1866 Tea Race

In 1866 four clippers set off from China with cargoes of tea and the race was on to get to London first. The spanking new clipper, the Ariel, was loaded with 560 tonnes of tea, the first and second pickings, packed in 12000 tea chests – mooted to be the best! Lighters had brought the cargo to where the Ariel was anchored. On the 28th May, Ariel weighed anchor at 1700hrs – the first off the mark. She was a beauty amongst beauties, as all clippers were. Ariel was the fasted ship of her time and with 26 000 sq. Feet of sails, she could outrun the steamers and could reach 16 knots.

Unfortunately for the Ariel, the tugs were not up to the task of getting her over the sand bar at the mouth of the Min River, so she had to anchor and wait for the tides to change. The other three vessels had time to catch up, and the Fiery Cross was the first to set off for the China Sea. The Ariel was still trying to get over the sand bar when the other two clippers, the Serica and the Taeping caught up and they all crossed the bar and set off for the China Sea.

For 175 years, the English East India Company was the only company allowed to trade with China, and, because of the monopoly, there was no real urgency to get the tea back to England. The English laws forbade any non-British ships from bringing cargoes into England, and in 1884 this law was lifted, and the market was opened to all and sundry. The Americans were building vessels superior to the British ships, and the rivalry was on! The only cargo that was in demand from the Chinese was opium, and the clippers were ideal for running these cargos in which was against the law in China.

The Fiery Cross, which had won the race four times out of five, was Ariel’s main opposition. The skipper of the Fiery Cross, looking for any advantage, set sail from China without signing any papers or the bill of lading, which gave him a considerable start and she left the China Sea 20 days later. Tapping and Ariel were now two days behind, and Serica was three. Passing the Cape of Good Hope, the gap had narrowed, and by St Helena, the Taeping had given the Fiery Cross and now led by a day, and Ariel and Serica were another days further back. By the Azores, all ships were neck and neck. By 97 days at sea, Ariel reached the destination first with Taeping ten minutes behind. Serica took third place, and Fiery Cross came in 36 hours later to the captain’s embarrassment.