China tea clippers

George F. Campbell

The background to the tea trade

The best of Queens and best of herbs we owe
To that bold nation which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun does rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muses' friend, Tea, does our fancy aid;
Repress those vapours which the head invade;
And keeps that palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen

Thus wrote the poet Waller on the occasion of a birthday to Catherine, the wife of Charles II, the 'bold nation' being the Dutch. Catherine (of Braganza) had brought the habit of tea drinking with her from Portugal and had popularized it at Court, the Portuguese having acquired the taste through their depot at Macao, established in 1557. Tea was something of a curiosity with supposed medicinal powers, and was extremely expensive.

The Dutch East India Company shipped it first to Holland via Java, and it was then transhipped to London, the first merchant selling it there in 1657. When the London East India Company wished to make a present of it to Charles II in 1664, they were able to procure only 2lbs 2 oz, for which they had to pay eighty-five shillings. Prices at this period reached to one hundred and one hundred and twenty shillings a pound.

The London East India Company, also known as the Honourable Company or John Company, decided to purchase direct from China themselves, and in 1689 made their first shipment from Amoy. The export trade from England was chiefly in lead, tin and wool, to China via India, where opium was also added to the cargo. The Company, by virtue of Cromwell's Navigation Act of 1651, had a monopoly of the Indian Trade, as the Act forbade the import of goods to Britain from Asia, Africa or America except by ships belonging to any of these countries or to Britain. As there were no Asiatic ships capable of the long voyage, it left the Company with the only ships engaged in the ever-increasing tea trade, much to the annoyance of other British traders who continually tried to break the monopoly, meanwhile indulging in smuggling with the use of foreign owned vessels. However the lack of legal competition did not inspire the Honourable Company to improve the performance of their vessels, and voyages were tedious and hazardous, taking as much as eighteen months or more each way, carried out in a leisurely fashion with the ritual of lowering topgallant masts at night or whenever a squall threatened, and calls were made at intermediate ports for Company personnel or troops to be exchanged.

They often carried a spare set of topgallant masts of shorter height which they interchanged according to the prevailing weather . The precious tea cargo was frequently damaged and seldom fresh.