When Clipper Ships Ruled Tea Trade
THE NAVIGATION ACT SPURS SHIP BUILDING
For a very short period in history, clipper ships sailed half-way around the world to rush tea buyers to China and their purchases of tons of tea back to England. The ship owners, tea merchants, and consumers all profited enormously by the efficacy of these sleek vessels designed and built to cut through the ocean at great speed without sacrificing space for precious cargo.
Trading commodities like tea and spices began with the Portuguese in the mid 16th century followed by the Spanish and the Dutch, before the British East India Company ruled the seas for 175 years. Their monopoly ended in 1834 with the enactment of the Navigation Acts. The law banned all imports into the U.K. that were not carried aboard a British ship. Since ships were built by various countries, this spurred ship building between 1845 and 1875 in the U.K., especially in Scotland.
The U.S. got involved too. Ship builders introduced Baltimore Clipper in 1850, so named after the verb, clip, slang for run or fly quickly. The design enabled these vessels to “clip” over the waves, rather than plow through, and at great speed.
THE TEA RACE OF 1866
While clippers’ utility was to transport cargo of all sorts around the world, it was the Tea Clipper Races that captured the public’s attention throughout the 1860s.
Five ships participated in the most famous race of 1866 leaving May 30th from Foochow (Fuzhou) traveling 26,000 km (16,000 miles) to London. Carrying the season’s first tea crop of China were Taitsing; Fiery Cross, the fastest ship in the races for 1861-1863 and 1865; Taeping; Ariel, which had logged 316 miles a single day and moved an average of 16 knots, and Serica, an all-wood ship. Her competitors were composites, built of wood over an iron frame.
Imagine the excitement when, after three months of no news, the Ariel and Taeping were spotted near Lizard Point, the southernmost tip of England speeding along sail-to-sail. A few tugboats raced back to the London docks with the news where thousands of onlookers and tea traders crowded for the best view.
Every inn or lodging had been full each night for several nights; every pub had fed the hordes, and banks were frantically providing the cash for those lucky enough to win the final bid. It was such an event that those unable to find accommodations slept right there on the docks, no doubt enabling them be first to see the ships as they sped to the docks pulled by tugs over low tide.
Although traveling together through the English Channel toward the River Thames, it was the Taeping that was declared the winner. It drew less water and arrived 20-38 minutes (reports vary) ahead of the Ariel to tie up to Old London Docks at 9:45 p.m. September 6th. No race had recorded such a narrow margin between racing ships. It is estimated that the Ariel had recorded a time of 7/1000ths of 1% faster than the Taeping over the course of the 99-day race.
Thirty years would pass before a race was ever this close.
What greeted the two was pandemonium. Gamblers crying or celebrating the loss or gain of enormous fortunes from betting on the race; merchants crowding around the dock jockeying for the chance to bid, and casual onlookers eager to witness history.
In a show of sportsmanship, Alexander Rodger, the owner of the Taeping and a childhood friend of the Ariel’s Capt. John Keay, shared his 10 shillings-per-ton winnings with the owners of the Ariel. Capt. Donald MacKinnon of Taeping and Capt. Keay shared the £100 prize with each other and their crews, about an extra month’s earnings those tasked with loading and unloading tons of chests. All five boats’ cargo arrived safely and sold quickly. Serica docked one hour and 15 minutes after Ariel; the Fiery Cross 28 hours that, and the Taitsing arrived the following day.
WHAT WERE PEOPLE DRINKING IN 1866?
In an ironic twist, the sheer volume of tea unloaded on Old London Dock, some 5 million tons of tea, did two things: reduced the expected price and, for the first time, made tea affordable to all, not just the aristocracy and the wealthy.
Most likely, amongst those tons, were Bohea and Hyson, an oolong and early spring green, respectively. The names, Anglicized by British tea traders unskilled in Chinese, have lasted in addition to Pi Lo Chin and a definitely English-named tea, Gunpowder but none could match the freshness of teas today which arrive within days or only a few weeks versus that record breaking 99 days in 1866.
BOHEA AND HYSON
Bohea, from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, is a classic oolong with a distinctive floral fragrance and complex flavor profile.
Hyson was an old style yu-tsien or “Before the Rains”green tea plucked at the beginning of spring. Today’s version, Chunmee or eyebrow tea, typically has small, curly green leaves, an interpretation of how the leaf was shaped. It was named for Phillip Hyson, a one-time director the British East India Company.
Adagio’s Silver Sprout is shaped in the Chunmee style with the luxurious addition of silvery down-covered buds to provide a delicate, green essence with a buttery mouth feel and a mysterial smoky finish.
The Chinese introduced porcelain to the British who adopted it with great enthusiasm. The Brown Betty, a staple for tea-drinking in every English home, is no doubt patterned after the shape and style of early Yixing pots using a similar, albeit local, red clay and glazing.
Adagio has combined the classic shape of early Yixing pots with the modern convenience of an easy-to-handle metal lid and removable infuser in our 20 oz. These Porcelain Teapots are available in many colors. Unlike Yixing, it is glazed inside and out, so use it for any tea, any time. If you prefer the Yixing, they also have these available in a variety of colors and sizes.
STEAM, STEEL, ETA, SLAY THE CLIPPERS
Tea clipper races continued for five years, but without earned premiums for speed and they were quickly outpaced by the new steamship that even provided ETA (estimated time of arrival) with great accuracy. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it became the shortest maritime route to Asia from Europe by connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea in Egypt. Global trade, in its truest sense, really began when the Panama Canal opened in 1904 connecting the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, finally eliminating the need to sail around Cape Horn, first used by Dutch explorers in 1616.
The clippers of the 1866 race met various ends: the Taeping was wrecked in Ladd’s Reef in the South China Sea in1871; Ariel was lost at sea in 1872; and the Serica met the same fate on the Paracels in 1872. The full-rigged Taitsing sank in 1883 off the coast of Nyuni Island, Zanizibar and the last surviving ship of the race, The Fiery Cross, was sold several times to London ship owners then to a Norwegian owner who renamed it Ellen Lines to carry coal and lathwood before being stranded on the Red Sand near Whitstable in 1893.
Only one clipper, of the more than 200 that once traveled the globe, remains, The Cutty Sark. Now a dry museum moored in Greenwich (SE London,) it was built in 1869, and made eight successful trips between the U.K. and China, often trading alcohol for tea. It never participated in, much less won, a race.