The Great Tea Race of 1866

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File:Taeping and Ariel.jpg
The Taeping and the Ariel raced neck-and-neck to the finish

The Great Tea Race of 1866 was an unofficial competition between the fastest clipper ships of the China tea trade to bring the season's first crop of tea to London in 1866[1].

Fierce competition existed year round to be the vessel first back to London with the new shipment of tea; extra incentives were added in 1866, when heavy bets were made in England on the winner.

The tea clipper races had by this time become a tradition in the tea trade between Britain and China. The winning vessel was awarded an extra pound sterling for every ton of freight delivered, and the captain of the winning tea clipper was given a percentage of the ship's earnings.

Preparing to race

The ships could not leave port in China until the ship was fully loaded. The tea chests arrived by sampans and other small water craft up the Min River from Fuzhou. The tea clippers were loaded around the clock by Chinese workers, while the crew checked the cargo and readied the ship.

In 1866, nine ships laden with the first tea of the season left Fuzhou between 29 May and 6 June, but only four of the nine were really competing for the prize: the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Taeping, and the Serica.[2] Three sailed on 30 May, the Fiery Cross started on 29 May, but though she had a day's lead on her rivals, she still lost the race.

Report of the race

In London's Daily Telegraph of 12 September 1866, an article headed "The Great Tea Race of 1866" reported that the main competitors were the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Taeping, and the Serica.

... leaving China at the same time, sailed almost neck-and-neck the whole way, and finally arrived in the London docks within two minutes of each other. A struggle more closely contested or more marvellous in some of its aspects has probably never before been witnessed. The Taeping, which won, arrived on the Lizard at literally the same hour as the Ariel, her nearest rival, and then dashed up the Channel, the two ships abreast of each other. During the entire day they gallantly ran side by side, carried on by a strong westerly wind, every stitch of canvas set, and the sea sweeping their decks as they careered before the gale.

Surprise finish

The race took over 3 months, crossing the South China Sea, through the Sunda Strait of Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa, and up the Atlantic Ocean to the English Channel. This was the fastest route for one ship to take, as the Suez Canal was still under construction. The three leaders in the race docked in London within a short time of each other.[3]

Near Dungeness, harbour pilots boarded the Taeping and the Ariel at the same moment, and at the Downs steam tugs were waiting to tow them to the River Thames. It was at this point that the fight was really decided.

Both vessels were taken in tow at the same time and they were neck-and-neck going up the Thames. The Taeping, however, reached Gravesend first, with the Ariel at close by and the Serica was still a close third. Taeping entered the dock at a quarter before 10:00 on Thursday. The Taeping won with a mere 20 minutes lead over Ariel, with Serica third, just one and a half hours behind the leader who won the prize.

Tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) from Köhler's Medicinal Plants.

In Teas of the World, Nancy Hyden Woodward wrote that the three tea clippers had taken just 102 days to sail three quarters of the way around the globe[4].

The Daily Mail recorded that "Taeping has thus secured the prize, which is an extra freight of 10 shillings a ton on her cargo of tea. " The Taeping was carrying 767 tons and 1,108,709 pounds of tea.


  • Woodward, Nancy Hyden (1980). Teas of the World. New York: Collier Books. ISBN 0020828705. 
  • The Great Tea Race of 1866. London: The Daily Telegraph. 12 September 1866. 
  • Shewan, Andrew (1927). The Great Days of Sail. Naval Institute Press. 


  1. London Daily Telegraph (12 September1866), page needed
  2. Arthur H. Clark (1911). "The clipper ship era; an epitome of famous American and British clipper ships, their owners, builders, commanders, and crews, 1843-1869". G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. p. 330. Retrieved 2010-02-18. "the Taitsing followed...on the 31st...the Ada, Black Prince, Chinaman, and Flying Spur...unfortunately, did not finish loading in time to take part in the race" 
  3. Lars Bruzelius (Wednesday, September 12, 1866). "The Great Tea Race, 1866". The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette. p. 5. Retrieved 2010-02-18. 
  4. Woodward (1980), page needed

See also

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