Just 13,999 miles to go. There in six more months
You need just one number to explain both how complex tea shipping is and how ship design evolved to handle it: 20,000. That’s the distance in kilometers (14,000 miles) from Canton in China and the Port of London before the Suez Canal eliminated the need to circle the infamous Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. It varies as the winds blow, the tides turn and the storms sweep down.
In the early 17th century, Dutch cargo ships were used for carrying tea and silks from China. The Portuguese had been the very first Europeans to bring back tea from China, having discovered the Cape route, which it kept secret. The Dutch uncovered it and for a century dominated the shipping, smuggling, (75% of all the tea in England and in the then largest per capita consumer of tea, the 13 American colonies) and colonization. They set up the first shipping hub on the island of Batava, Indonesia, and tried to grow tea in Indonesia fifty years before the first shipments of tea began to trickle into England.
This ship that was the focal point for the most famous tea event in history, the Boston Tea Party. She was heavy, narrow above the waterline with a hull designed for stability, room for cargo and sailors, and ballast. She looked majestic as she sailed, partly because of the glorious flags and the billowing sails, but also because she and other ships like her were very, very, very…. slow… slow…. slow.
Coming back to the 20,000 km. China allowed traders to operate only from a tiny section of the port of Canton. Tea loaded there took 8-7 months afloat to reach London or Amsterdam. It was not exactly fresh and uncontaminated by the time it arrived; it was 18-24 months old when sold. The shift from green to black tea largely came from the increasingly poor quality of the bohea and hyson teas that moved from standing for luxury to labels for mediocre, adulterated, damp- and odor-loaded. Traders stimulated China agents to produce what is still termed “red” tea, from the color of the liquor in the cup, and that we term black tea.
The quality of tea and slowness of shipping was a secondary concern to the two massive monopolies of the Dutch East Indies and British East India company. They were corporate states within the state, owned their own navies and armies, had full powers of government in Indonesia and later India, and generated a flow of profits that is perhaps comparable to a Silicon Valley with just Apple licensed to import, assemble and sell any mobile phone or tablet, with all and only its staff and investors guaranteed to be zillionaires.
The two giants owned the ocean trade routes and their focus was on volume, not speed. Underlying the Boston Tea Party, which was just the biggest and last of the protests, was the need for the East India Company to get rid of millions of pounds of at least three year old and rotting inventory and targeting the Colonies as their dumping ground. It used its political clout to change tax rules and collection to undercut the smugglers – mainly Dutch ships. (The most successful of the smugglers who became the wealthiest individual in America was one John Hancock, who expected to be made commander of the Revolutionary Army instead of that Washington guy.)
The monopoly relied on its big ships. Convoys of Indiamen traveled the Pacific, accompanied by light armed frigates to deal with the many pirates along the coasts in their long transit. Then, it all changed, stimulated by the War of 1812, opium smuggling and the Baltimore, Maryland shipyards. These came together to create the clipper ship, built for speed and more speed. The visual contrast between the old Indiaman and the clipper is visually obvious.
The clippers originated in Baltimore and were designed to outrun the British Navy’s large squadrons that blockaded ports and cut off trade with the key supply bases of Bermuda and the Caribbean. The term seems to have emerged informally and to refer to how the ships clipped the waves. They were small, stripped down and streamlined, carried no heavy guns and were single deck. The spread of their sails was many times greater in surface area than the old cargo ships. They were Formula 1 sea racers compared to trucks.
After the War of 1812, they were mainly used for opium smuggling into China. This was the earliest element in what became a central and truly disgraceful set of events in British history: the two Opium Wars that destroyed China’s civil society for well over a century and gave Britain its 200-year lease on Hong Kong. The trading problem was that while more and more ships carried tea from China, there was nothing to ship in. China did not want any European goods, beyond odds and ends for the fashion and fad markets. It insisted on payment in silver. When the First Opium War began in 1839 (it lasted three years and was followed by the four-year war in 1856) after the ultimatum that China open up its trade, fully 35% of all the money flowing through the equivalent of the Federal Reserve system was for hard currency to pay for tea.
The Chinese demand for opium was large, uncontrollable and destructive. The small American clipper ships were the cigarette boats that race cocaine into the US via the Caribbean. The trade became unprofitable as the British took over with their huge supplies of opium from India.
Between 1812 and 1834, the monopolies on tea were relaxed and then ended. Earl Grey had nothing whatsoever to do with the tea that bears his name – a marketing creation of the 1930s –but stands out for his ending the slave trade in the British Colonies and leading the prosecution of the CEO of the East India Company who was also Governor-General of India. This failed but was pivotal in the breaking up of the giant. The Dutch company had collapsed when its corruption, indolence and infamous incompetence achieved a distinctive nadir. The British one was driven out of business in effect through laissez-faire economics and deregulation policies.
After 1849, the oceans and British ports were open for international ships. Speed not volume became the premium factor. Traders and entrepreneurs adapted the clipper design to add cargo capacity and even more speed. The tea clippers became famous in their own right. They commanded high prices and bonuses for getting the new season’s teas to the markets fastest. (In the US, clippers grew through delivering would-be gold miners to the newly discovered California fields.) Their performance was on public record and a source of boast and business. Today, the Cutty Sark remains well-remembered and a tourist attraction at London’s Greenwich where it is anchored. The images below show both the keel and sail spread that gave it its racing capabilities and the hull its storage, with every inch available for cargo.
Over time, informal races among the top boats were noted events. The last and most famous was the Great Race of 1866. The five competing ships loaded in China at the same time and took the same, at flat out pace. It took 99 days for the two leaders to arrive off the coast of England within half an hour of each other, with the third place one just an hour behind. This was the peak for the clippers but also a signal of their coming decline. They couldn’t get faster or bigger.
Steamships took over and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made them irrelevant, including for tea transport. Their flaws became apparent as they disappeared figuratively and literally. They occasionally sank – somewhere – or broke up. They were designed to be light and fast, not strong, and in the British Navy tradition of “hearts of oak” (this refers to the sailors but applied to the ships).
But the core shipping trade-off remains: speed/freshness versus volume/cost. Even today, the official sailing time estimates and costs are high. They are between 20 and 40 days for the main routes between tea producers (origin) and packagers (destination). Add in the time to get the tea from the farm to the factory to the port and it’s no surprise that the China teas sold in the US and Europe are over a year old and packaged consumer brands as much as two.
The costs of freshness are high. The shipping rates for sea container average $1 per kilogram for large container loads but $20 for ones under 25 in weight (roughly pounds). This has many impacts for you as a buyer of tea. The first is that large chains and consumer brands cannot offer freshness and that small specialty stores must buy their teas form large wholesalers. Online specialty stores selling premium teas can use air freight and courier for light units. Some teas do not appear in the main outlets because freshness is so essential: Japanese ones are the main instance.
Indian teas have benefited from the ability to streamline bush to cup logistics, timing and speeding up shipping to a few weeks, with Teabox very much a recognized leader. Sadly, the quality of Chinese teas is lagging way behind. The very best do not reach the market, though again specialty stores are buying direct from the small growers and working their way around the export licensing and shipping restrictions they face. Most of the supermarket China teas are bulk farmed and bulk shipped. Few small tea stores carry the better grades of the best teas. Many of the whole leaf ones are still more than good but there are far better ones back at home.
The story of the tea clippers thus still has relevance and resonance. It reflected the importance of getting tea to market as quickly as possible and in the best condition. That’s still the main issue. Very few tea lovers ask how their teas get to them. It’s a question worth asking.