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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Did You Know Series (35): 150th Anniversary of “The Great Tea Race – 1866” (from China to London): The Age of the Clipper Ships: Commemorative Coins of 10 Dollars and 2 Dollars Coin issued by the Cook Islands in 2016:

Did You Know Series (35): 150th Anniversary of “The Great Tea Race – 1866” (from China to London): The Age of the Clipper Ships: Commemorative Coins of 10 Dollars and 2 Dollars  Coin issued by the Cook Islands in 2016:

2016 marks the 150th Anniversary of the most suspense-packed finale of the “Great Tea Race” of the 19th Century in which English Clipper ships competed to bring home the new tea crop from China.

Europe cultivates a taste for tea from China:

In the 17th Century, tea from China was getting popular all over Europe as a luxury item as it was being imported in very small quantities by the British East India Company (BEIC).

By 1834, the BEIC monopoly of the tea trade was all but over and the competition opened up to include other European companies.

Import of tea from China now required faster ships as importing European merchants competed with one another to be the first in the market with each new crop of tea.

Unlike the slow East India Company ships (“Indiamen” as they were called), the need was now to get faster, reliable ships which could reach the cargo to Europe at the shortest intervals of time. As such “Clipper ships” were chosen for this purpose as the “Tea Clippers” were designed for speed.

About Clipper Ships:

The term Clipper is of American origin and is derived from the word “clip” (in the sense of speed – as in “to move along at a fast clip”). The name was first applied to the “Baltimore Clipper” around 1825.

The Clipper ship was the fastest of all the great sailing vessels.

In the long history of the wind-ships, the era of full-fledged Clippers was sadly remarkably short. It began with the American ships in the 1840s and a little later the British Clippers which carried tea from China and Australian wool.

                     An image of the “USS Nightingale” at her prime
The “USS Nightingale”: was the most famous of the Clippers. Her sleek hull and raking masts spoke of a design that sacrificed everything else to generate speed. Lasting longer than most of her short lived sisters the “USS Nightingale” sailed the seas for 42 years, carrying cargoes all over the World.

Although beautifully made, the Clipper was fatally overspecialised, which too accounted for her blazing but brief career. She carried relatively little cargo. To get her best speed, she had to be driven night and day, for which a large crew was needed. Moreover, she was always losing sails and spars and straining her lightly built hull. To maintain speeds, she was not very cost-effective either.

Tea Advertisements and garnering the tea trade by merchants:

It was often the case that tea plucked early in China was of a relatively poorer quality than that which was available a few weeks later in the season.

Nevertheless, which ship had carried the tea consignments home first and the merchants could profit from their sale to the waiting public lent weight to the requirement of bringing home the Tea cargoes the fastest.

Tea Wholesalers prominently mentioned in their Advertisements which ship had carried the different batches being sold.

Incentives for the first consignments brought home:

As the first consignments of tea landed were mostly very profitable for the tea merchants, they began to introduce incentives.

For example, in 1854, the Clipper “Vision” had a premium of an extra one pound per ton loaded into her Bill of Lading, payable if she was the first ship to dock in London.

Similarly, in 1855, “Maury" and “Lord of the Isles” raced for a premium of one pound per ton, with the “Lord of the Isles” winning the race, as she got a better tug to get her up-river.

Along with the premium won, the first ships to land also meant that their captain & crew were efficient in conducting a rapid loading of the tea cargo and promptly leaving for home, which enhanced the reliability and instilled confidence in the Clipper’s overall efficiency levels, thereby commanding higher fees and incentives.

In 1861, the consignees offered a premium of 10s per ton to the first ship to dock in London, which was won by the “Fiery Cross”, which was also the first ship to dock in 1862, 1863 and 1865.

Newspaper reporting on the performance of the Tea Clippers:

Not only this, the performance of the Tea Clippers was followed and commented upon through the “Shipping Intelligence” columns of newspapers and trade in tea was discussed in the commodities section of the business columns.

The “news” sections of newspapers wrote handsomely about the first ship to dock from 1857 onwards.

By 1866, newspaper interest was at its height, with speculation, updates and detailed reports.

Not only this, many bets were also placed in London, Hong Kong and the ports of Britain, including by the captains and crew of the ships involved, on the outcome of the race to be the first tea Clipper to dock in London. This was particularly interesting, because during the 1866-67 season, no less than 57 Clippers were operating the Tea routes from ports in China (Foochow, Hankow, Shanghai, Woosung, Canton and Hong Kong etc.) to London.

The quickest ships as known to the shipping agents would be loaded first. A lot depended on the tonnage of the ship and the standing and the influence of the local agents.

The 1866 Great Tea Race:

In 1866, nine clippers set off from Fuzhou to London in the “Great Tea Race”.

The Front runners:

The front runners of the 1866 Tea Race were “Ariel” (thought to be the fastest Clipper of her day), “Fiery Cross” (which had been the first Clipper home in 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865) , “Serica” (first ship home from China in 1863 and 1865, but was closely beaten by “Fiery Cross” for lack of a tug), Taitsing (on her first trip home from China), Taeping (she was dismasted on her maiden voyage home in a typhoon off Formosa, Taiwan losing her foremast and mizzen and main topmasts, but after repairs she  made a remarkably fast passage of 89 days back to London).

The Race:

After loading of the cargo of Tea by lighters (called “chop boats”), “Fiery Cross” got a head start of about 14 hours on 30th May 1866, , while three of the front runners – Ariel, Taeping and Serica – closely followed out to Sea.

Newspaper reports started appearing in British Newspapers from 11.06.1866 with the Pall Mall Gazette being the first to report by carrying a list of the first four starters. Betting ran high at this keenly watched race. Later reports of various newspapers were updated with messages received through overland telegraph routes.

The Final of the “1866 Tea Race” from the Chinese port of Fuzhou to London, UK was indeed a memorable event with a nail-biting finish.

On 05.09.1866, “Ariel” was sighted first speeding towards the mouth of the English Channel. At daybreak, another ship was sighted at the Ariel’s starboard quarter – the “Taeping”, with “Fiery Cross” following closely behind.

Fears of the market flooding with millions of tons of Tea bring prices crashing down:

Interestingly, the first cargo of tea had already arrived over two weeks earlier in a steam auxiliary ship – “Erl King”, a ship which was not considered a part of the race.

The local tea retailers were however, greatly worried. The market was going to be flooded with 45 million pounds of tea being brought almost simultaneously by the Nine Clippers of the Great Tea Race which would create a glut of new season tea in the market, making the prices of premium tea plummet drastically.

On the other hand, the tea merchants were committed to pay for the cargoes carried by the Clippers, even though their tea would sell at a loss.

The owners and agents of the “Ariel” and “Taeping” knowing about this, struck a deal to share the premium between them as well as the 100 pounds prize money of the winning captain among the captains of their two vessels.

Taeping wins first place:
 The Clippers Ariel & Taeping racing abreast up the English Channel

 After 99 days of sailing more than 14,000 nautical miles, the “Taeping” was the first ship to dock at London, only 25 minutes ahead of the “Ariel”.

The captain and crew of the “Taeping” which carried a cargo of 1,108,709 pounds of tea, won a good reputation and lucrative commissions, as well as, prize money of 10 shillings for each ton of tea. The captain shared the prize money with the captain and crew of the "Ariel" in terms of the agreement between the owners and agents of the Ariel and the Taeping.

Not only was the captain of the Taeping happy about the victory, but also those who bet money on the ship made good money. Betting/gambling after all has been a favourite pastime in England.

After the 1866 Tea Race, the premium paid to the first Tea Clipper to arrive in London was abandoned.

The Aftermath – the end of the Clipper Ships Era:

The American Clipper began to fade away during the 1860s the period of the American Civil War (1861-1865). A few years after the end of the Civil war, the Golden Spike of the completed transcontinental Railway spelt her doom.

Soon the days of the Tea-Clippers too were over. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Clippers were no longer needed as transport ships and were replaced by steam-boats, which could transport more cargo in the drastically reduced travel time between China and England at speeds that Clippers could never sail at.

The British Clipper lasted a few years longer. But in the mid-1870s, she too was finished and shuttled off to the South American guano or nitrate runs or even more ignominiously, was set to freighting coal to the West Indies and Suez for the use of the grimy steamers that were driving the Clippers from the Seas.

Nevertheless, during her heyday, the Clipper was the fastest ship that ever sailed. She sometimes logged speeds as high as 19 to 21 knots.

The Fate of the Clippers of the Great Tea Race of 1866:

The “Erl King” (Auxiliary Steamship) which had taken the first tea cargo to London in 1866, although not participating in the Tea Clipper Race was lost off the coast of Florida on 16.12.1891.

The “Taeping” was wrecked in the China Sea in 1871 while on a passage to New York.

The “Ariel” disappeared on passage from London to Australia in 1872, (presumed to be swamped by a high following Sea).

The “Serica” was wrecked on the Paracels in 1872, on route from Hong Kong to Montevideo.

The “Fiery Cross” was lost at Sea in 1889 having carried her last Tea cargo in 1872.

The “Taitsing” was lost on the Quirimbas Islands in 1883, on route from Swansea to Zanzibar.
The Cutty Sark:

The Cutty Sark built in 1869, remains the sole physical reminder of the Tea Clipper Era that epitomised the Great Tea Race of 1866. 

By 1938, she was turned into an Auxiliary Cadet training ship alongside HMS Worcester. 

By 1954, she had ceased to be useful as a Cadet training ship and was transferred to permanent dry dock at Greenwich, London for public display.  

It is a poignant reminder of the era when the "Clipper ships" ruled the Seas!!

(We had gone to see the Cutty Sark during our trip to London in 2006, but missed seeing it as we could not find parking space for my cousin’s car and had to travel miles back to park it. By the time we returned the gates had closed).

The Commemorative Coins:

These coins have been minted by B.H.Mayer’s Kunstprageanatalt GmbH.
                     The Obverse of the 10 Dollars coin

The Obverse of the 10 dollars coin shows a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ian Rank Broadley (and not the latest one by Jody Clark) and has the peripheral inscription “ELIZABETH II – 10 DOLLARS – COOK ISLANDS”, with the year of issue mentioned as “2016” on the lower periphery.

Cook Islands:

The 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls of the Cook Islands are scattered over 770,000 square miles of the South Pacific, between American Samoa to the West and French Polynesia to the East.

 Cook Islands is a  former British Protectorate which became self-governing in 1965, the territory is now in free association with New Zealand.
 The Reverse of the 10 Dollars coin showing two Tea Clippers at full sail

The Reverse of the 10 dollars coin shows two Clippers sailing at full speed. The Peripheral inscriptions are “THE GREAT TEA RACE OF 1866” and “BE THE FIRST TO DOCK IN LONDON”. Also mentioned on this face is “150th ANNIVERSARY 2016”. 
 The coin’s motif was inspired by the painting by Jack Spurling shown above

                              The coin is minted in high relief

The specifications of the 10 Dollar coins are: Issuer: Cook Islands; Denomination: 10 Dollars; Metal Composition: Silver: .999; Weight: 2 oz; Diameter: 38.61 mm; Mintage: 999 pieces. Year: 2016; Coin Quality: Proof.
                    Obverse of the two Dollars coin

The coin is also available with a face value of 2 Dollars.
                                Reverse of the two dollars coin


  1. Maggie Ksing has commented:
    "Very interesting read, Rajeev ! Lucky to have seen the Cutty Sark at Greenwich !!!"

    1. We missed it, because we could not find parking for Rashmee's car & had to go back & park it at her place. By the time, we got back there was just enough time to see the GMT Dateline. She did keep insisting that we should see the "Clipper" too. Anyway, now that I researched for this post, wondering whether we should have seen the Cutty Sark as well !!

    2. Maggie Ksing has replied:
      "There's always next time !!!"

    3. Yes, Maggie. The bucket list is getting bigger & bigger.

  2. I wonder for these well researched blogs of yours. These are written so well, crisp & very gripping. Literary I participated on the wild race. Thank you to enrich us with wide coverage of knowledge through background of unknown history of various facets of our masters working behind the coins, currency,postage stamps. You have brought glory to these masters.

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderfully encouraging comment. It is great morale booster for me as well as motivation for me to keep going on and posting more and more articles of interest on coins/banknotes/stamps.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, Rahul.