China tea clippers

George F. Campbell

Treaty of Nanking

The journey was fruitless. Again in 1816 an attempt was made by Lord Amherst aboard a 46-gun naval frigate HMS Alceste accompanied by a naval brig, the Lyra, and an East Indiaman, the General Hewitt, which was also loaded with presents. Both of these expeditions failed by reason of what we would call in today's jargon a lack of communication, although both sides presented documents couched in the most distinguished language. The Alceste was wrecked on passage homewards off the coast of Sumatra and the Ambassador and his companions experienced many perils before reaching home.

Meanwhile the opium trade was irritating the Emperor and his officials such that they rigorously enforced their laws suddenly and inconveniently in 1839. The Emperor's Commissioner, Lin Tse Hsli, was a capable, intelligent man ofhigh morals, respected by his British enemies.

He was determined to eradicate the opium trade, confiscating and burning large quantities of opium; and in his eloquent letter to Queen Victoria he set forth the severest penalties for future offenders, with ample warnings, and requested Her Majesty's help in avoiding this necessity. Nevertheless a series of incidents resulted in war from 1840 to 1842, ending with the Treaty of Nanking, whereby Hong Kong was given to Britain and five Treaty Ports, Canton, Alloy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai, were opened to Britain for free trade without the necessity of dealing through the officially licensed Hong merchants. Lin was banished in disgrace, although he was partially reinstated later, and had the unusual honour of having his effigy installed at Madame Tussaud's in London. New supplies of tea were now available to British traders, and two years later, the United States and France also contracted similar trading agreements.

In New York shipbuilders were making great strides in developing faster ships by departing from traditional theories, and their China trade was becoming increasingly profitable, the lighter cargoes enabling them to create finer lines. The Rainbow of 1845, built in New York , or possibly the Houqua of 1844, also from New York, may be said to have initiated the China clipper era.

Boston was not slow in following, the celebrated Donald McKay producing some of the finest clippers ever built. These vessels, apart from the lucrative China tea trade, were also showing their paces on the transatlantic passenger run, and from the East Coast of America round the Horn to San Francisco and across to Japan and China. The Gold Rush of 1848-9 also created an urgent demand for fast passages to California. The clippers on all of these routes were designed basically for passengers and light general cargoes, where speed of delivery was important. Prior to this era bulk cargoes as large in quantity as possible, with speed as a secondary consideration, were the chief desideratum.

Britain was also developing faster ships, but in isolated instances at first, until the Navigation Act was repealed in 1849, throwing British ports open to foreigners trading from the Far East