Clipper ships took their name from the way in which they seemed to clip the waves as they made rapid progress from port to port. They probably evolved from vessels of a type originally built in Bermuda and in the early C19th those built in the United States gave good service in the War of 1812, operating as privateers and avoiding the British blockade. These innovative ships, Baltimore clippers as they were called, were flush decked, long and low with knife-sharp lines. They were put to other uses when peace returned, some ran opium and others were employed in evading the anti-slavery patrols off the west coast of Africa. It would have been impossible for the Saracen, when deployed on that duty, to have caught a slave clipper if that ship was properly handled.

In their time the Baltimore clippers were the last word in sailing ship technology, but a sudden demand for the fastest possible long-distance transport, coupled with political changes, prompted the production of larger and even faster vessels. The opening of Chinese ports in the 1840s was crucial to stimulating Sino-American trade, but so was the discovery of gold. Before the opening of the trans-continental railroad travelling overland between the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards of the United States was time consuming and could be dangerous so when gold was discovered in California in 1848 there was soon a demand for fast ships that could negotiate the Cape Horn route. The Australian gold rush, which started three years later, had a similar impact but so did the free trade impetus in Britain. Prior to 1849 the Navigation Acts meant that goods being shipped to a British port had to be carried in either a British ship or a ship registered in the country from where the goods originated. To a certain extent this restriction of competition led to British shipbuilding lagging behind that of the US and although some British shipyards did construct clippers they could not, at first, match those of the Americans.  

The 1850s became the premier decade of clipper building when over 400 were launched. The very fastest of these elegant vessels were called ‘extreme’ clippers, but only 35 could claim that description. Still, even those that could not be called ‘extreme’ were a wonderful sight under sail. Crowds came out to see them and some of the clipper captains, such as the American Nat Palmer, became the celebrities of the day. These were tough, experienced men with great physical stamina who needed almost a sixth sense about the wind and currents. When one brought his ship to berth in record time he could count on wide acclaim and would certainly be in demand by society hostesses. For this reason he was expected to be a man of good manners and style too.

The American clippers seemed to make a huge impact wherever they went. When the James Baines arrived at Liverpool one commentator said;  ‘On all hands she has been praised as the most perfect sailing ship that ever entered the River Mersey’. On the other side of the world ‘anything more beautiful than her form is difficult to imagine’ was a sentiment expressed about the Samuel Russel when at berth in Wampoa, the ‘tea port’ close to Hong Kong. But admiration of the beauty of these two ships and others like them, the Oriental, for example, could not displace a certain anxiety amongst British tea merchants or the captains and owners of slower British vessels with which they were in competition. They had good reason to worry as the tale of the Oriental had shown.

In middle of 1850 it was announced that the Oriental was going to sail from Wampoa to London and the clipper was immediately able to command cargo rates 25% higher than those currently being offered to British vessels. Speed and prestige had impacted on the market and it was, perhaps, natural that some British merchants felt a sense of chagrin and sought out a vessel that might race the Oriental with the possibility of winning. The Astarte, built in England, looked promising. She had been sent to China to enter the opium trade but instead loaded tea and was not far behind when the one-year-old American clipper slipped away on August 28th. Battling against an adverse monsoon the Oriental reached Anjer in three weeks and then set out for London. There would be no ports-of-call, no dropping anchor in sight of Table Mountain or at Funchal either, she was a London express and arrived on December 3rd. The Oriental was the winner of what is regarded as the first international tea race and those who had wagered on the Astarte lost their money.

The arrival of the Oriental caused a sensation in London and when she was moored at West India Docks, less than a mile from the entrance to the Regents Canal, crowds came to visit. Many must have seen the Keying two years previously and have been astounded at how different the two ships were. Even in those days of sail an ordinary landlubber probably couldn’t tell a royal studding sail from a topgallant, but what did it matter? The sleek hull of the Oriental gave assurance that every of breath of wind captured by her plentiful sails would be converted into speed. No sooty deposits or coal dust marked her scrubbed, clear pine decks or her burnished brasswork, but she could have easily outrun any steamer of the time on a China to England race anyway. In a sense the Oriental was a statement of American power and pride, a sparkling reminder that Britain’s position in the maritime world was by no means assured. Despite being a merchant ship the Admiralty took a keen interest in the Oriental, sending surveyors to take careful notes of her lines. Meanwhile, many of those involved in the shipping industry began to look closely at how they could meet this transatlantic competition. This, after all, was a disconcerting consequence of free trade.

Although one British clipper, the Aberdeen built John Bunyan, had recently made a very fast passage from Shanghai to London this was with the benefit of advantageous monsoon winds and could not detract from the achievement of Captain Theodore Palmer, the younger brother of Nat Palmer. However, it transpired that the record breaking run of the Oriental did, indeed, prompt action. This comment in an Australian Newspaper, the Sydney Freeman’s Journal, made a couple of years later sums the matter up;

Since the advent of the clipper ship Oriental in British waters, where she excited so much and deserved attention, a complete change seems to have come o'er the spirit of John Bull's dream.

Sadly, in the following month, the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer reported that;

The American clipper ship Oriental was totally lost on some rocks near Amoy in the river Nim. She was loaded with teas, and outward bound. The crew was saved.

The compositor had transposed the M for the N, for the river was the Min, but the rest of the report was accurate. On 25th February 1854, as Richards was dealing with leaks in the bread room of the Saracen in Funchal, the Oriental was being escorted from the Pagoda Anchorage by local boats. She was under under the direction of a pilot, but hit a rock nonetheless. The damage she sustained was catastrophic. She would make no more runs to London.

Chapter 12 - At the mouth of the Min

Back to Introduction

Chapter 11 - Eclipsing clippers

Commanders and clippers

An American clipper

When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys