The tea clippers sailed the high seas for less than two decades. But in this brief period in the middle 19th century they captured the imagination of the entire world. They became the symbols of romance and glamour, of speed and courage, of seamanship and racing skills.
The London docks would be lined by cheering public when the tea clippers would be towed in loaded with precious tea. The cheers were not for the cargo alone but for the speed with which the clippers made their journey from China to Britain.
The clippers that landed first had their cargos lifted at a premium, and their sailors rewarded and feted for having beaten the rivals on the high seas. The entire journey of the clippers would be telegraphed back to Britain from several points en route, and the closer the clippers came to the British shores the talks in pubs and cafes would focus on the racing clippers.
The credit for building the first clippers went to Americans. These were fast and slender ships with narrow hulls that were deeper at the back than at the front. The speed came from the acres of sails tied to tall masts that were whipped by strong sea winds. The first ‘true” clipper was Rainbow. It was built in 1845 and clipped two weeks on its first sail from New York to Canton.
The repeal of British navigation Laws in 1849 made it possible for American tea clippers to ferry tea from China to Britain. With this was born a fierce rivalry between the sea crews to bring the first tea harvest home from China. The rivalry was egged on by the British merchants who wanted to be the first to sell fresh Chinese tea, and were willing to pay high premiums for it.
Their imaginations were fanned by Oriental, an American tea clipper that took 97 days to reach London from Hong Kong. As against this East Indiamen – that were ferrying tea till that time -- used to take nine to ten months to make the same journey.
In 1851, a British ship owner Richard Green decided to take on the sleek American clippers. He had a new clipper built to beat the American ships. This clipper was named Challenger. Its first voyage from Canton to London coincided with that of Challenge, an American clipper. The passage evoked mass hysteria across Britain, and huge amounts were bet on the two ships. The fact that the British Challenger could beat Challenge by two days led to widespread revelry and jubilation.
For almost two decades after this there was much fanfare associated with the arrival and departure of tea clippers. Unfortunately, this glorious era came to an end with the opening of Suez Canal, which made it possible for steamships to sail from London to China. The tea clippers fell into disuse; today, only stories of their incredible feats remain.