Better English long read: The Great Tea Race

Better English long read: The Great Tea Race

Sailing ships raced from China to London, carrying the first tea of the season. It was an exciting time

The greatest sailing contest of all time started in southern China and ended with great drama in London, 150 years ago.

"It is probable that no race ever sailed on blue water created so much excitement as the great tea race of 1866," wrote the late martime [to do with the ocean] writer Basil Lubbock.

Capturing international media attention and thrilling the public, the race that year to deliver the first tea of the season, which began in Fuzhou on May 28, had all the danger, speed and speculative [people trying to guess the result] frenzy [craziness] of a top horse race.

Anyone with any knowledge of sailing had taken a bet on the race, wrote Lubbock, and that meant a lot of money changing hands in Hong Kong.


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The race pitted [put into competition] the fastest and most beautiful sailing ships ever built against one another as they vied to win the 10 shillings per tonne premium [bonus] offered by the city’s merchants [big-time traders] for the first Chinese tea of the season delivered to the London markets. Commanded [managed] and crewed by the most skilled professional seamen of the day, these graceful tea clippers [very fast sailing ships that could only carry a small cargo] raced some 16,000 nautical miles (29,632km) to the British capital for big cash prizes and a place in the history books.

Correspondents [journalists] sent by London and Hong Kong news­papers held their collective breath on May 24, 1866, while the crews of 16 clippers waited impatiently at the Pagoda anchorage [where the ships parked] on the Min River, some 15 nautical miles down­stream [down the river] from Fuzhou town, as their cargos of fresh tea arrived by sampan. The ships – with names such as Taeping, Chinaman, Black Prince and Fiery Cross – were listed in the shipping pages of the Hong Kong press, and the London tea markets anxiously [in a stressful way] awaited news by telegraph of the first vessel [vessel] to depart, [leave] laden with precious [worth a lot of money] Fujian tea.

The great tea race of 1866 had an attraction beyond nautical [to do with sailing] enthusiasts in what became known as "the golden age of sail”.


The glory the was sail


The best captains were household names [very well known] with a fame comparable [like] to that of today’s Formula One champi­ons, but without the pampered [easy] lifestyles. Born in 1826, on the remote [far away] island of Tiree, in northern Scotland, Captain Donald MacKinnon, of the Taeping, had the classic profile [background and experience] of a clipper captain. An old sea dog, [someone experienced at sailing] he had taken to the oceans at the age of 18 as an apprentice [someone who learns while working] in the barque [a sailing ship that has three sails] Glencairn and was awarded his master mariner’s certificate at the age of 23. His eldest son, William, was born at sea and MacKinnon missed the birth and death (at the age of seven weeks) of his second child, in June 1858, because he was on a voyage [trip].

In this oil painting by Jack Spurling, the Ariel leads the Taeping during the great tea race of 1866.

The best skippers [ships' captains] walked the fine line [took risks] between maximum speed and disaster.

In the 19th century, multiple race winner Richard "Dickie" Robinson, of the Fiery Cross, was said to be worth an extra half-knot [knot is a term for speed on the ocean. 1 knot = 1.852 km/h] in speed to any ship he captained. The clipper Robinson feared most in 1866 was the newly built Ariel, commanded by the experienced and respected John Melville Keay.

The Ariel attracted admir­ing glances [looks] from even her fiercest [strongest] rivals and Keay, a man not known for being light-hearted, was once inspired to write of his ship in surpris­ingly romantic terms: "Ariel was perfect beauty to every nau­ti­cal man who saw her; in symmetrical [both sides being the same] grace and propor­tion of hull spars, sails, rigging and finish, she satisfied the eye and put all in love with her."


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Her favoured status was reflected [shown] in the fact that shipping agents elected [chose] to load Ariel first and, in 1866, that meant that Keay, a veteran [someone who is experienced] of several [more than two] tea races himself, paced the deck  [walked around the ship impatiently] as his crew of 40 helped supervise the stowage [packing away] of 1.2 million pounds (560 tonnes) of tea contained in thousands of wooden chests.

First loaded, Ariel had the advantage of weighing anchor [leaving - literally pulling up the anchor] ahead of her rivals. She could also make use of one of the few steam tugs [a small, strong boat used to pull bigger boats out into deep water] available to assist with the tricky narrow exit of the river over a shallow sand bar and out into the South China Sea.

Fiery Cross was the best name for a vessel commanded by Robinson, who had a reputation [what people think about a person] for being both. The pug­na­cious [quick to fight] skipper was so incensed [angry] by Ariel’s early departure [leaving] that he ordered his ship to leave without the necessary docu­mentation [official papers], which the China Mail described as "Fiery Cross bolting [running like a horse that is out of control] without her papers and even without signing the bills of lading".

David Michael Hartigan Little's picture shows the Taitsing.

"By this manoeuvre [move] she got twelve hours start of the fleet from Pagoda anchorage and drove the captain of the Serica into a state bordering on insanity [the captain of another ship, the Serica, was very angry]," the report continued.

George Innes, the captain of Serica (Latin for "Chinese" and "silk"), was a previous [before this one] race winner and another rugged [tough] Scottish seaman with a reputation as a hard-drinking maverick [rebel].

Innes might have been furious [angry] but Robinson was reward­ed for his impetuosity [risk taking] when he rounded the bend [came around the corner] of the river and saw, to his unexpected delight [happiness], the Ariel still at anchor, delayed by a series of complications [one problem after another] with its tug. With a shallower draft [less of the ship under the ocean surface] Fiery Cross was able to overhaul [overtake] her [the Ariel - ships are talked of as if they are women] and sail over the sand bar, its crew taunting [teasing/bullying] their rivals with an ironic [something which is opposite to what is expected is called ironic] three cheers. Many of the crews bet heavily against each other, according to news reports from the time, so there was little room for [very little] sympathy [understanding when someone feels bad].

A picture by Allan Green shows the Taeping in full sail.

Having overcome difficulties with the tug, Ariel set sail [left] 12 hours later, followed closely by Taeping, Serica and, a few days later, Taitsing, under a Captain Nutsford.

The race to London was on [was happening].

For weeks at a time, the sailors endured [suffered] conditions rang­ing from freezing cold to searing heat, while waves constantly slam the boat. All the while, they are under relentless pres­sure [stress that never eases] to perform at their peak [do the best they can] and gain fractional [tiny] advantages that can, in the end, mean the difference between winning and losing, 

The three-masted clippers, each about 200-feet long, were racing at 14 knots under full sail – some 25,000 square feet of sailcloth – and made a majestic spectacle [awesome sight].

For Keay, MacKinnon, Robinson and Innes, speed was not just a sporting matter [something not taken too seriuosly]. Each ship was packed with about a million pounds of tea and that year, market prices were £7 per tonne for early arrivals, with a multitude of  [many] bonuses and wagers [bets] to incentivise [encourage by way of reward] the winning crew on top of the 10 shil­lings per ton premium for the first ship that docked. Tea was serious business and, in 1866, China was still the only viable [workable] commer­cial [to do this trading on a large scale] source [place of origin].

Tea had traditionally been shipped [sent] overland to Canton (Guangzhou) for shipment to the West, often through Hong Kong. It was the tea clippers, originally introduced by American shipbuilders in the 1830s, that opened up inter­national trade direct from Fujianese ports such as Fuzhou.

The British government repealed [reversed] the Navigation Laws in 1849, exposing the tea trade to foreign competition, and the rule of Britannia [Britain's empire] was shaken to its core [surprised and upset] when the American clipper Oriental arrived in London on December 3, 1850. Laden [carrying a lot of] with tea, it had completed the voyage from Hong Kong in a record-breaking 97 days. It was a profound [big/important] embarrassment for the British mercantile [to do with trading] establishment, which set about [started] designing some of the fastest and most stylish sailing ships ever built. They were to become icons [symbol worth respecting] of the empire’s maritime prowess [greatness].

"The appeal of the clippers is really quite simple – they were the most beautiful ships ever built," says maritime curator [someone who collects things to show to other people] and author Dr Eric Kentley, one of the key figures [important peron] behind the exhibition of the Cutty Sark [a famous tea clipper], in Greenwich, London. That ship made eight voyages carrying tea from China to London, between 1870 and 1877, the first four loaded in Shanghai, the next four in Hankou, which required a 600-mile tow up the Yangtze River.

Jack Spurling's painting of the Titania shows how much awe these ships inspired.

The captains of the five ships that led the 1866 race rarely [not often] left the deck as they tried every trick in the book [all sorts of ways] to steal an advantage.

It was very tough, cramped and constantly [always] damp, noisy and smelly. The sailors survived [lived] on four hours or less sleep at a time ... The boats are constantly tilting and even the most hardened [toughest] sailors are known to suffer seasickness [a sickness in which they vomit a lot, caused by the movement of the ship]. It was certainly not for the faint-hearted [people who are not brave].

The 19th-century seamen had to endure all of this without the benefit of GPS, radar, satellite phones, modern navigation aids, or any prospect [chance] of a helicopter rescue in the event of disaster, so acute [sharp] concentration was required at all times.

“The navigation [ability to find their way] too was tricky and strewn  with faultily charted [maps which are wrong] reefs,” writes Lubbock, and throughout the month of June, Robinson fumed [was so angry he had smoke coming out of his ears] and cursed his crew as he main­tained Fiery Cross' lead over Ariel. Taeping and Serica were in hot pursuit [closely chasing] and Taitsing was making up ground. [getting closer to the leader] By July 19, the leading ships were line abreast [level] but out of sight of each other and by late July, Taeping had overtaken Fiery Cross. The highly fancied [the boat betting people liked the most] Ariel had dropped to fourth as they passed St Helena, in the South Atlantic, on July 27.

"The times are truly astonishing in their closeness," writes Lubbock, but they were to get tighter still.

The Fiery Cross.

The lead [the ship in front of the race] changed several times during August as the ships raced north from the equator and, as day broke on September 6 and Ariel, the leading ship, entered the English Channel, 99 days after departing Fuzhou, Keay spotted sails close to on his starboard quarter [righthand side at the back end of the ship].

"Instinct told me it was Taeping," Keay later wrote in a letter to Lubbock, and so it proved to be; MacKinnon had made up ground [closed the gap] overnight. The crews of the two ships had not seen one another since the Min River; now they raced under every scrap of sail they could muster [gather], neck and neck [racing closely together] up the English Channel in a stiff [hard] south-westerly wind, each packed with a million pounds of fine Fujianese tea.

Ariel was first to pick up a pilot [someone who knows the way and can sail the ship safely into port] at Dungeness, in southern Kent. He saluted Keay as captain of the first China ship of the season, but the race was not yet over.

The Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London was one of the fastest clippers in the world.

With pilots on-board both ships, Taeping continued to eat into Ariel's lead, securing [getting] a superior [better] tug on the River Thames. Despite this, it was Ariel that arrived at her destination [the place they were travelling to] first, but she could not pass through the gates of the East India Docks due to her deep draft [there was too much ship underwater to sail into the docks - the water was not deep enough]. Consequently [as a result], Taeping, which had further to run to London Docks, was able to berth [park, used for a ship only] 20 minutes before her rival, at 9.47pm on September 6.

"Such a close and exciting finish has never been seen before in an ocean race and the interest it aroused caused newspapers to vie with each other in publishing sensational accounts," writes Lubbock. The China Mail ran a long report on "the exciting struggle of the sea".

"The excitement at Lloyds [a famous shipping company] has been immense [great/big] and the betting ran very high," the newspaper reported, confirming Taeping as the winner, although the agents and owners of the two front runners had already agreed to share the 10 shilling per tonne premium (which was discontinued after 1866), because of the uniquely [one of a kind] tight finish.

Almost as astonishing was the arrival of Serica in third place not two hours later, at 11.30pm, and Robinson followed in Fiery Cross the next evening, inconsolable [very upset] at the disgrace of fourth place.

The race was the apotheosis [best thing ever] of ocean sailing, undertaken by ships that captured the public imagination in a uniquely profound way.

“My own theory is that it is not only the beauty of the clipper that appeals, but also its simplicity,” says Kentley.

Keay made headlines again the following October, when he sailed Ariel from London to Hong Kong, against the pre­vailing [existing at that time] northeast monsoon, in a record-breaking 83 days. Robinson recovered from his disappointment and was offered command of the smart new clipper Sir Lancelot. He continued to race.


What were these ships and why was it important to get to London so fast?


MacKinnon, who had gallantly [restpectfully] shared his £100 win bonus with Keay, was less lucky. A few weeks after arriving in London, his brother, also a clipper captain, was lost at sea [died while on a ship that was sailing] when the Ellen Rodger was shipwrecked. By October 11, he was at sea again with Taeping, bound for Shanghai, when he was taken ill near the southern African coast and died on a mail ship trying to return to his family. He was 40 years old and is buried in Cape Town.

The glory days of sail were ephemeral [lasting just a short time]. Just three years after the greatest tea race, the Suez Canal opened, shortening the route from China by 4,800km. Steamships could now reach London in 60 days and sailing ships were gradually [slowly] forced out of the tea trade.

It was the end of an era.

Adapted from Stuart Heaver’s piece in Sunday Morning Post Magazine.

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