The Romance of the Tea Clippers


Photo courtesy of Pexels

Sarita Dasgupta, Guest Columnist

Three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century, known as the Clipper Age, not only provided great excitement for tea drinkers and for the general public, but also had a major effect on the social customs of that time. 

The Clipper Age has thus deservedly earned its special place in the history of Tea, which will be elaborated on at present.

The East Indiamen

The British East India Company was granted their charter in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I as the ‘Company and Merchants of London trading with the East Indies’ and held the monopoly on British trade from the Far East until the early 1800s. 

It was in the 1820s that the British East India Company took over vast expanses of land in the state of Assam in north-east India. They brought in people from neighboring states to help clear the land and plant tea bushes in neat rows, thus establishing the first tea estates; many of which exist to this day. By the beginning of the 20th century, Assam had become the leading tea producing region in the world.

After the tea leaves were plucked from the bushes and processed in the factories of the Assam estates, the finished product was packed in wooden boxes called tea chests, which were taken to the nearest riverside jetty in bullock carts. There, they were loaded onto boats which took them to Calcutta. From there, they were transferred to the holds of the East India Company’s large, strong, slow ships, known as East Indiamen, each of which could carry 1,200 tons of cargo. 

Since the Company had the monopoly on British trade from the Far East, their priority was to minimize costs by loading as much as possible onto each ship. A round trip took almost two years, if the weather remained fair, but could take much longer if the conditions were unfavorable! The tea drunk in England was thus about a year old, and another year’s supply of tea was always kept in reserve in London in case the ships were captured or lost at sea. 

Although quite a number of East Indiamen, such as the ‘Charles Grant’, were built from fine quality teak in Indian dockyards and were more resistant to sea worms that ate through the bottom of the ships made from English oak, the life expectancy of these ships was limited to four voyages made within a period of eight to ten years. In two centuries, the Company’s ships made 4,600 voyages between London and the Far East. Some of the most famous of these stately ships, dubbed Lords of the Ocean, were the Princess Royal, the Warley and the Charles Grant. Later models were modified to look like single-decked warships and called Blackwall Frigates, the better known ones being the Seringapatam and the Prince of Wales.

The Tea Clippers

Once British Navigation Law opened up the country’s ports to American vessels, the East India Company lost its monopoly and realized that they needed to transport their tea much faster in order to be ahead of rival firms. With the additional supply available, the dealers in London found that the best way to sell their tea was to advertise and promote its freshness. As the newer tea had a better flavor, the demand for fresh tea grew.

The Americans were using ‘clippers’, thus called because, with their narrower hulls and a greater number of sails, they ‘clipped off’ miles. These ships, designed like large yachts, were attractive, sleek, graceful and fast. They also had enough stowage space to carry more than a million pounds of tea. The first American clipper to reach London was the ‘Oriental’ which arrived at West India Dock on Dec. 3, 1850- just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong! 

Once the East India Company realized that the clippers were traveling three times faster than their East Indiamen (the former were completing the journey in 100 days instead of 365 days!) they sold off these ponderous ships and commissioned their own clippers, the first of which was ‘Stornoway’, built in 1850, by the firm of Alexander Hall & Sons in Aberdeen, Scotland. The renowned mercantile house of Jardine & Matheson had bought the first British-made tea clipper, Torrington, from the same firm in 1846.

The Clipper Races

These ‘greyhounds of the sea’ carrying tea and other goods from the East to the West were imbued with an aura of romance because of their speed. Soon, clipper races were all the rage. As each clipper was committed to a rival merchant in London who wanted to get his tea on the market ahead of his competitors and sell it at a premium, these races were fought in real earnest. 

Very often, these British and American vessels raced side by side all the way from their ports of origin in the Far East – dealing with fast currents, dangerous reefs, strong winds, monsoon tides and even pirates – until they reached the Thames estuary; a voyage of 14,000 miles! The final leg of the journey up the Thames, towed in by tug boats, decided who would win the race.  

As no one in London knew which clipper was ahead, the excitement began when the first ship was sighted turning into the mouth of the Thames, and telegrams were shot off to the London offices of the various tea companies, reporting the progress of the ships. Newspapers carried headlines reporting who was in the lead and people thronged the docks to watch the ships being towed in by tug boats. Gentlemen’s clubs buzzed with talk about who was winning and fortunes were wagered on the outcome of the race.

Tea brokers stayed in hotels close to the docks so that as soon as the first chests of tea were offloaded, they could taste samples and choose the finest teas. They then organized the delivery of the chosen chests to their tasting rooms in London and put them up for auction at the earliest. 

The Great Tea Race of 1866

One of the most famous clipper races in the annals of clipper history was The Great Tea Race of 1866. Eleven clippers all set sail from the East together, and four of them somehow managed to keep within sight of each other right up to the English Channel! They sailed into the Thames one after the other and half way along the river, Ariel, under the command of Captain Keay, and Taeping, commanded by Captain M’Kinnon, were only a mile apart. In fact, they were so close that the owners of the two ships – Messrs Phillips, Shaw and Lowther (Ariel) and Messers Rogers and Co (Taeping) agreed that they would share the profits on the teas each was carrying. But Taeping was towed in by a faster tug and reached the quay twenty minutes ahead of Ariel, thus winning the race, a £500 reward for the crew and a higher price for the tea. After a furious dispute between the owners, the prize money of ten shillings a ton was finally shared between both ships. All eleven ships reached London within three days of each other.

The Clipper Age – thirty glorious years of reigning supreme – came to an end with the advent of the steamships in 1869, and, later, with the opening up of the Suez Canal which allowed for travel between the East and West in a much shorter time. 

The Cutty Sark

The most famous clipper, and the fastest of them all, was the Cutty Sark, commissioned in the last year of the clippers’ reign. She sailed at the record speed of 20 miles an hour – putting the steamships to shame! She eventually went out of service in December 1954 and is now mounted and displayed in her restored glory, in Greenwich, south-east London, close to the National Maritime Museum.

One can explore the historical ship and also enjoy a cup of tea sitting in the café directly underneath her hull. 

(Incidentally, the term ‘Cutty Sark,’ taken from Robert Burns’ famous poem, ‘Tam O’Shanter,’ is an archaic Scottish term for a short nightdress!)