Continued from The Great Tea Race – Part 3

On 17 August, Fiery Cross saw Taeping pick up the breeze and run out of sight ahead in a few hours. Nonetheless, the first four ships passed Flores in the Azores on the same day, 29 August, while by brilliant sailing the Taitsing had made up lost time and passed on 1 September. At 1:30 A.M., 5 September, Ariel the leading ship, picked up the St Agnes lights (off Cornwall’s Land’s End, the mouth of the English Channel). In the skipper’s private log, the next entry reads: “A ship, since daylight, has been in company on starboard quarter – Taeping, probably.” After racing up the Channel neck and neck at fourteen knots, the Ariel’s Captain noted at 5:55 A.M. 6 September: “Rounded to close to pilot cutter and got first pilot. Were saluted as first ship from China this season. I replied, ‘Yes, and what is that to the westward? We have not room to boast yet.’ ” Ariel cleared the Strait of Dover ten minutes ahead of Taeping that day, Serica four hours later.

One may imagine the excitement, both aboard the two ships and ashore, where the news that two tea ships were racing up Channel spread like wildfire. From each headland the report of their positions was rushed to the nearest post office and, though they had not our facilities in those days, the owners of both ships and their agents in London soon learned the two vessels were neck and neck. The race was not finished until the sample boxes of tea were hurled ashore in the London Docks; but, so scared were the owners of Ariel and Taeping of losing the the extra ten shillings per ton on a quibble as to which ship really won that they agreed privately to divide the premium.

. . . The Captains knew nothing of this arrangement (of course) and the excitement aboard both ships was still at fever heat. The air all around the Ariel must have been blue when Taeping’s tug proved to be much better and soon towed her past. The yarn also goes that half a dozen burly seamen headed by Ariel’s bos’n, offered to board the tug by way of the tow rope in order to supplement the stokers and sit on the safety valve. However, there was no help for it . . .

Ariel did reach her dock first, having a shorter distance to go, but because of the tide could not enter it until exactly twenty minutes after Taeping had managed to dock and, technically speaking, win the race, ninety-nine days after it began. Lubbock concludes his account: “Serica managed to haul inside the West India Dock at 11:30 P.M. . . This Ariel, Taeping, and Serica, after crossing the bar of the Min River on the same tide, all docked in the Thames on the same tide.”

The 1867 race was won by a newer ship, Sir Lancelot, in a ninety-nine day run from Shanghai, with Ariel arriving from Fuzhou second. Ariel lost by six hours in 1868. In 1869, Sir Lancelot beat five competitors in an incredible eighty-nine day run, a record that still stands today. But the truth dawned that, in a close race, the winner was the clipper that got the first good steam tug, a clear portent steam must soon replace sails even on the high seas. On his way to locate Dr. Livingston in Africa in 1869, the journalist Henry Stanley stopped off to cover the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi’s “Egyptian” opera Aida had been commissioned for the occasion and all the speechmakers agreed it opened a new era in world commerce. And so it was to be: China’s tea crop of 1870 was mainly carried in awkwardly adolescent steamships and 1871 marked the last of the tea clipper races. But by this time the cultivation of tea in India had already doomed the ancient Chinese tea trade to eventual insignificance.