. Very often several clippers edged out of the harbor together and set sail on the same tide. Sometimes, they raced neck and neck all the way to the port of London, fending off pirates, straining against fast running currents, steering clear of reefs and wrecks, battling through monsoon tides and gale force winds, until they reached the relative calm of the Thames estuary and the final leg of the journey up the river.

No one in London knew which clipper was ahead until the first ship was sighted as she turned into the mouth of the river. Then the excitement began. Telegrams reported the progress of the ships to the London offices of the various tea companies. Gentleman's clubs buzzed with chatter about who was winning, newspapers carried headlines with news of who was in the lead, people gathered in the docks to watch the ships maneuver in alongside the wharves. Everyone wanted to know who was going to win. The tea brokers stayed in hotels close to the docks so that as soon as the first chest of tea was landed, they could taste samples, organize to have the chests they wanted delivered to their tasting rooms in the City of London as early as possible the next morning and then put them up for auction.

The End of the Clippers
For twenty years, the clippers played a vital part in the world tea trade. The best known and most exciting of all the races was the 1866 event when eleven clippers all set sail together, and four of the group managed somehow to keep within each other's sight through the Indian Ocean, round the Cape, up into the Atlantic, and towards the English Channel. As they nosed into the Thames one after the other, the excitement grew. Half way along the south coast, Ariel and Taeping were only a mile apart. They were so close that the owners of the two ships agreed that they would share the profits on the teas they were carrying. But the end of the battle came when Taeping was towed in by a faster tug and reached the wharf twenty minutes ahead of Ariel. She won the race, the crew's £500 reward, and a higher price for the tea.

1869 brought the beginning of the end of the clippers. Steam ships were beginning to replace the frigates, and the newly opened Suez Canal provided them with a faster route through to the European ports. By the late 1870s, a few of the clippers were still in use, carrying wool and other bulk cargoes around the world, but their days of glory were over.

Only the Cutty Sark remains to tell the tale. She sits majestically in dry dock at Greenwich in London - a tribute to the determination and courage of the men who sailed her and a fascinating piece of tea history for visitors who walk her decks today.