Before Darjeeling flushes, there were China rushes

In the 19th century, fast freight ships known as tea clippers vied with each other to deliver the first spring tea harvest from China to England.

Whilst working on a project requiring research into the history of tea clippers. I realised the ease which we can buy advertised Darjeeling first flush (first plucking harvest), second flush and so on, compared with the arduous journey that tea clippers raced to bring the first tea in season from China to England in the 19th century. A single trip of roughly 16,000 miles.

The Great Tea Race 1866
The last of these journeys is known as the Great Tea Race of 1866. The epic voyage began in Fuzhou, China, sailing into the South China Sea, rounded the southern tip of Africa and into the English Channels. It stirred fervor beyond nautical enthusiasts and the parties involved. The race was closely followed with updates and position of the ships reported daily from China to London, and all British ports in between. Bets were placed by owners, shippers, captains and crews of the vessels involved.

The prize was attractive as well. The captain of the first ship to arrive in London would receive £100 and each of the officers and crew on board would receive an extra month’s wages. As extra incentive, the owners were offering ten shillings per ton to the ship that arrived first.

The design of a tea clipper
Tea clippers were built for speed, those that could achieve fast passage (18 knots or 33km/h) usually commanded a higher freight cost. They had a sharp, taper silhouette with three masts and carried the maximum spread of sail, which could be deployed day or night, come fair or foul weather. The golden era of tea clippers was during the 19th century when tea was a precious commodity and demand was high. Fresh tea could command a premium of 10%. A clipper ship that costs £12,000 to £15,000 to build could carry a cargo worth almost £3K in one trip.

The last surviving intact tea clipper – Cutty Sark, is moored in Greenwich, London, as one of the attractions of Royal Museums Greenwich which one can visit.

cutty sark, great tea race 1866, tea clipper
Image of last tea clipper, Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London, by Krzysztof Belczyński from Warsaw, Poland

The contenders
There were 19 ‘contestants’ for the race that started from May 29 to June 6, 1866, but only 5 contenders. The rest were underdogs. They were Ariel, Serica, Taeping, Taitsing and Fiery Cross. Each ship could be loaded with more than 10,000 tea chests in two or three days. Bamboo matting covered with canvas ensure the precious tea was kept dry if water seeped through from the main deck.

great tea race 1866, tea clippers

The race is akin to our modern Formula One race. Speed is important but not everything. Similar to an F1 race, individual race tracks, number of turns and your adversaries are important factors. Therefore, tactics, strategy and efficient management are the utmost consideration. The schedule of the race coincided with the Southwest Monsoon in the South China Sea, coupled with unpredictable weather and treacherous water along the journey made strategic planning imperative. At the start point, over five million pounds of tea were loaded across all the ships which could take days. Therefore, getting pole position was a tactical advantage that needed to be gainfully managed. All five ships managed to set off at roughly the same time and by 30th May, all ships had made it to sea.

By August at the South Atlantic, four ships are still in running; Ariel, Taeping, Fiery Cross and Serica. Taitsang had fallen too far behind around the bend at the Equator.

On September 5th, Taeping and Ariel were both spotted at the southernmost point of England. Both ships raced to the finish line bow to bow. At 945pm on September 6th, Taeping was the first to reach Old London Docks, and Ariel arrived 38 minutes later. However, the difference in arrival time was so small in terms of nautical navigation that the owners of both ships decided to split the prize evenly.

great tea race 1866, tea clippers

This was not only the greatest tea race but an exclamation point in the history of sailing ships. However three years later, the Suez Canal opened, shortening the route to China by 3000 miles. The advent of steamships also meant the journey to reach London takes 60 days, and sailing ships were gradually phased out of the tea trade.

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.