Summer, 2002 Newsletter - "The Golden Age of the Tea Trade"
Merchant Ships of the 1830's
Merchant ships of the early 19th century were designed to maximize the cargo that could be transported in a ship of a given length. Tariffs were based on a tonnage calculation in effect since 1773. Tonnage of a merchant ship was calculated by the length and width of the ship, ignoring the height and the curvature of the bow and stern. This favored a tall, tub-like vessel which was doomed to be sluggish at sea.
This figure illustrates the shape of the typical merchant ship of the early 1800's. The length was a little over three times the breadth. Note that the cross section of the bow is actually larger than that of the stern, depicting the "cod's head and mackerel tail" characterization of the ideal merchant ship. This produced a ship that had to fight the waves, inefficiently plowing through the water and riding high atop the rough seas. A speed of seven knots (about eight miles per hour) was considered fast but could not be sustained.
Merchant ships sailing from China to London gradually shortened the transit time from the earliest days of China trade in order to meet the increased demand for tea. By pushing their ships and crews to their limits and ignoring rough weather conditions, aggressive sea captains could make the trip in less than six months. Significant reductions in transit times would require a departure from conventional merchant ship design.
Meanwhile, American shipbuilders in Baltimore, Maryland had been producing small, speedy, two-masted sloops, known as Baltimore Clippers, which were used successfully in the war of 1812. In 1832 a wealthy Baltimore merchant, Isaac McKim, built a three-masted trading ship modeled after the lithe but diminutive Baltimore Clipper. Mr. McKim named the boat after his wife, Ann McKim, and equipped it with the finest fittings. Considered a frivolous rich man's toy by more conservative merchants, the Ann McKim carried less than 500 tons of freight. Still, she commanded a high level of respect among those who had the insight to foresee the day when speed would take precedence over tonnage.
Upon the death of Mr. McKim in 1837, the Ann McKim was sold to Howland and Aspinwall, an aggressive New York trading firm that was keen to expand its fleet for the profitable China tea trade. Messrs. Howland and Aspinwall were among those traders who recognized the advantage of owning a fast ship that could bring tea to New York ahead of the competition. In spite of her limited capacity, the Ann McKim proved to be a very sound investment.
Other fast ships entered the competition, and the race was on. Howland and Aspinwall were anxious to maintain a lead in the burgeoning tea market so in 1843 they turned to the New York shipbuilding firm of Smith & Dimon for a larger and faster ship. They wanted a ship that would leap ahead of the competition and assure their future success.
A young draftsman, John Willis Griffiths, was employed by Smith & Dimon at the time. He had been studying theoretical ship designs since 1840. When his revolutionary theories were confirmed by testing different hull shapes in a test tank, he was assigned to lead the design team for Howland and Aspinwall's new ship, named the Rainbow.
While the Ann McKim had a length-to-breadth ratio of approximately 4.6, the Rainbow was to have an exaggerated ratio of 5.0. But what was revolutionary about the proposed design of the Rainbow was its extremely sharp bow and massive rigging. It was so revolutionary that some seasoned seafarers referred to the ship as "Aspinwall's Folly", suggesting it would sink unless it were reversed in orientation and rigged to sail backwards!
In the next issue of the Upton Tea Quarterly we will observe how this criticism prompted a halt to the construction of the Rainbow, allowing the completion of another revolutionary ship eight months prior to her launch.
Baker, William F. Running Her Easting Down: A documentary of the development and history of the British tea clipper culminating with the building of the Cutty Sark. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1974.
MacGregor, David R. The Tea Clippers: An account of the China Tea Trade and some of the British Sailing Ships engaged in it from 1849 to 1869. First Edition, London: Percival Marshall & Co., Ltd., 1900s.
Ukers, William H. All About Tea, Volume I. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935.
Whipple, A.B.C., The Clipper Ships. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1980.
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