The History Behind the Tea and Opium Clipper Ships of the 1800s

Clipper ships were very fast sailing vessels made in the 19th century, with most
made in American and British shipyards, although a few were also produced in
France and the Netherlands.  Clipper ships had three or more masts and a
square rig, generally narrow in length and were designed to carry limited bulk
freight.  They were called clippers because their bows were wide and raked for-
ward, allowing them to “clip” lightly over the waves.
These fast sailing ships were built mainly to deliver
shipments of tea, silks, and porcelain from China as
fast as possible, and for awhile the three masted
fully rigged ships were king of the sea.
In 1834 when the Crown broke the trade monopoly
of the powerful English East India Company (also
called the John Company), it opened up the tea
trade to other Englishmen and independent entre-
preneurs, starting a
frenzied race to China
to buy up as much tea
as possible for as little
as possible, and sell it
at premium prices.

Then in 1849 England

repealed the Navigations Acts which opened the way for anyone, non-English included to bring
goods into a British port.
This surge of independent trade set the demand for faster ships that
could carry the cargo back and forth across the seas as fast as possible,
bringing American shipbuilders racing into the game, competing fiercely in
this new “Age of Sail.”

The earliest ships to be called “clippers” were likely the Baltimore clippers,
which were topsail schooners developed in Chesapeake Bay.  Built for
speed rather than cargo space, they reached their heyday between 1795
and 1815.  These fast ships remained in demand, however.

Because speed was needed for the Chinese opium trade between
England, India, and China, the Baltimore clippers were still being built to run opium between
India and China.  Eventually the opium trade
became unprofitable for American shipbuild-
ers in 1849 and they dropped out.

At the same time British shipbuilders were
still crafting the sleek, fast opium clippers,
an early example of which is the

Transit of
, which was followed in production by
many more ships of its kind.
Back in America the first attempt at building
a larger, fast vessel was the

Ann McKim, built
along the lines of an enlarged Baltimore clipp-
er in 1833 in Baltimore, by Kennard and
Williamson.  The design of the 
Ann McKim
later influenced the building in 1845 of the
Rainbow, the first “extreme clipper” ship.
At around the same time period in the late 1830s in
Aberdeen, Scotland, shipbuilders Alexander Hall and
Sons developed the “Aberdeen” clipper, the first of
which was the

Scottish Maid, launched in 1839, at
150 tons OM, this was the first British clipper ship, in-
tended for the Aberdeen-London trade where speed was needed to compete with steamships.
The design of the

Scottish Maid was influenced by tonnage regu-
lations which measured a ship’s cargo capacity to determine
taxes and harbor dues.  In 1836 new regulations measured
depth and breadth with length measured at half midship depth,
with extra length above this level tax free and becoming a
feature of clippers.
Beginning in 1839 larger American clipper ships were built mainly for
use in the China tea trade and known as “tea clippers,” such as the
581 tons OM

Houqua, built in 1844.  Other smaller clipper vessels
were built mainly for the China opium trade and known as “opium
clippers,” such as the 100 tons OM, 
Ariel, built in 1842.
In 1845 the first extreme clipper was launched in New York, the 757
tons OM,

Rainbow.  These larger ships were designed to sacrifice car-
go room for speed.  The extreme clippers were built from 1845 to
1855, replaced in 1854 by the medium clipper.
In 1851 and earlier the medium clipper was being built in American shipyards.  Medium clippers
were still very fast but had a larger cargo capacity than the extreme clippers.

By 1859 clipper ships were still being built by the British.  Also known as
extreme clippers they were considered to be “as sharp as the American”
built ships.  Though, in 1859 a new design was developed for British
clipper ships, totally unlike any American clipper.  Still called extreme
clippers they were built for the China tea trade beginning with the

with the last ships built in 1870.
The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 brought competition from team
ships and ended the tea trade for clippers.  From 1870 the clipper ships
were mainly used to ferry immigrants between England, Australia, and
New Zealand, a trade begun with the Australia Gold Rush in the 1850s.  British clipper ships and
many American built clippers, sold to the British, were still being used in the 1880s to carry
cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand.

Even this trade became unprofitable and eventually the aging clipper fleet fell to the hands of
time, becoming non-seaworthy, and bowed gracefully to the new technology that replaced it.