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The History of Tea Clippers

Posted by George Butlin on

First thing, what is a clipper?


Historic Tea Clipper

A clipper was a type of mid 19th century merchant sailing vessel, designed purely for speed. Clippers were generally narrow for their length, and could carry a limited bulk freight, but the sail area was large for the size of the vessel. The name "Clipper" does not refer to a specific sail plan or vessel; clippers may be schooners, brigs, brigantines, etc., as well as full rigged ships. Clippers were mostly constructed in British and American shipyards. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and China, in transatlantic trade, and on the New York to San Francisco route around Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush. The first true tea clipper was Rainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days - taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.

The boom years

The boom years of the clipper era began in 1843 in response to a growing demand for faster delivery of tea from China. This continued under the influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.



Tea Clipper Painting

Among the most notable clippers were the China clippers, also called tea clippers or opium clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies. The last example of these still in reasonable condition is the Cutty Sark, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, London. When the Chinese Emperor chose to embargo European manufactured commodities and demand payment for all Chinese goods in silver, the price rose, restricting trade. The East India Company began to produce something desired by the Chinese as much as tea was by the British: opium. This had a significant influence on both India and China. Opium was also imported into Britain and was not prohibited because it was thought to be medically beneficial. Laudanum, made from opium, was used as a pain killer, to induce sleep and to suppress anxiety. The famous literary opium addicts Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wilkie Collins also took it for its pleasurable effects. The Limehouse area in London was notorious for its opium dens, many of which catered for Chinese sailors as well as English addicts.

Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. The fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as tea, opium, spices, people, and mail. The return could be spectacular.

The last China clippers had peak average speeds of over 16 knots (30 km/h). The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. Donald McKay's Sovereign of the Seas reported the highest speed ever achieved by a sailing ship – 22 knots (41 km/h), made while running her to Australia in 1854. (John Griffiths' first clipper, the Rainbow, had a top speed of 14 knots.) There are eleven other instances of a ship's logging 18 knots (33 km/h) or over. Ten of these were recorded by American clippers. Besides the breath-taking 465-nautical-mile (861 km) day's run of the Champion of the Seas, there are thirteen other cases of a ship's sailing over 400 nautical miles (740 km) in 24 hours. And with few exceptions all the port-to-port sailing records are held by the American clippers. The 24h record of the Champion of the Seas set in 1854, wasn't broken until 1984 (by a multihull), or 2001 (by another monohull).

Packing the clipper



Packing a Tea Clipper 


It all came to an end

 The era of the tea clippers was to prove a brief yet exciting time. In November 1869 the Suez Canal opened, creating a navigable passage between the Far East and the Mediterranean.

Historic Suez Canal

Overnight, it became economically viable for steamships to sail through the Suez Canal and ply the China tea trade. The auxiliary steamer Erl King had sailed from Foochow 8 days after the clipper Ariel, carrying both passengers and a cargo of tea. She arrived in London 15 days before the clipper, the end was on the cards for the tea clippers. The SS Agamemnon, a much more fuel efficient ship than her contemporaries, had just made the fastest ever outward passage to China of 65 days and was on her way to London with a cargo of tea that was two or three times larger than a clipper could carry. The canal would give a much shorter route (a reduction of about 3,250 nautical miles (6,020 km; 3,740 mi) or nearly a quarter less distance), so favouring the steamships.



Suez Cannal

NASA image of the Suez Canal, taken by the MISR instrument on the Terra satellite on January 30, 2001

The last of the tea clippers

One of the last recorded tea clipper voyages we can find is that of Lothair. On her maiden voyage under Captain Emlyn Peacock, departing London on 10 September 1870, she reached Yokohoma in 135 days. She was later acquired by Killick Martin & Company in 1873, and then by William Bowen in 1885. She was ultimately lost in 1910 for unknown reasons. After this most clippers were used for Australian routes.

S.V Lothair

S.V Lothair

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