13th
Mar
2013

Posted in Reference

In 1833, a section of the Government of India Act relinquished the last of the British East India Trading Company's monopoly on trade, a powerful position that had waxed and waned since it was granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1600. With its collapse, British merchantmen suddenly found they could freely participate in lucrative trading with new commodities- tea in particular. The BEIC sold off its East Indiamen fleet of merchant vessels, and soon new captains were plying the trade routes back and forth between Britain and China. They soon realised that as independent merchants, the best deals back home would be granted to those who got back the quickest- and so the stage was set for the rise of the tea clipper.


The Americans developed the first iterations of the clipper with the Baltimore clipper- a small, sleek and speedy topsail schooner. Later designs utilised the square sail rig and carried vast amounts of sail area, serving as excellent transports for low volume, high value cargoes like opium and spices. When the navigation act was repealed in 1849, Americans were able to participate in the tea trade between Britain and China. British merchants were horrified at the speed with which these clippers could complete the trade route, utterly trouncing the outdated E.I. vessels. Whilst the E.I. could carry larger cargoes, they were built with convoys in mind, often heavily armed and armoured akin to ships of the line and so were rather slow.


Whilst Britain had built merchant ships to try and replace the E.I. fleet, such as the blackwall frigates and a few clippers, the majority of the tea trade was still carried out using the old E.I. There was a rush to replace the vessels with new clippers to contest the American's domination. British supremacy was reinstated in the form of the Challenger in 1851 which beat the American Challenge on a round trip to China by two days. This led to the rise in popularity of clipper races, as competing crews would race to be the first to complete a trip to the merriment of the public- bets were even placed on the outcomes of these races.


The Americans slowly ceased participating in the tea trade, and by around the middle of the 1850s it was just British crews racing back and forth. The clipper tea trade continued until 1869, when the opening of the Suez canal forced the clipper out of the tea trade. In the background over the 1800s, as clippers plied the Southern Ocean, steam powered vessels had slowly but surely been gaining on them. Whilst steam vessels were slower, they were much more reliable, unlike the clippers that relied upon the whim of the wind. When the Suez canal opened, the steamers had a superb shortcut that sailing vessels found very hard to utilize, and so steam vessels quickly became the more efficient traders. Clippers continued to be used for a time in the gold rush in California and the wool trade in Australia, but soon the fleet was obsolete.

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