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Fall, 2002 Newsletter - "The Golden Age of the Tea Trade"
  America Launches the First Extreme Clippers

   John Williams Griffiths, a young American designer, was one of the first to address a problem called "tail-dragging." Here, significant resistance is created when the bow of a ship moving at faster speeds rises up, pressing its stern down into the water. While designers of sluggish merchant ships rarely noticed this effect, Griffiths realized that it must be addressed to facilitate faster ships. At the American Institute of the City of New York’s exhibition in 1842, Griffiths presented a model to demonstrate this new design concept, but his ideas were not well received. It would take the end of the Opium War in 1842 and increased demand from tea drinkers before merchants would embrace the need for faster ships in their fleets.

   In a moment of uncharacteristic daring, merchants Howland and Aspinwall of New York, who had a reputation as a cautious, parsimonious pair, hired Griffiths and his team to supervise the design and construction of a new ship, the Rainbow, in 1843. She was to have a sharp, concave bow that flared high above the waterline. A tapered stern, with the greatest breadth shifted further back was added to increase vessel buoyancy.1 Maritime legend holds that critics predicted the ship would slice cleanly under the first big wave and continue straight down to the ocean floor.

   Dubbed "Aspinwall's Folly" by veteran seafarers, the Rainbow, its designer, and particularly its sponsors were criticized by many who observed the construction site. Howland and Aspinwall were so doubtful of the project, in fact, that they halted assembly of the ship twice to seek additional advice from designers in England. Anxieties and disbelief about the innovative design coupled with limited knowledge of fluid dynamics seemed to advise against such a financial risk. Nevertheless, another New York shipping firm, which had begun construction of a similarly innovative ship, held steady in its course.

   In 1843, A. A. Low & Bro. hired Captain Nathaniel Palmer to supervise Brown & Bell's construction of a ship for service in their China trade. Like Griffiths, Palmer had been attempting to increase speed by modifying the bow and stern. With a whittled model in hand, Captain Palmer convinced William H. Low that he had the design for a ship that would allow them to complete the journey to China faster than any other New York shipper. Construction began immediately, and as the Rainbow waited unfinished in her stocks, A. A. Low & Bro. had their ship completed in less than a year's time. Named Houqua after the well-respected Chinese tea merchant, she was the first to demonstrate to the world that a ship of the new design was seaworthy.

   On May 31, 1844, Houqua set sail for China with Captain Palmer at the helm. The ship sailed into the port of Canton 95 days later. The equally impressive sail home was accomplished in only 90 days. Merchants and tea drinkers, accustomed to longer trips, were astounded. In the Houqua, Captain Nathaniel Palmer had bettered his record trip by 39 days.2

   While neither partner at Howland and Aspinwall ever acknowledged a connection, the overwhelming success of the Houqua's first run surely must have influenced their decision to finish construction of the Rainbow. Over eight months after the Houqua set out for China, the Rainbow, 750 tons, 159 feet long, and only 32 feet wide, sailed from New York on February 22, 1845.3 Eager to succeed in the overdue trip, Howland and Aspinwall hired reputable John Land, affectionately called "Old Man Land" by those in the tea trade, to captain the first voyage.

   Because of the construction delays, the Rainbow left New York later than necessary to catch the helpful monsoon winds in the China Sea. Sailing directly into the prevailing winds on both portions of the voyage, Captain Land was faced with a difficult task. Yet, the Rainbow sailed cleanly through, taking 108 days to reach Canton and 102 days to reach New York on return. She is said to have reached speeds of 14 knots (about 16 miles per hour) on the open sea.4 Howland and Aspinwall's doubts certainly must have been eased at the profits earned from this voyage; they earned back double the $45,000 spent for the ship's construction.5 On her second voyage, the Rainbow made port in China in 99 days and returned home in 84 days.6

   The triumphs of the Houqua and the Rainbow demonstrated that ships of the new design were not only practical but were indeed the future of the industry. In 1849, A. A. Low & Bro. launched another ship, the Oriental, a 1003 ton, 185 feet long and 36 feet wide clipper. She reached China in 81 days on only her second journey. Because of the Oriental's success on the New York - China run, Russell & Co. chartered her to make the voyage from China to London for the astounding £6 per ton of 40 cubic feet. Most London shippers of the day earned no more than £3.10s. per ton of 50 cubic feet.

   In 1850, the Oriental shocked British merchants and shippers when she pulled into port only 97 days after sailing from China. Citing Arthur H. Clark, William Ukers relates the reaction as a combination of exhilaration and apprehension. "The ship owners of London were constrained to admit that they had nothing to compare with her in speed, beauty of model, rig, or construction."7 Many ships built in Great Britain at the time were smaller vessels, like the Baltimore Clippers, and could carry much less cargo per journey. A superior American ship bringing tea back to London only 77 years after the Boston Tea Party was, at the very least, a threat to British maritime esteem. In Part 3 of our series, we will see how England responds to the challenge.

Additional images are available for this article.

1Campbell, George F. China Tea Clippers. New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1974. p. 48.
2Whipple, A. B. C. The Clipper Ships. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1980. p. 28.
3Tamarin, Alfred and Shirley Glubok. Voyaging to Cathay: Americans in the China Trade. New York: Viking Press, 1976. p. 181.
4Laing, Alexander. Clipper Ships and Their Makers. New York: Bonanza Books, 1966. p. 176-182.
5Ukers, William F. All About Tea, Volume I. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935. p. 88.
6Henderson, Daniel. Yankee Ships in China Seas: Adventures of Pioneer Americans in the Troubled Far East. New York: Hastings House, 1946. p. 181-182.
7Ukers. p. 93.
 Related Information:
   This current newsletter's homepage
   Part 1: "Merchant Ships of the 1830's"
   Learn more about the China tea trade
   Show me more topics

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