The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV


OPIUM CLIPPERS AND EARLY CLIPPER SHIPS, 1832-1848


The origin of the word clipper is not quite clear, though it seems to be derived from the verb clip, which in former times meant, among other things, to run or fly swiftly. Dryden uses it to describe the flight of a falcon[1]:

"Some falcon stoops at what her eye designed.
And, with her eagerness the quarry missed,
Straight flies at check, and clips it down the wind."

The word survived in the New England slang expression "to clip it," and "going at a good clip," or "a fast clip," are familiar expressions there to this day. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that when vessels of a new model were built, which were intended, in the language of the times, to clip over the waves rather than plough through them, the improved type of craft became known as clippers because of their speed. It is probable that the swift privateers built at Baltimore during the War of 1812 became known as " Baltimore clippers," and while the first application of the term in a nautical sense is by no means certain, it seems to have had an American origin.

The first clipper constructed in Great Britain was the schooner Scottish Maid, one hundred and fifty tons, built in 1839 by Alexander Hall & Co., of Aberdeen, to compete with the paddle steamers between Aberdeen and London. She proved a very fast vessel, and saw half a century of service before she was wrecked on the coast of England. Three schooners of the same model and tonnage, the Fairy, Rapid, and Monarch, were built by this firm in 1842. These four were the first Aberdeen clippers. The earliest competition between American and British clippers was in the China seas. As early as 1831 three small English schooners, the Jamesina, Lord Amherst, and Sylph, were engaged in the opium trade, which proved exceedingly lucrative. In 1833 the Jamesina sold opium from India to the value of £330,000 at Poo Chow, Amoy, Ningpo, and other ports in China. This business increased and attracted the attention of the American merchants in China. In 1841, the Angola, a schooner of 90 tons, built by Brown & Bell, of New York, for Russell & Co., China, was despatched to Hongkong. She was followed in 1842 by the schooners Zephyr, 150 tons, built by Samuel Hall at East Boston; Mazeppa, 175 tons, built by Brown & Bell, and Ariel, 100 tons, built by Sprague & James, Medford, and in 1843 by the brig Antelope, 370 tons, built by Samuel Hall at East Boston. These vessels, owned by John M. Forbes and Russell & Co., soon controlled the opium-trade and became known as opium clippers. It was necessary that they should be swift in order to contend with the strong tides and currents on the China coast, and to beat against the monsoons in the China Sea. The Antelope, under the command of Captain Philip Dumaresq, still has the reputation of having been the only square-rigged vessel which could beat through the Formosa Channel against the northeast monsoon. Moreover, these vessels required speed to escape from the heavily manned piratical craft which infested the China seas, and which were formidable vessels, especially in light winds and calms, when they were propelled by long sweeps.

In 1846, Alexander Hall & Co. built the clipper schooner Torrington for Jardine, Matheson & Co., to compete with the American opium clippers in China. This schooner, the first British clipper in the China seas, was followed by the Wanderer, Gaselle, Rose, the brig Lanark, and others, until almost every British and American firm in China owned one or more of these smart vessels. The competition among them was keen, and the American clippers had decidedly the best of it. The last of these famous little vessels were the sister schooners Minna and Brenda, of 300 tons each, built in 1851 by George Raynes at Portsmouth, for John M. Forbes, of Boston, and others, and the schooner Wild Dayrell, 253 tons, built in 1855 by the well-known yacht builders J. White, of Cowes, Isle of Wight, for Dent & Co., China. These opium clippers, all beautifully modelled and equipped with long raking masts and plenty of canvas, like yachts rather than merchant vessels, were heavily armed and carried large crews. They all made a great deal of money for their owners until they were superseded by steamers.

From the earliest times in maritime history it had been the custom to build large vessels of a model suitable for carrying heavy cargoes—"ships of burden" they were called,—while the vessels designed for speed,—the galley of the Mediterranean, caravel of Portugal and Spain, lugger of France, cutter of England, yacht of Holland, schooner and sloop of America, had been comparatively small. To the latter class belonged the earlier British and American clippers of the nineteenth century. The Baltimore clippers, as we have said, were modelled after the French luggers which visited American ports during the Revolutionary War. They gained a world-wide reputation for speed as privateers during the War of 1812, and later also as African slavers, many of them sailing under the flags of Portugal and Spain. These vessels were brigs, brigantines, fore-and-aft or topsail schooners, and rarely exceeded two hundred tons register.

So far as history records, no one had ever attempted to reproduce the lines of a small, swift vessel in a large one, until in 1832 Isaac McKim, a wealthy merchant of Baltimore, commissioned Kennard and Williamson, of Fell's Point, Baltimore, to build a ship embodying as far as possible the lines of the famous Baltimore clipper brigs and schooners. This ship was the Ann McKim, named in honor of the owner's wife, of 493 tons register, a large vessel for those days. She measured: Length 143 feet, breadth 31 feet, depth 14 feet, and drew 17 feet aft and 11 feet forward. She possessed many of the striking features of the Baltimore clippers of that period; namely, great dead-rise at her midship section, long, easy convex water-lines, low freeboard, and raking stem, stern-post and masts, and was really an enlarged clipper schooner rigged as a ship.

The Ann McKim was a remarkably handsome vessel, built as the pet ship of her owner without much regard to cost. Her frames were of live oak, she was copper-fastened throughout and her bottom was sheathed with red copper imported for this purpose. The flush deck was fitted with Spanish mahogany hatch combings, rails, companions, and skylights. She mounted twelve brass guns, and was equipped with brass capstan heads, bells, etc., and carried three skysail yards and royal studdingsails. She proved to be very fast, though of small carrying capacity, and the latter quality together with her elaborate and expensive fittings caused the older merchants to regard her unfavorably; so that for some years they still adhered to their fullbodied ships. The Ann McKim sailed in the China trade for a number of years, and upon the death of Mr. McKim in 1837, she was purchased by Howland & Aspinwall, of New York, and was commanded by Captain Perry. Eventually she was sold at Valparaiso in 1847, and ended her days under the Chilian flag.

Although the Ann McKim was the first clipper ship ever constructed, it cannot be said that she founded the clipper ship era, or even that she directly influenced ship-builders, since no other ship was built like her; but she may have suggested the clipper design in vessels of ship rig, and owing to the fact that she fell into the hands of Howland & Aspinwall, she without doubt hastened the opening of that era, as the first really extreme clipper ship, the Rainbow, was owned by that firm.

It is difficult at this distance of time to determine exactly what influence the Ann McKim exercised upon the science of ship-building, though from the fact that no ship had ever been built like her, it is probable that she was an object of considerable interest in the maritime world, and it is certain that during the years following her appearance a more determined effort was made in the United States to improve the model and sailing qualities of ships. Among the most notable of these attempts were the Courier, already mentioned, built by Donald McKay in 1842, and the Akbar, a ship of six hundred and fifty tons, built by Samuel Hall at East Boston in 1839, for John M. Forbes, and others, who employed her in the China trade. On her first voyage the Akbar made the passage from New York to Canton in one hundred and nine days, beating up the China Sea against the northeast monsoon. On this voyage she was commanded by Captain James Watkins, in after years commodore of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Later she was commanded by Captain Philip Dumaresq, who made a number of rapid passages in her to and from China. Then came the Helena, of 650 tons, built by William H. Webb in 1841. This ship was owned by N. L. and G. Griswold, and also sailed in the China trade under the command of Captain Benjamin, who made some fine passages. The Paul Jones, of 620 tons, built by Waterman & Elwell at Medford in 1842, was owned by John M. Forbes and Russell & Co., of China. She was commanded by Captain N. B. Palmer and on her first voyage in 1843 she sailed from Boston for Hong-kong, January 15th, crossed the equator 26 days out, was 54 days to the Cape of Good Hope, 88 days to Java Head, and arrived at Hong-kong 111 days from Boston. In 1848, this ship made the run from Java Head to New York in 76 days.

In 1844, A. A. Low & Brother, of New York, contracted with Brown & Bell to build the Houqua, of 706 tons, constructed for Captain N. B. Palmer. She made a number of very fast passages. On her first voyage she made the passage from New York to Java Head in 72 days, thence to Hong-kong in 12 days, total 84 days. Her best records from China were as follows: From Hong-kong, December 9, 1844, passed Java Head 15 days out, was 70 days to the Equator in the Atlantic, thence 20 days to New York, total 90 days—distance by log, 14,272 miles. December 9, 1845, sailed from Hong-kong, passed Java Head 16 days out, arrived at New York, March 10, 1846, 91 days' passage. Under the command of Captain McKanzie, in 1850, she made the passage from Shanghai to New York in 88 days, the shortest passage up to that time. This ship was named in honor of Houqua, the well-known Canton merchant who was beloved and respected by American and English residents in China, no less for his integrity than for his great kindness and his business ability.

In 1844 also William H. Webb built the Montauk, 540 tons, for A. A. Low & Brother, and the Panama, 670 tons, for N. L. & G. Griswold, both vessels for the China trade, and Samuel Hall, of East Boston, built the barque Coquette, 420 tons, commanded by Captain Oliver Eldridge. The Coquette sailed from Boston, June 29, 1844, was 76 days to Java Head, and 99 days to Canton. She was owned by Russell & Co., of China, and made several fast passages between Calcutta and ports in China. Young James H. Perkins made a voyage to China as a passenger on board this vessel, and his famous schooner yacht Coquette, which defeated the sloop Maria in a match off Sandy Hook in 1846, was named for the clipper barque.

These were among the first clipper ships built in the United States, and while by no means extreme clippers, they were sharper and finer models than any vessels which had been constructed up to that time, and clearly indicated the dawn of a new epoch in naval architecture.

I have now brought this narrative to the opening of the clipper ship era, and have endeavored to sketch the development of the merchant marine of Great Britain and the United States from the common starting point—where the ship-builders of both countries derived their best knowledge of ship models and construction from the French—as they advanced along diverging lines under different climatic, social, and political conditions, until we now find them at points widely distant from each other—Great Britain with her stately, frigate-built Indiaman, embodying the glories of the past; the United States with her wild packet ship scending into a long, sweeping head sea, and flinging a rainbow of flying spray across her weather-bow, in which was imaged the promise of a glorious future.

In 1841, John W. Griffeths, of New York, proposed several improvements in marine architecture, which were embodied in the model of a clipper ship exhibited at the American Institute, in February of that year. Later he delivered a series of lectures on the science of ship-building, which were the first discourses upon this subject in the United States. Mr. Griffeths advocated carrying the stem forward in a curved line, thereby lengthening the bow above water; he also introduced long, hollow water-lines and a general drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, bringing the greatest breadth further aft. Another improvement which he proposed was to fine out the after body by rounding up the ends of the main transom, thus relieving the quarters and making the stern much lighter and handsomer above the water-line.

This proposed departure from old methods naturally met with much opposition, but in 1843 the firm of Howland & Aspinwall commissioned Smith & Dimon, of New York, in whose employ Mr. Griffeths had spent several years as draughtsman, to embody these experimental ideas in a ship of 750 tons named the Rainbow. This vessel, the first extreme clipper ship ever built, was therefore, the direct result of Mr. Griffeths's efforts for improvement. Her bow with its concave waterlines and the greatest breadth at a point considerably further aft than had hitherto been regarded as practicable, was a radical departure, differing not merely in degree but in kind from any ship that preceded her. One critical observer declared that her bow had been turned "outside in," and that her whole form was contrary to the laws of nature. The Rainbow was designed and built with great care and was not launched until January, 1845.

Mr. Griffeths relates a good story about the masting of this vessel. It appears that Mr. Aspinwall, who had an excellent idea of what a ship ought to be, had come to the conclusion that the masting of vessels was a question of no small moment in shipbuilding, and determined that his new ship should have the benefit of foreign aid in placing the masts. Accordingly, he informed the builders that he would obtain assistance from abroad, for their benefit as well as his own. The builders naturally paid little attention to this information. The port-captain, who was appointed to superintend the construction, was directed by Mr. Aspinwall to select the best authorities in Europe on masting ships. The European experts were written to in reference to this important matter, and after they had duly considered the principal dimensions of the vessel, the trade in which she was to be employed, etc., a spar draft and elaborate calculations were prepared and forwarded to New York.

In the meantime, the construction of the Rainbow had progressed steadily. The clamps being ready, the deck beams were placed according to the original drawings, the framing of the decks completed, hatches and mast partners framed, channels and mast-steps secured; the masts and yards were also made and the ship planked and caulked by the time the important despatches arrived. They were examined by the port-captain, Mr. Aspinwall was informed that they were all right, and the port-captain was requested to give the information to the builders, which, of course, was done. The ship, however, was finished without the slightest alteration from the original plans. Mr. Aspinwall, who never doubted that his pet project had been carefully carried out, attributed much of the success of this vessel to the placing of her masts by foreign rules.

The sharp model of the Rainbow gave rise to a great deal of discussion while she was on the stocks in course of construction. It was generally admitted by the recognized shipping authorities of South Street, that she was a handsome vessel, but whether she could be made to sail was a question on which there were varieties of opinion. She proved an excellent ship in every way and exceedingly fast. Her second voyage to China out and home, was made in six months and fourteen days, including two weeks in port discharging and loading cargo. She went out to China against the northeast monsoon in ninety-two and home in eighty-eight days, bringing the news of her own arrival at Canton. Captain John Land, her able and enthusiastic commander, declared that she was the fastest ship in the world, and this was undeniably true; finding no one to differ from him, he further gave it as his opinion that no ship could be built to outsail the Rainbow, and it is also true that very few vessels have ever broken her record. She was lost on her fifth voyage while bound from New York for Valparaiso in 1848 under command of Captain Hayes, and it was supposed that she foundered off Cape Horn.

The Ariel, 572 tons, was built by John Currier at Newburyport in 1846, for Minot & Hooper, of Boston. This ship became celebrated in the China trade and was bought by N. L. & G. Griswold, and has a record of 90 days from Canton to New York.

In 1846, Howland & Aspinwall, for whom Captain Robert H. Waterman had been making some remarkably fast voyages in the old packet ship Natchez, had a clipper ship built especially for him, entrusting the design and construction to Smith & Dimon, the builders of the Rainbow, though all the details of spars, sails, and rigging were carried out under the supervision of Captain Waterman. This ship was the famous Sea Witch, of 890 tons, length 170 feet, breadth 33 feet 11 inches, and depth 19 feet. She carried a cloud of canvas; three standing skysail yards, royal studding sails, large square lower studding sails with swinging booms, ringtail, and water sails.

When loaded the Sea Witch lay low on the water; her hull was painted black and her masts had a considerable rake; her figurehead was an aggressive-looking dragon, beautifully carved and gilded. She had the reputation at that time of being the handsomest ship sailing out of New York, and her officers and crew were picked men, several of whom had sailed with Captain Waterman on his voyages in the Natchez. She sailed on her first voyage, bound for China, December 23, 1846, went to sea in a strong northwest gale, and made a remarkable fine run southward, arriving off the harbor of Rio Janeiro in twenty-five days, where she exchanged signals with the shore and sent letters and New York newspapers by a vessel inward bound. She made the passage from New York to Hong-kong in 104 days, and arrived at New York from Canton July 25, 1847, in 81 days, making the run from Anjer Point to Sandy Hook in 62 days. On her second voyage she arrived at New York from Hong-kong, November 7, 1847, in 105 days, and arrived from Canton at New York, March 16, 1848, in 77 days. On this passage she made the run from St. Helena to Sandy Hook in 32 days. Her next voyage was from New York to Valparaiso, where she arrived July 5, 1848, in 69 days, thence to Hong-kong, where she arrived December 7, 1848, in 52 days. She arrived at New York March 25, 1849, 79 days from Canton. She next sailed from New York for Canton via Valparaiso and arrived at Canton July 23, 1849, 118 sailing days from New York. She arrived at New York March 7, 1850, from Canton in 85 days, making the run from Java Head in 73 days.

This is a most remarkable series of passages, especially considering the seasons of the year during which most of her China voyages were made. Her best twenty-four hours' run was 358 miles, a speed far in excess of any ocean steamship of that period. The Sea Witch during the first three years of her career, was without doubt the swiftest ship that sailed the seas, and she continued to distinguish herself later on, in her passages from New York to San Francisco under the command of Captain George Fraser. In 1847, A. A. Low & Bro. brought out the Samuel Russell, of 940 tons, built by Brown & Bell and commanded by Captain N. B. Palmer, formerly of the Houqua. Her first voyage from New York to Hong-kong was made by the eastern passages in 114 days. On a voyage from Canton in 1851 she sailed 6780 miles in 30 days, an average of 226 miles per day, her greatest twenty-four hours' run being 328 miles. This ship was named for the eminent New York merchant, founder of the house of Russell & Co., of China, with whom the brothers Low began their career as merchants and shipowners. She was a beautiful vessel, heavily sparred, with plenty of light canvas for moderate weather, and every inch a clipper.

The Architect, 520 tons, was also built in 1847, at Baltimore, for Nye, Parkin & Co., American merchants in China, and was commanded by Captain George Potter.

The Memnon, 1068 tons, owned by Warren Delano, was built by Smith & Dimon in 1848, and on her first voyage to China was commanded by Captain Oliver Eldridge.

These were the most celebrated of the clipper ships built in the United States prior to the discovery of gold in California in 1848, though there were, of course, many other fine vessels engaged in the China trade, which had for years brought home cargoes of tea, silk, and spices. During the twelve months from June 30, 1845 to July 1, 1846, forty-one vessels arrived at New York from China, and probably as many more at other Atlantic ports, chiefly Boston and Salem. Besides these vessels there were the South American, African, and East India fleets, as well as the lines of splendid packet ships sailing from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to European ports. In 1847, the ships owned in the United States and engaged in foreign commerce registered 1,241,313 tons.

The American clippers were decidedly the fastest ships built up to that time, yet much of their speed was due to the skill and energy of their commanders. The manner in which American vessels were handled at this period will be seen by extracts from the log-book of the ship Great Britain, 524 tons, Captain Philip Dumaresq, on her homeward voyage from China in 1849-50. She left Java Head December 22, 1849, and by January 14, 1850, had passed seven vessels bound the same way. The log from this date reads in part as follows:

"Squally, under double reefed topsails, passed a ship laying-to under a close reefed maintopsail. . . . January 24th, a southwest gale, close reefed topsails, split courses; before doing this we were going seven and one half knots close-hauled, within six points of the wind under double-reefed topsails and courses; January 25th, split all three topsails and had to heave-to; five vessels in sight, one a Dutch frigate, all hove-to; January 27th, seven vessels in sight and we outsail all of them; January 29th passed the Cape of Good Hope and anchored in Table Bay, parted both chains and split nearly all the sails; hove-to outside, blowing a gale offshore; January 30th, at 6 a.m. bore up for St. Helena; February 1st, fresh trades, passed a ship under double reefs, we with our royals and studdingsails set; February 8th, anchored at St. Helena with a stream anchor backed by remainder of one of the chains; February 10th, having procured anchors and water, left St. Helena; February 21st, crossed the line in longitude 31; March 12th, under double-reefed topsails, passed several vessels laying-to; March 17th, took pilot off Sandy Hook, 84 days from Java Head, including detentions."

Probably few if any of the vessels which Captain Dumaresq passed hove-to or under short canvas were sailing under the American flag. It is worthy of note that the Great Britain was at that time twenty-six years old, having been built by Brown & Bell for the New York and Liverpool packet service in 1824, and of course, was by no means a clipper.


  1. Annus Mirabilis, stanza 89 (1667).