Early History of Clipper Ships: Opium, People and Tea

25th March 2015

Star Clippers

Last week, Star Clippers looked into the significance of Cape Horn in the early days of sailing and the dangerous route it represents. Staying with the history of wind sailing, we take a step back even further to venture into the early history of clipper ships.

The origins of the word ‘clipper’ are uncertain, but it has been accounted for in several ways. One explanation suggests clipper relates to the English word ‘clip’, meaning “to run or fly swiftly” whilst another explanation refers to the stem of the ship, which is designed to “clip over the waves rather than plough through them.”

Whatever the meaning may be, there is no doubt that, at the time, the clipper ship was the fastest type of vessel to sail the seas. During the short golden era of clippers, between the late 1840’s and 1870’s, ships would race around the world on various trade routes.

Three routes in particular were of significant importance in terms of global trade. The first of these was: New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, which transported hopeful gold-diggers to the California Gold Fields. The second was China to England with tea cargoes and the third was India to China with opium. Opium was illegal in China, but it was smuggled in and, along with silver, were the only items the Chinese merchants would accept in exchange for tea, porcelain and silk.

Origins of the Clipper

Clipper ships were sailing around 50 years prior to the golden era, with the first ships built in Normandy and Brittany in France around 1800. Around this time, the term “clipper” did not yet exist but the ships had similar qualities. These ships were used for smuggling and privateering during the troubled Napoleonic period. British ships did not compare to the speed and elegance of these French ships and Lord Nelson even admitted the best ships in his fleet were those captured from the French fleet.

During the 1812 war between Britain and the United States, America introduced a type of ship known as the Baltimore Clipper. These ships, lightly equipped with armour, sailed very well and were perfect for privateering. They were so impressive in fact that they were discussed by British MPs and were labelled as “packet ships.” Sailings between New York and Liverpool were the most frequent, but sailings also occurred between other US and British ports and to Australia – carrying emigrants and cargo.

In 1845, the competition to build the fastest sailing ship intensified thanks to inventive young ship-builder, Donald McKay, who started constructing ships at a Boston shipyard. He succeeded in building forty clippers over a 20 year period at the Border Street shipyard in Boston. McKay passed away in 1880 in 1880, but the Border Street waterfront is still full of relics from the days of when the historical clipper ships were built.

Gold Rush

In 1847, only a handful of people resided in the tiny village of San Francisco – but in January the following year, everything changed. James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in California and hundreds of ships docked into San Francisco on their route. Many decided to sail the entire distance around Cape Horn as opposed to making the journey by land which involved facing the wrath of unfriendly Indians.

Many ships became stuck in San Francisco and were converted into hotels, bars, shops, brothels and prisons. San Francisco became a vital trading destination and it was thought that whatever could be bought in New York for one dollar, could be sold in San Francisco for ten dollars.

It is also worth noting that one of the people to venture to San Francisco on a hunt for gold was Levi Strauss of Bavaria, Germany, in 1853. He sewed trousers of old tarpaulin and fixed the pockets with copper rivets. Suffice to say, he went on to earn a lot more from his Levis jeans than the gold diggers.

Tea Rush

In the mid-19th century, tea drinking in Britain was starting to truly come into fashion and many merchants were waiting eagerly in London. Because of the strong demand, captains and crews were pushed to the utmost, with merchants offering a 10 shilling per tonne reward for the first ship to arrive with an additional £100 for the winning captain and extra month’s wages for the crew.

Three of the most prestigious ships of the time named: Ariel, Taeping and Serica; all set sail on May 30th 1866 for the famous tea race. Three months later, both Ariel and Taeping were sighted at Lizard Point – the southernmost point in the UK.

The two captains saw each other this sparked a furious rush to the Thames. After 99 days of sailing, both Ariel and Taeping arrived in London within 38 minutes of each other (Taeping first in the Old London Docks and Ariel, second, in the East India Docks) and the prize was split. Serica was not far behind, finishing the race less than an hour behind Ariel.

In the 21st Century, there is no rush for trade and although there is no way to determine the weather conditions; you can be guaranteed a relaxing and highly enjoyable sailing experience with Star Clippers cruises. Sailing through the Panama Canal means there is no longer any need to experience the treacherous conditions of Cape Horn. The best way to recreate the experiences mentioned in this blog is to embark on a Ocean Cruise across the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by the crystal blue waters, you will be able to find peace and tranquillity in the middle of the ocean.