The Story of the Clipper Ships

The Story of the Clipper Ships

Commercial Contest to Sporting Event

The East India Company used big, slow, majestic ships, the East Indiamen, to transport merchandise between London and Canton, a six-month journey. Then came the Americans, newly independent, looking to invest in international trade. They developed the clippers, a new type of ship especially designed to carry tea (their elongated form literally cut through the water). These sailing ships were built for speed. They could make the crossing in about 90 days, giving them a big head start on the vessels that sailed from London, and the consequent advantage of being able to sell their cargoes at much better prices.

The British reacted by building their own clippers, giving rise to the famous tea races. The discovery of gold in California took the Americans in other directions, but the races continued among the English. At the end of this era, the clipper races became a sporting event, accompanied by great enthusiasm, crowd appeal, and betting.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought an abrupt end to the era of the clipper ships. Enter the steamers, able to carry larger cargoes and to transport them at constant speeds, a feat sailing boats could not hope to match. The clippers finished their career carrying wool from Australia.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Histoire du thé, Tea Bureau, s. d.