Winter, 2002 Newsletter - "The Golden Age of the Tea Trade"
Great Britain Responds to the American Challenge
The British were not as far behind in this great race as The Times' pleas suggest. As early as the 1840s, ship builders in Aberdeen, Scotland had begun experimenting with modified bow shapes on small coastal schooners. Unlike the Americans, however, these designers considered new plans primarily as a way to decrease the register tonnage for their vessels. Tonnage Law at the time required that taxes on a ship's cargo be figured using a standard formula based on its length and width at certain points along the deck. The depth of the ship was never measured exactly but was instead calculated simply as half of its width.
To exploit this flaw in the formula, Aberdeen builder William Hall of Alexander Hall & Co. suggested to his fellow designers that they alter a schooner, later christened the Scottish Maid, that was developing at the stockyard. By narrowing the bow and angling the leading edge of the ship far forward, Hall knew that he could lower the ship's register tonnage and significantly increase its overall speed. Through these modifications, William Hall would manipulate the tax formula to the shipping firm's own benefit as they would be taxed for only a portion of the cargo carried each journey.
The success of the modifications to the Scottish Maid spread quickly throughout Aberdeen, and before long most firms were turning out schooners of a similar design. While these vessels were reserved for shorter, European voyages, Aberdeen-built ships gained a reputation for their speed. Thus, it was to the heritage of the Aberdeen bow that British ship designers would turn a decade later when they needed faster vessels.
Not surprisingly, Alexander Hall & Co. was one of the first firms in Great Britain to construct clippers in response to the new American challenge in the tea trade. In 1850, they launched the Stornoway, an imposing ship that measured 157.8 feet x 28.8 feet x 17.8 feet and was capable of carrying 632,000 lbs. of tea. A year later, they followed its success with the Chrysolite, the ship that is often regarded as the first true British clipper ship because of the extreme shape. While similar in size to the Stornoway, she had a more dramatically curved bow and could carry almost 900 tons of tea. Yet perhaps the most influential clipper of this time was R & H Green’s aptly named Challenger, which set sail in 1852.
By carefully examining the lines and construction of the Oriental while it was still in dry dock, the designers of the Challenger were able to capitalize on American innovation. With little knowledge of their own in drafting the extreme clipper-style ships, the British were again able to contend in the tea trade. Owners H. Lindsay of London were consistently rewarded by fast times that she turned in between ports, and they kept her in the China tea trade for an unprecedented decade and a half.
To the mid-1850s, Aberdeen style ships remained the preferred vessel for merchants competing in the now flourishing tea trade. British ships like the Julia, Cairngorm, and Vision contended with such American rivals as the Sea Serpent, Argonaut, and the Challenge to complete the voyage to China and back as quickly as possible. A competitive atmosphere dominated the seas as captains, merchants, and others wagered on which outfit would return first from the East. Nearly identical departure dates and the lure of premium pledged to those who returned to London first, created a highly charged, race-like atmosphere.
The reign of the Aberdeen bow abruptly ended, however, when the British Parliament repealed the Tonnage Laws in 1854. Unhindered by the restraints of the old tax formula, designers began drafting with increased ingenuity. Ships in even more “extreme” shapes became popular, and iron and composite hulls soon replaced those made from wood. Racing tea from production to market culminated with the exciting Great Tea Race of 1866 when a record number of ships dashed from China to London in pursuit of the profits guaranteed to the first to port. This was the height of the clipper era.
Yet, new trends were blowing in the trade winds, and the role of the clipper in commerce was about to change forever. In the United States, the California gold rush was now in full swing, but transportation to the West Coast was in short supply. Once they grasped the potential profits that could be realized, owners of American clippers shifted their attention to this highly lucrative opportunity. In addition to passenger fees, clipper owners cashed in on the inflated prices of staple goods that they brought to market.
In Great Britain, decreased pressure from American clippers provided some respite for merchants, but sustained competition between domestic firms inundated the market with a surplus of tea. Racing the first tea to market no longer guaranteed the prestige and premium prices as it once had. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 further upset the clipper’s uncertain position. Steamships could easily navigate from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, thereby cutting their time to China in half. When the clippers arrived in China in 1870, they found the ports full of ships that had steamed through the Suez. Captains who expected to carry tea back to Europe found that their services were no longer needed.
Tea arrived in London via steamer sixty days later, heralding the end of the glorious days of the clipper ship in the China tea trade.
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. Kent, Great Britain, 1972.
Whipple, A. B. C. The Clipper Ships. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1980.
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