Travel In Paris W. Kandinsky, No Title, watercolors

History of Tea : Tea Shipping

The China Routes

There are several routes that could be followed by ships leaving or approaching China, the chief deciding factor on where the ship was to enter or leave the china sea being the time of year, though the vessel's capabilities had also to be taken into account. Ships built specially for the China trade on fine lines would always lay a course right down *the China Sea when homeward-bound, regardless of the season, unless they had a timid or inexperienced captain, or else met with strong south-westerly winds immediately they left, say, * Foochow(Fuzhou), which case they would probably stand out into the Pacific go down the eastern cost of *Formosa and if the wind was still south/westerly continue down the east side of the * Philipines and then via Gillolo Strait(near island * Halmahera), Pitt Passage, and * Ombai Strait, into the * Indian Ocean past the * island of Timor. Such a route was termed the Eastern Passage. * The Sir Lancelot under command of Richard Robinson did this in 1867, and only took 99 days on the homeward passage. Other masters might have occupied a week or more extra spent in beating down the China Sea against the south-westerlies, trying to get through by the China Sea Passage. Many ships used to make for the coast of * Cochin China since land breezes were experienced there at night which enabled the ship make good progress south. A third homeward route was down the west coast of Luzon and then into Sulu Sea past Minhoro and from there into the Celebes Sea, Strait of Macassar and thence into the Indian Ocean through Lombok Strait(* See the map). Ships going down the China Sea would pass into the Indian Ocean by way of Sunda Strait, separating Sumatra from Java, calling at Anjer(a village on west end of Java, where were a light-house and signal-station for the many vessels passing through the strait) on the way( * See the map). The sea between Borneo and Sumatra was studded with islands, there being three passages known as Bangka(between Sumatra and Bangka), Gaspar(between Bankga and Belitung(Billiton)) and Karimata(between Belitung(Billiton) and Borneo) Straits (* See the map). The first was frequently used, though it would appear to be a tortuous and hazardous channel.

The Watering Place at Anjer Point in the Island of Java,
Oil on Canvas,
William Daniell, London, 1794

* Map
* South China Sea

The Clipper Days

The Challenge, Clipper, New York, 1851

Until the mid 1800's, cargo ships including those carrying tea, usually took between twelve and fifteen months to make passage from ports in the East to those in London.

The Americans were the first to design a new type of clipper. Recognising that the old ships had to carry too much weight, they designed a more streamlined vessel (based on the old ( * Baltimore clippers) capable of carrying greater cargo (providing it was loaded correctly) at a greater speed. The new, faster clipper was born - so called because they were designed to "clip"; or get the last ounce of speed from the wind. The first of these three masted, full-rigged vessels was the 750 ton * Rainbow launched in New York in 1845. Every line promised speed - from the sharp, curving stem to the slim, tapering stern, with tall raking masts carrying a huge area of sail. The journey time of the slow East Indian clippers was halved.

Perhaps the most famous clipper ever built was the British clipper *Cutty Sark. The Cutty Sark was built in 1868 in * Dumbarton and only carried tea on just eight occasions. It is preserved as a museum ship at * Greenwich, London. The name comes from the poem * 'Tam o' Shanter' by * Robert Burns, about a Scottish farmer chased by a young witch who wore only her 'cutty sark' (= short shift); the ship's figurehead is a representation of the witch with her arm outstretched to catch the tail of the horse on which the farmer was escaping.

Each year the tall ships would race from China to the Tea Exchange in London to bring in the first tea for auction. the races between the tea clippers had become a great annual competition. The race began in China where the clippers would leave the * Canton River, race down the China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, around * the Cape of Good Hope, up the * Atlantic, past the Azores and into the English Channel. The clippers would then be towed up the River Thames by tugs and the race would be won by the first ship to hurl ashore its cargo at the docks. The first cargo home fetched as much as an extra sixpence (2.5p) per 1lb (450g) - and gained a cash bonus for Captain and crew. Though beginning half way around the world, the mastery of the crews was such that the great ships often raced up the Thames separated by only by minutes.

the Great Tea Race of 1866

The picturesque era of the tea clippers was celebrated by the Great Tea Race in 1866, (these legendary ships carried both tea and adventurers across the China seas). The race began at Foochow, ending in the London Docks, took 99 days and after 16,000 miles by sail, only 10 minutes separated the winners. An unprecedented sixteen clippers assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage in the Min River at Foochow. Or from other sources nine ships laden with the first crop left FooChow (South China Coast) on dates varying from the 29th May to the 6th June last, but only four of the nine really competed for the prize -- the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Taeping, and the Serica. Three sailed on the 30th of May, the Fiery Cross started on the 29th, but, though she had a day's clear start of her rivals she lost the race. Five of them were stellar performers: Serica 708 tons, Capt. George Innes; Taeping 767 tons, (one year old), Capt. Donald McKinnon; Taitsang 815 tons, Capt. Daniel Nutsford; Fiery Cross 888 tons, Capt. Richard Robinson; and, rounding out the favourites, Ariel a slender beauty of 853 tons, (also one year old), Capt. John Keay of the Esplanade, Anstruther - odds on favourite with the public. The others, leaving China at the same time, sailed almost neck-and-neck the whole way, and finally arrived in the London docks within two hours of each other. A struggle more closely contested or more marvellous in some of its aspects has probably never before been witnessed. The Taeping, which won, arrived on the Lizard at literally the same hour as the Ariel, her nearest rival, and then dashed up the Channel, the two ships abreast of each other. During the entire day they gallantly ran side by side, carried on by a strong westerly wind, every stitch of canvas set, and the sea sweeping their decks as they careered before the gale. Off Dungeness the following morning the pilots boarded them at the same moment, and at the Downs steam tugs were in waiting to tow them to the river. It was at this point that the fight was really decided. Both vessels were taken in tow simultaneously and again they started neck-to-neck. The Taeping, however, reached Gravesend first, the Ariel at her heels and the Serica a good third; and she entered the dock at a quarter before ten o'clock on Thursday evening just half an hour in advance of the Ariel and an hour and three quarters before the Serica. Taeping has this secured the prize, which is an extra freight of 10s. a ton on her cargo of tea. But to spin our "seafaring yarn" a little longer here, throughout the daylight of September 5th, after more than ninety hard-pressed days, while sailors aboard other Channel vessels and spectators along the English Coast looked on in fascination, the two clippers, Ariel and Taeping, fought out the last leg of their marathon. Both captains had every scrap of canvas sent aloft, clocking over 14 knots, Ariel in the lead, but Taeping gaining by the hour. By 4am next morning they were "hove-to" off Dungeness firing rockets to summon the pilot boats. Keay called for more sail, steered NE to meet the pilots and glided straight towards Taeping's bows and McKinnon had to bear away to avoid being rammed. Then on through the Downs, Ariel in the lead, and into the Thames, both ships anxious to get their steam tugs, the Ariel and the Taeping exchanging their leads twice, as they manouvered with tugs, tides and low waters. Everyone agreed the race was won by Ariel at the moment she took the tug outside Deal Harbour, eight minutes ahead of the Taeping after 99 days at sea, since no further seamanship was required once command had passed to the tugs. But in fact Taeping was the first to dock, after all, and the owners Liverpool's Shaw, Maxton & Co (Ariel) and Cellardyke's Rodger & Co (Taeping) decided to split the prize money. The Serica arrived on the same tide as the Ariel and Taeping, on September 6th; two days later in came the Fiery Cross and the Taitsing, each logging 101 days.

But by 1871 the newer steamships began to replace these great ships. Tea Clippers were vital to the tea trade until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and were in operation until the end of the 1880's.

* Sailing Section
* Clipper Ship Museum
* A concise history of the development of square-rigged ship

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Last updated : 23-Feb-09