The Great Tea Trade – China to England in the 1800s
Cutty Sark under sail

The Great Tea Trade – China to England in the 1800s

For a brief period of time, the fastest sailing ships in the world sailed from the coast of China to London – racing to arrive with the fresh crop of tea for British tea drinkers.

The British East India Company held a near monopoly on trade with India and China for more than 100 years. But in 1834, the East India company surrendered its monopoly on Asian trade, and so, a competition developed as a number of merchant companies decided they could make money by shipping goods from China to Europe. After the first Anglo-Qing war (somewhat misleadingly called the 1st Opium War), five Treaty Ports were opened to British trade. The most important ports were Canton, and Shanghai. After 1840, the British also took possession of Hong Kong which soon become the major south-China trade port.

In the days of the East India trade monopoly, the East India company didn’t care if their boats were slow, they cared that they arrived safely and with a cargo which could be sold. But after 1840, speed was valuable. The first tea from this year’s crop in China was worth about 8% more than later shipments. By 1850, China clippers were being built for speed. The journey from the China coast to London was at least 14,000 miles, and usually the ships sailed an extra 3,000 miles to take advantage of favorable winds.

From 1860 to 1870, the Great Tea Race was avidly monitored by British newspapers and the English public. Thanks to the invention of the telegraph line and the early construction some underwater cables, news could reach London in weeks, much faster than the sailing ships.

The clipper ship, Firey Cross won the race four times (1861, 62, 63, and 65). Other fast ships of the time were the Ariel, the Taeping, the Serica, and the Cutty Sark. The time it took to sail from China to London varied from 88 days to more than 100. The boats would set sail with around 1 million pounds of tea, in tea chests, in last May, and they would arrive in London around mid-September. The top speed of these boats over a 24 hour period was a bit less than 20 miles per hour or 370 miles per day.

However, these boats had real problems. First, they relied upon the wind and they were designed around an ideal wind speed. Too strong a breeze, and they had to reduce sail and ended up going slower. Too little wind, and they hardly moved at all. In this matter, they were soon out-classed by steam-ships. The hybrid steam-sail boat was the Erl King, which made the journey from south China to London in just 78 days. The next hybrid with a more powerful engine was the Agamemnon. The Agamemnon made the journey from London to China in only 65 days. The steamships required a tiny crew and so they were able to take passengers, which is the origin of today’s cruise ships.

The second problem for the clipper ships was the Suez Canal. A sail boat could not sail down the canal, it had to be towed, slowly, and at significant expense. In addition, sailing in the Red Sea was very hard, due to the erratic and sometimes non-existent winds. For the steamships, the canal was great, and the lack of wind was no problem. Travel via the the Suez canal resulted in a savings of 3,500 miles – no sail boat could compete. Travel times by steamship went down to 50 days, then 40, then 30, as steam engines rapidly improved.

Thirdly, these clipper ships were dangerous. Of the famous clipper ships, only one survived more than 30 years of operation – the Cutty Sark which can still be visited in London England today. The Taeping was wrecked in the north China Sea in 1871. The Serica was wrecked in 1872 off the coast of Vietnam. The Ariel disappeared in the south Indian Ocean in 1872 – not one person survived. The Firey Cross was lost around 1890 after good career of 30 years. It took an expert crew and highly skilled officers to successfully sail these clipper ships. After the advent of the fast steam-ships, the merchant companies tried to save money by hiring less skilled crews and they paid the price in destroyed vessels.

So the days of the China Clippers lasted a bit more than 25 years. These were the fastest useful sailing ships ever made. Somewhat like Formula One race cars, they were complex, over-engineered, and prone to self destruction.

Two minor notes: the real tea experts knew that the best tea was not the earliest tea, but instead the tea harvested in late May and ready for shipment in early June was the highest quality.

Second, the ship Serica was named for the Latin word for China. I did not know this when I named my version of China Serica in my novels. Obviously I modeled Serica after China but I had never heard of the SS Serica before today.

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