The ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet.
-Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924), The Nigger of Narcissus
The 1840s saw the beginning of the last and most exciting chapter in the history of the China tea trade. The Rainbow, the first “extreme” clipper ship, was launched in New York in 1845. Her maiden voyage was to China and she made the round trip in under eight months, paying back her cost of forty-five thousand dollars and an equal amount of profit. Her second round trip was faster than any other ship could sail one way – ninety-two days out and back in eighty-eight.
Almost from the beginning, Americans had realized the value of trade with China and, despite the limited American market for tea, our first three millionaires, T.H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, and New York’s John Jacob Astor, made their fortunes while in the China trade. The ships they used had evolved from the swift privateers that were built, with a certain indebtedness to the design of British smugglers, for the War of 1812. As the China opium/tea trade increased, American merchants soon bought out a whole fleet of clippers which were running between China and the U.S. for seven years before the first bona fide British clipper appeared in the China seas. The day of the sluggish old East Indiamen had ended when the Honorable East India Company finally lost its monopoly on British trade with China after 234 years. Next England’s Navigation Laws, passed so long before against Dutch shipping, were also repealed and ships of every nationality were allowed to carry cargoes to England. John Company held onto India until 1857 but other men and other firms had already replaced her stately “tea waggons” with clipper ships, which were faster because they were much slimmer and carried acres more sail. What had seemed impossible before, they accomplished, voyaging quickly enough from China to England or America not to have to put in anywhere en route for stores or water.
Article originally posted in January 2008