14th
Jan
2015

Posted in Kafevend Blog

In 1834, Britain's parliament released a new charter for the British East India Company (BEIC) that abolished its various trading rights. Since its formation by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, the BEIC had been primarily concerned with trading the exotic new goods- like tea- found in the "Indies", the name given to India and the Far East. As it grew however, so did its ambitions and power. It eventually came to rule India, with the help of a private army. The 1834 charter was partially a result of the growing resentment amongst the British of the BEIC's domination abroad. As one writer put it in 1831, "... we protest against their being allowed to carry a sword in one hand and a ledger in the other"- essentially, they were forced to choose whether they wanted to be merchants or governors.

Whilst the charter limited their role, the BEIC still found a way to make money via one of their favourite old commodities- tea. Though they had lost their monopoly on the trading of tea with China, they realised they could still make money if they grew it in India under their own jurisdiction. They were able to successfully grow tea, and only two decades later tea production in Assam, where they had established their plantations, had grown to over half a million pounds.

Before losing the monopoly, the BEIC trading vessels were often large and lumbering things, carrying lots of cargo but not very quickly. As competition with other merchants became a factor, speed was necessary in order to beat them back to port in England and fetch the top prices, something that they hadn't needed to consider when they were the only ones bringing in the goods. This meant that a change was needed in the type of ship they used.

Near the end of the 17th century a type of ship gained popularity in America and the Caribbean known as the Baltimore clipper. Whilst it was something of a catch all term at first for a variety of fast ships, it gradually came to apply to specially built schooners and brigantines. They were small with sleek lines and capable of high speeds as they "clipped" along the surface of the waves. The class acquired a nefarious reputation as many were used in the slave trade, and several were built in the Far East and used in the opium trade.

In the 1830s the clipper ship came into its own as a distinct design. In 1833, the Ann McKim was built in Baltimore and is generally regarded as the original clipper ship. It was essentially a large schooner hull, but fitted with a ship rig (square sails on three masts) as opposed to the usual fore and aft rig. At around the same time the Aberdeen shipbuilders Alexander Hall and Sons were developing their "Aberdeen" clipper bow, and launched their first clipper, Scottish Maid, in 1839. At first, British clippers like the Scottish Maid were used around the UK, using their speed to compete against the up and coming steam ships. However, it didn't take long for them to start making their way east to participate in the tea and opium trades, along with many American clippers built at the same time.

Almost two decades later in 1858, the BEIC was rendered impotent and all but obsolete by the Government of India Act. The previous year had seen many acts of rebellion by mutinious native armies and civilian populations. Although the BEIC managed to eventually repress the rebellion, it was still viewed as a massive failure, and the British government passed the act to take control of the situation. The act saw the British government take control of all the land, administrative powers and armies of the BEIC.

The same year as the Indian Rebellion saw the world's first financial crisis which put a damper on the clipper tea trade. Two years later, as economies were recovering, a new line of clippers built for the tea trade appeared in Britain, the last being built in 1870. A year before that however the role of the tea clipper collapsed with the opening of the Suez canal which permitted easy access to the Orient for Steam ships. Clippers continued to be used in a variety of trades for a few decades afterwards but eventually became unprofitable.

The BEIC finally met its end in 1873 at the hands of the rather unispiringly named East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act, which saw the company formally dissolved after almost three centuries. The clipper managed to go out on more of a bang, leaving its mark at the end of the age of sail and the rise of steam. The privatised nature of the tea trade meant that many races took place between competing merchants. One of the most famous occurred in 1866, when the clippers Teiping and Ariel raced home from China in 99 days over a distance of 14,000 miles, with only 28 minutes between them at the finish. These races were hugely popular with the public who would gather to watch and cheer the ships as they came into port. As its final claim to fame, the clipper class built all the way back in the 19th century remains the fastest type of commercial sailing vessel ever built.

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