The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII


AMERICAN COMPETITION WITH GREAT BRITAIN IN THE CHINA TRADE


THE California clippers, after discharging their cargoes at San Francisco, either returned in ballast round Cape Horn, or continued their voyages across the Pacific and loaded cargoes at Asiatic ports for the United States or Great Britain.

Some of the ships which sailed to China from San Francisco, raced across the Pacific in ballast, touching at the Sandwich Islands only long enough to back the main yard off Diamond Head and send the mails ashore with perhaps a missionary or two. In those days the Kanuka maidens used to swim off alongside the ships, and they were probably the nearest approach to mermaids that has ever been known in real life. The Stag-Hound made the passage from San Francisco to Honolulu in 9, and the Flying Cloud and Surprise in 12 days each. The Flying Cloud sailed 374 miles in twenty-four hours, the day after leaving San Francisco, with a fresh whole-sail breeze and smooth sea, under skysails and royal studdingsails. The Southern Cross made the passage from San Francisco to Hong-kong in 32, and the Game-Cock in 35 days, the run of the Game-Cock from Honolulu to Hong-kong in 19 days being most remarkable. When these and other fast American vessels loaded again in China for English ports, they, of course, added to the competition from which British ships were already suffering.

We have seen how the Oriental brought a cargo of tea from China to England in 1850, and what interest her appearance excited in London. She was soon followed by the Surprise, White Squall, Sea Serpent, Nightingale, Argonaut, Challenge, and other clipper ships built for the California trade. These American clippers received from £6 to £6, 10s freight per ton of forty cubic feet, with immediate despatch, while British ships were loading slowly at £3, 10s per ton of fifty cubic feet. The American ships made fine passages and delivered their teas in excellent condition; but what especially appealed to the Briton was the fact that they had cleared more than their original cost and running expenses on this, their first voyage.

An able English writer,[1] referring to the American clippers engaged in the China tea-trade at this period, remarks: "This new competition proved for a time most disastrous to English shipping, which was soon driven out of favor by the lofty spars, smart, rakish-looking hulls, and famed speed of the American ships, and caused the tea-trade of the London markets to pass almost out of the hands of the English ship-owner. British vessels well manned and well found are known to have lain in the harbor of Foo-chow for weeks together, waiting for a cargo, and seeing American clippers coming in, loading, and sailing immediately with full cargoes, at a higher freight than they could command.

"This soon became a matter of serious moment, and the arrival of these vessels in the Thames caused great excitement, and aroused no small amount of curiosity and criticism. Even the attention of the Government became attracted towards them, and draughtsmen were sent from the Admiralty to take off the lines of two of the most famous—the Challenge and the Oriental—when they were in Messrs. Green's drydock."

This state of affairs could not, of course, continue without further arousing British ship-owners and builders to the danger of their position. Here was not one vessel, but a fleet of American clippers bringing cargoes from China at double the rates of freight that British ships could command, and unless some measures were adopted to check this invasion no one could predict where it might end. That British merchants paid so liberally to get their teas to a home market was certainly not because they cherished any special affection for American ships or their owners. They would have been quite as willing to pay British clippers the same freights, had there been any such to receive them, or even Chinese junks, provided the service could have been performed by them as quickly and as well. So we find the British ship-owners and builders of that period forced to exert their finest skill and most ardent energy. The firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co., of London and China, were the owners of the first clipper ship built in Great Britain. This vessel was the Stornaway, 506 tons, launched from the yard of Alexander Hall & Co., at Aberdeen, toward the close of 1850 for the China trade. It will be recalled that this firm had built the clipper schooner Torrington, for the same owners, four years before. The new ship was named for Stornoway Castle, Lewis, one of the Hebrides Isles, which was then owned by Sir James Matheson, and to which he retired after his long and successful career as ship-owner and merchant in the China trade.

It cannot be said that the Stornoway was a copy of any American model, as a comparison of dimensions will clearly show. Comparing her measurements with those of the American clipper barque Race Horse, of 512 tons register, built by Samuel Hall at East Boston in the same year, we find:

Length Breadth Depth
Stornoway 157 ft. 8 in. 25 ft. 8 in. 17 ft. 8 in.
Race Horse 125 ft. 30 ft. 16 ft.
Thus the Stornoway, while she exceeded the Race Horse by 32 feet 8 inches in length and by 1 foot 8 inches in depth, yet had 4 feet 4 inches less breadth; and here began a contest, which extended over so many years, of breadth against length and depth. There can be no doubt that the Stornoway with more beam and the Race Horse with more length and depth, would have been faster, but at the same time considerably larger vessels.[2]
The Stornoway p198.jpg

The "Stornoway"

The Stornoway was commanded by Captain Richard Robinson, and on her first voyage she made the passage from the Downs to Java Head in 80 days, to Hongkong in 102 days, and from Hongkong to London in 103 days. These were at that time the quickest passages between these ports that had ever been made by a British vessel.

In 1851 Alexander Hall & Co. built the China tea-clipper Chrysolite, of 471 tons, for Taylor & Potter of Liverpool; length 149 feet 3 inches, breadth 29 feet, depth 17 feet. As will be seen this vessel approached more nearly the proportions of the Race Horse, having 8 feet 5 inches less length than the Stornoway, with 3 feet 4 inches more breadth, and 8 inches less depth. She made her first passage from Liverpool to Canton, under the command of Captain Anthony Enright, in 102 days, and came home in 104 days. She also made the passage from Liverpool to Java Head in 80 days, her best day's run being 320 miles.

The very keen rivalry between the British and American clipper ships engaged in the China trade at this time, seems to have been stimulating to the imagination. W. S. Lindsay, in his History of Merchant Shipping (vol. iii., p. 291), relates an interesting story of one of the early races, and as I wish to do the narrative full justice, I give it in Mr. Lindsay's own words:

"Mr. T. C. Cowper, of Aberdeen, himself a member of a well-known ship-building firm in Aberdeen, who had spent some time in China at the period to which I refer, and to whom I am much indebted for the information connected with our struggles to maintain our position in that trade, gives the following graphic description of his voyage home in the Ganges, Captain Deas, belonging to Leith, one of the vessels we had sent forth after the repeal' of our Navigation Laws, to compete with the Americans in that trade: 'We loaded,' he says, 'new teas at Wampoa, and sailed on the first of September, 1851. Two of the fastest American clippers, the Flying Cloud and Bald Eagle, sailed two or three days after us. A great deal of excitement existed in China about the race, the American ships being the favorites. The southwest monsoon being strong, the Ganges made a rather long passage to Anjer, but when we arrived there we found that neither of our rivals had been reported as having passed. We arrived in the English Channel on the evening of the 16th of December. On the following morning at daylight we were off Portland, well inshore and under short sail, light winds from the northeast, and weather rather thick. About 8 a.m. the wind freshened and the haze cleared away, which showed two large and lofty ships two or three miles to windward of us. They proved to be our American friends, having their Stars and Stripes flying for a pilot. Captain Deas at once gave orders to hoist his signals for a pilot also, and as, by this time, several cutters were standing out from Weymouth, the Ganges, being farthest inshore got her pilot first on board. I said that I would land in the pilot-boat and go to London by rail, and would report the ship that night or next morning at Austin Friars. (She was consigned to my firm.) The breeze had considerably freshened before I got on board the pilot cutter, when the Ganges filled away on the port tack, and Captain Deas, contrary to his wont, for he was a very cautious man, crowded on all small sails. The Americans lost no time and were after him, and I had three hours' view of as fine an ocean race as I can wish to see; the wind being dead ahead, the ships were making short tacks. The Ganges showed herself to be the most weatherly of the three; and the gain on every tack inshore was obvious, neither did she seem to carry way behind in fore reaching. She arrived off Dungeness six hours before the other two, and was in the London docks twenty-four hours before the first, and thirty-six hours before the last of her opponents.'"

It is always unpleasant to spoil a really good story, but in this instance I feel constrained to point out that the Flying Cloud arrived at San Francisco on August 31, 1851, after her famous passage of 89 days from New York; it is therefore difficult to understand how she could have sailed from Wampoa on the Canton River on or about September 1st of that year, as stated by Mr. Cowper; while the Bald Eagle was not launched until 1852.

On January 3, 1852, the Illustrated London News, which then, as now, had many readers in the United States, published a portrait of the Chrysolite accompanying an article in which it was stated that both the Chrysolite and the Stornoway had beaten the Oriental and the Surprise, and that the Chrysolite had completely beaten the Memnon during a race in the Caspar Straits. This article excited a good deal of interest in the United States, and it caused the formation by a number of high-spirited young merchants and ship-owners at Boston of a society called the American Navigation Club, which consisted of Daniel C. Bacon, President; Thomas H. Perkins, John P. Cushing, William H. Bordman, John M. Forbes, Warren Delano, and Edward King. In due time they issued the following challenge, which was published in all the leading shipping papers of Great Britain in September, 1852, and was copied into Bell's Life, at that period the great sporting publication of England:

"The American Navigation Club challenges the ship-builders of Great Britain to a ship-race, with cargo on board, from a port in England to a port in China and back. One ship to be entered by each party, and to be named within a week of the start. These ships to be modelled, commanded, and officered entirely by citizens of the United States and Great Britain, respectively. To be entitled to rank A1 either at the American offices or at Lloyd's. The stakes to be £10,000 a side, satisfactorily secured by both parties, to be paid without regard to accidents, or to any exceptions, the whole amount forfeited by either party not appearing. Judges to be mutually chosen. Reasonable time to be given after notice of acceptance to build the ships if required, and also for discharging and loading cargo in China. The challenged party may name the size of the ships, not under 800 nor over 1200 American registered tons; the weight and measurement which shall be carried each way; the allowance for short weight or over-size. Reference may be made to Messrs. Baring Bros. & Co. for further particulars.

"Daniel C. Bacon, President."

A few weeks later, on October 10, 1852, the following comment appeared in Bell's Life:

"It will be remembered early in the past month there was wafted across the broad Atlantic, from the American Navigation Club, a challenge to the ship-builders of Great Britain, which created no little interest, and which after the defeat, then just accomplished, of the magic yacht America by one of our own little island craft, gave rise to no inconsiderable speculation as to what might be the result of an acceptance of Brother Jonathan's proposal. . . . The Club by the last clause of their terms held themselves at liberty to withdraw the challenge should it not be accepted within thirty days. The limit of the time is now expiring, and it is with no little disappointment that a letter received from the head of the eminent banking house of Baring & Co., was received in Boston a short time since, when it was found that he had nothing like an acceptance of the challenge to communicate to the American Club, but that, on the contrary, he had to report no inquiry as to the proposition. As a sort of enticement, however, to our ship-builders, the President of the American Navigation Club, Mr. D. C. Bacon, is authorized, should the present challenge not be accepted within thirty days, to allow the British vessels a start of fourteen days before the departure of the American craft. And also to allow us a crew picked from seamen experienced in voyaging between English and Chinese ports, while their own crew is to be composed of American seamen and officers whose experience is limited in sailing between China and English ports. The Americans, under the new conditions, are willing to augment the stake to £20,000, or any higher sum than the £10,000 of the present conditions most agreeable to us, but the last amount to be the minimum. The Americans want a match, and it reflects somewhat upon our chivalry not to accommodate them."

The London Daily News also published a leader in which it urged the importance to Great Britain of making good her claim to maritime supremacy by accepting the challenge and winning the race; but in spite of all that was said the challenge was not accepted. Had it been, Captain Dumaresq would have commanded the American ship, and Lieutenant Maury was to have prepared special wind and current charts for his assistance. As nearly all the American clippers had been constructed for the California trade, it is probable that for an important race of this nature, two ships would have been built especially for the China trade, and very likely by Donald McKay and Samuel Hall, as the Flying Cloud, Flying Fish, Stag-Hound, Game-Cock, and Surprise had already placed these two in the front rank of clipper ship-builders. No reason was ever given for the non-acceptance of the challenge, though the inference seems obvious.

It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that the Stornaway and Chrysolite were not fast vessels; for they were probably the two fastest ships sailing under the British flag at that time, and were ably commanded, and on a China voyage, which is very different sailing from a San Francisco or Australian passage, would have given any ship afloat a run for her owner's money. The fitful uncertainty of the monsoons in the China seas, with an occasional typhoon thrown in, has always rendered the voyages to and from China rather unsatisfactory tests of speed, and in this respect not to be compared with those to Australia or to San Francisco.

The Stornoway and Chrysolite were soon followed by other British clipper ships, among them the Abergeldie, of 600 tons register, built by Walter Hood & Co., of Aberdeen, in 1851. This vessel was named for an estate that adjoins Balmoral, at that time under a forty years' lease to Prince Albert, and carried a figurehead of His Royal Highness in full Highland costume.

In 1852, Richard Green, of London, built the Challenger, of 699 tons. This ship, owned by W. S. Lindsay, of London, was constructed with the avowed purpose of beating the Challenge of New York. A comparison of the dimensions of this ship and those of the Sword-Fish, 1036 tons, is interesting.

Length Breadth Depth
Challenger 174 ft. 32 ft. 20 ft.
Sword-Fish 169 ft. 6 in. 36 ft. 6 in. 20 ft.

The Challenger was commanded by Captain Killick, who made eight China voyages in her, the best passage home being 105 days. Although she was never directly matched with her American rival, they both took part in an informal race from China in 1852, while the challenge of the Navigation Club was pending. The passages of the seven vessels, four American and three British, were as follows:

Witch of the Wave Canton to Deal 90 days.
Challenge Canton to Deal 105   "
Surprise Canton to Deal 106   "
Stornoway Canton to Deal 109   "
Chrysolite Canton to Liverpool 106   "
Nightingale Shanghai to Deal 110   "
Challenger Shanghai to Deal 113   "

It is only fair to state that the Witch of the Wave, commanded by Captain Millett, sailed from Canton, January 5th, in the height of the northeast monsoon, and made the run, remarkable even at that season of the year, of 7 days 12 hours from Canton to Java Head, while the three British clippers, Stornoway, Chrysolite, and Challenger, sailed later with a moderate monsoon, and the Challenge, Surprise, and Nightingale later still, when the monsoon was less favorable. The rate of freight this year was £8 per ton, the highest that was ever paid.

This race, if so it can be called, resulted in "win, tie, or wrangle " as it was claimed, for one reason or another, by every vessel engaged in it, and ended by Sampson & Tappan, of Boston, offering to match the Nightingale for £10,000 against any ship, British or American, for a race to China and back. The rivalry of the American clipper ships among themselves was as keen as with those of Great Britain, and this challenge was intended for the Navigation Club, of Boston, of which Sampson & Tappan were not members, and for New York as well, quite as much as for the British clippers; but it found no response from either side of the Atlantic.

The Nightingale was owned by Sampson & Tappan for a number of years, during which she made some exceedingly fast passages, under the command of Captain Samuel Mather. Among them were the passage from Portsmouth, England, to Shanghai, against the northeast monsoon, in 106 days in 1853; and during the year 1855 a passage from Shanghai to London in 91 days, and from Batavia Roads to London in 70 days, an average of 197 miles per day, her best day's run being 336 miles.

The Surprise proved one of the most successful American clippers in the China trade. After her first voyage she was for a number of years commanded by the captains Charles Ranlett, father and son, and in their hands made many fine passages—she made eleven consecutive passages from China to New York in 89 days or less, six from Hong-kong, and five from Shanghai, the best being 81 days from Shanghai, in 1857. Among other fast passages from Canton to New York may be mentioned those of the Stag-Hound 85, 91, and 92 days; Flying Cloud, 94 and 96 days; N. B. Palmer, 84 days; Comet, Panama, and Hurricane, each 99 days; Sword-Fish, 80 days; Sea Serpent, 88 days; Vancouver, 96 days; Mandarin, 89 days; but I am unable to find that Captain Waterman's passage of 77 days in the Sea Witch in 1848, and 78 days in the Natchez in 1845, from Canton to New York, have ever been beaten. In 1854 the Comet made a record passage of 84 days from Liverpool to Hong-kong, an average of 212 miles per day, and in the same year the Typhoon made the run from the Lizard to Calcutta in 80 days.

In Great Britain the Cairngorm, of 1250 tons register, was built in 1853 by Alexander Hall & Co., and owned by Jardine, Matheson Co. Between 1853 and 1856 came the Crest of the Wave, Norma, Flying Dragon, Formosa, and Spirit of the Age, built by John Pile of Sunderland, and the Lord of the Isles (iron) by John Scott & Co., of Greenock. The ship last named registered 770 tons, measured: length 190 feet 9 inches, breadth 27 feet 8 inches, depth 18 feet 5 inches, and was an extremely sharp and handsome, though a very wet ship. It used to be said that Captain Maxton, her commander, drove her into one side of a sea and out the other; at all events, she was generally known among sailormen as the "Diving Bell."

The British clippers of this type, which was extremely sharp and narrow, very nearly held their own against the American ships, and it is much to be regretted that there never was a fair and square race between them; for no British and American clipper ships ever sailed from China near enough together to afford a satisfactory test of speed.

The Lord of the Isles made the remarkable run from Shanghai to London in 1855 during the northeast monsoon of 87 days. In 1856 she sailed against the American clipper barque Maury, commanded by Captain Fletcher, from Poo-chow to London, both carrying new teas. In this year a premium of £1 per ton on the freight was offered for the first ship home during the season. The reward was offered without regard to the length of the passage, and was intended to encourage quick despatch in loading as well as fast sailing. The Lord of the Isles finished loading and sailed four days ahead of the Maury. Both vessels arrived in the Downs on the same morning and passed Gravesend within ten minutes of each other, the Maury leading, but Captain Maxton, having the smartest tug, succeeded in getting his ship first into dock, and so won the prize. The Maury was an exceedingly pretty barque of about 600 tons, built by Roosevelt & Joyce, and owned by A. A. Low & Brother. She was a very similar vessel to the barques Fairy, Penguin, and Benefactor, by the same builders, all engaged in the China trade. The Lord of the Isles was the only tea-clipper built of iron at that time. It was found that she sweated her tea cargoes, though otherwise they were delivered in excellent condition, and she was certainly a very fast vessel.

At this period (1853-1856) British iron ships, both sail and steam, were coming into favor for other trades, but their introduction had been slow. It is not easy at the present time to realize the difficulties attending the building of the first iron vessels. The rolling of iron plates to a uniform thickness was a matter requiring great care and skill, and a number of years elapsed before plates exceeded or even reached ten feet in length; then bending the frames and riveting the plates were difficult processes, only learned through much trial and experiment. In the early days, when an iron ship was completed, her owner's troubles had only begun. Finding a composition that would prevent fouling and at the same time not destroy the plates; the adjustment of compasses, and devising effective means of ventilation, were all matters that required years of investigation and labor, to say nothing of the prejudice against iron vessels, which time and experience alone could overcome. Yet it was the skilful use of this stubborn metal in the construction of ships, together with wise legislation, that enabled Great Britain to regain her empire upon the sea.


  1. William John, in an article on clipper ships in Naval Science, vol. ii. (1873), p. 265.
  2. The various systems of calculating the tonnage of vessels which were in force in Great Britain prior to 1854, (see Appendix iv.,) gave the breadth measurement a preponderating influence upon the result, and as taxation, port, and light dues, etc., were based upon the registered tonnage of a vessel, there was economy in decreasing the breadth of a vessel at the expense of the other dimensions. Ship-builders and owners in England showed a much greater tendency to profit by this feature of the law than did those in the United States, where substantially the same system was in force. In this country some very narrow vessels were built for the New Orleans and West India trade, in the period 1820-1845, but it was found that the saving in taxation did not pay for using such an undesirable type of vessels, so they were given up. As a rule, American owners and builders preferred to build vessels of a type which they regarded as the best for speed and for the trade in which they were engaged, without regard for the tonnage laws.