The first ships that transported tea from the East to the West were the solid East Indiamen. These heavy ships, tightly packed with weighty tea chests, sailed slowly across the seas, ultimately reaching England with tea that was already a year old.
These ponderous ships were replaced by ‘clippers’– thus called because, with their narrow hulls and a great number of sails, they ‘clipped off’ miles. The first tea clipper, the Oriental, arrived in England on 3 December 1850 – just ninety-seven days after leaving Hong Kong, causing great excitement. It was only then that Britain got to taste ‘fresh’ tea for the very first time!
These attractive, sleek, graceful and fast yacht-like “greyhounds of the sea” were immediately imbued with an aura of romance. Clipper races soon became the rage, with gentlemen betting large sums on the vessel of their choice. Each clipper, carrying more than a million pounds of tea, was committed to a rival merchant in London who wanted to get his tea on the market ahead of his competitors and sell it at a premium.
The vessels raced side by side for 14,000 nautical miles all the way from ports in the Far East to the Thames in London – dealing with fast currents, dangerous reefs, strong winds, monsoon tides, and even pirates! From the Thames estuary, each clipper was towed by a tug boat up the river to the London docks, and it was this final leg of the journey that decided which clipper won the race.
As the first ship was sighted turning into the mouth of the Thames, telegrams were shot off to gentlemen’s clubs and the London offices of the various tea companies, reporting the progress of the ships. Tea brokers stayed in dockside hotels so that they could taste samples and choose the finest teas as soon as the first chests of tea were offloaded. The chosen tea chests were delivered to their tasting rooms in London and put up for auction at the earliest.
Cutty Sark, one of the three original 19th-century clippers still in existence, set sail to Shanghai on her maiden voyage under Captain George Moodie on 17 February 1870, returning in October carrying 5,92,305 kg of tea. She was one of the fastest tea clippers, travelling at a speed of 20 miles. After an illustrious eight ‘tea seasons’ in the fleet owned by shipping magnate John Willis, she was sold and used as a cargo ship and then as a base for training sea cadets. She was ‘retired’ in December 1954, and permanently docked in Greenwich, London.
In the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ famous poem, Tam o’ Shanter, Cutty Sark (meaning ‘short underskirt’) is the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee. Not surprising, then, that the figurehead of the ship is a carving of her.
After buying a ticket and exploring the historical ship, one can sit directly below her massive, 212 feet long hull, looking up in awe at her majesty while savouring a steaming cup of tea.