Between May 29 and June 6, 1866, the five best sailing ships of the time embarked on an epic adventure and made their way across 15,800 miles for a prize. A premium price for delivering the first tea of the season to London.
It has always been about the very first tea of the season and so it was, 151 years ago. When five clippers — as the specially built tea-ferrying ships were called — raced their way to be the first to arrive in the London Docks and secure the highest price from buyers. It was a time when the tea companies were willing to pay that extra bit for the tag of being the freshest tea in from China in the United Kingdom.
And so, the stage was set for the five contenders — Ariel, Serica, Taeping, Taitsang and Fiery Cross for an epic adventure spanning almost 16,000 nautical miles through typhoons and unpredictable currents for an opportunity to be remembered as ‘the fastest cargo ship in the seas in the 19th century’.
The Foochow Arsenal under construction, between 1867 and 1871
Each year the clippers raced each other to get into London first but what made 1866 stand out was the presence of five finest clippers — all at Foochow port in China ready to ferry the tea to London docks. It was never a formal race but the Great Tea Race of 1866 captivated the attention of the world, all the way to its nail biting finish.
“It is probable that no race ever sailed on blue water created so much excitement as the great tea race of 1866,” the late maritime writer Basil Lubbock had remarked, adding, “Every man with a nautical cut to his jib had a bet upon the result, whilst the rival owners, agents and shippers wagered huge sums.”
An artist’s capture of tea clippers sitting idle at Pagoda Anchorage at FooChow
It was no matter of surprise then, that a total of 19 clippers stood ready at Pagoda Anchorage in the Min River at FooChow. Nine of these sailing ships truly had a chance to compete. Only five were to be remembered by history.
Such tea races were quite common but what made the Great Tea Race of 1866 stand out was the fact that the age of using sailing ships to ferry cargo across the seas was coming to an end.
The Great Tea Race was a glamorous farewell to the era.
Motor ships were taking their place. In fact, while the Great Tea Race was on, a steamer ship named SS Erl King set sail with a cargo of tea along with passenger, 8 days after the sailing ships. The Erl King arrived in London 15 days before any of the sailing ships.
An analytical diagram of the Ariel
The Ariel got the entire cargo in a record four days and triggered the first step into the race. The other ships, mainly the Fiery Cross was so worked up that they left the port practically the very minute they had completed docking it with cargo. The Captain is said not to have waited to complete the necessary paperwork. The race was on!
The excitement around the race grew to a crescendo as the ship sailed away into the Minn river to make their exit into the China Sea.
Serica weighing 708 tons with Capt. George Innes at the helm
Taeping weighing 767 tons, the one-year-old ship had Capt. Donald McKinnon leading the way
At 815 tons, with Capt. Daniel Nutsford at the helm, Taitsang seemed a good competitor
Fiery Cross weighing 888 tons had Capt. Richard Robinson at the helm
But Ariel, a beauty weighing 853 tons and led by Captain John Keay was the favourite
The last of the ships left FooChow by June 6 to embark on a journey that would take them across the Indian Ocean, but the adventure turned into a challenge even before the ships got to the sea. The sandbanks at the mouth of the river opening to the sea, proved to be the first hurdle the ships faced.
Although Ariel had gotten out of the dock before the others, she was docked at the sandbar and had to join the rest of the ships to wait for the tide to turn. The Fiery Cross, however, was able to manoeuvre its way and get into open sea before any of the others.
But that was all that beginner’s luck had in store for Fiery Cross. It was just a matter of time before the five ships were neck-to-neck at sea.
An artist’s sketch of the Ariel and Taeping during the Great Tea Race of 1866
British newspapers carried almost daily reports on the ongoing race with each ship staying neck-to-neck. The weather shift and change of winds as the ships navigated their way though the Indian ocean. By the time the ships weathered past typhoons and overcrowded docks and arrived at St Helena in the Southern Atlantic, Taeping seemed to be going strong and a clear leader in the race. Even then, four ships — Ariel, Taeping, Fiery Cross and Serica were within a day’s sail from each other. Taitsang had fallen too far behind around the bend at the Equator.
A major moment in the race took place when all four ships practically sailed across the Azuros on August 29 next to one another!
Finally after 97 days at sea, with every inch of sail drawn out to maximize speed, Ariel was the first to spot the Bishop’s light, off the Cornish coast, on September 5. They had arrived at the English Channel, the last leg of the race! Even as Ariel raced on at full sail at a consistent 14 knots per hour, Taeping that had seemed to maintain a steady pace was now closing in on her.
Owing to narrowing down of the channel, Fiery Cross and Serica were forced to fall behind the Taeping and the Ariel.
The route taken by the ships during the Great Tea Race in 1866
It was 3 in the morning of September 6 when Ariel sent out its first signal for a pilot boat to come get her to the London docks. Within two hours, the Taeping was next to her, signalling for its pilot boat. Despite their hurry, the pilot boats only arrived to get them out only at 6 in the morning. Ariel received its pilot boat just 15 minutes before the Taeping, and by the time the pilot boats set off, the ships were just 10 minutes off each other. Both ships needed tugboats at Deal Harbour to get them into River Thames and that is when luck threw down its final card.
Both the ships got their tugboats at the same time but the tugboat for Taeping was the better one. Ariel made its way to the East India dock while Taeping sailed into the London docks. The race was still not done. Both ships now had to wait for a favourable tide to dock and the premium was to be given to the first ship to dock at London with the season’s tea from China!
Taeping’s shallow shaft helped it to get through the tide, a whole 28 minutes before Ariel. At 9.48 pm on September 6, Taeping became the first sailing ship to arrive at London with the season’s tea.
Despite winning the race, Taeping split its win with Ariel as it had docked 10 minutes earlier at Deal Harbour
And that was the last great tea race of sailing ships that the world saw. By 1871, steamships had taken over the trade and proved to be a much faster mode of ferrying tea. And yet, 1872 saw the last tea race between Thermopolis and the iconic Cutty Sark.
- With inputs from Smithsonian Magazine and Futility Closet
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