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When the navigation act was repealed in 1849, Americans were able to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complete the trade route, utterly trouncing the outdated E.I.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.
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.