By High-Value Nutrition Chief Scientist | Kaipūtaiao Matua HVN | Professor Richard Mithen

The America’s Cup is upon us – Emirates Team New Zealand versus the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Challenge from Italy. 
Will this be the greatest sailing race ever? Will it surpass the 2017 final in Bermuda or, indeed, the Great Tea Race of 1866?

Tea, of course, has been one of those ‘foods’ of great cultural importance but little conventional nutritional value[1] that have nonetheless changed the course of human history. An infusion of the dried leaves of Camelina sinensis had been consumed in China for maybe 5,000 years prior to it being introduced into Europe in the 16th Century as firstly a medical concoction and subsequently as a high-value luxury .

China controlled a monopoly on tea until the first half of the 19th century when tea plantations were established in India, which led to tea becoming more of a commodity product and an everyday beverage. Tea has played its part in world history: the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a protest over the manner by which the British government levied taxes on tea imported into the American colony by the East India Company, was the first in a series of events that led to the American War of Independence; and the Opium Wars of the mid 19th century in which Britain, and specifically the East India Company, sought to balance the cost of the purchase of tea, silk and porcelains from China by the supply of opium much to the infuriation of the Qing dynasty, is often considered to mark the beginning of the decline of the Chinese Empire and the emergence of Russia as a world power.

By the middle of the 19th century the monopoly on the global tea trade by the British East India company had waned, and there was much competition to supply Europe and America with tea from China and India. The large heavy vessels that had brought tea and other cargoes slowly and laboriously from China were replaced by sleeker and lighter sailing ships known as clippers[2] that began to compete with each other to bring tea from China to New York or London, completing the journey in less than 100 days.

Through the 1850s, American and British vessels raced each other to bring the new-season ‘high-value’ tea from China to the discerning tea-drinkers of America and Great Britain. The new-season’s teas commanded a significant premium, and tea aficionados would make reference to the particular ships on which their tea had arrived. After 1862 with America embroiled in its civil war the clipper races became an entirely British affair.

The greatest of all the tea races was in 1866. In May of that year 16 clippers assembled on the Min River downriver from the port of Foochow (present-day Fuzhou). The five lead contenders – the Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica, Taitsing and Taipeng departed on the same tide within a few hours of each other on the 29th of May. News of the start of the race was relayed by telegraph to London, and there was much betting on which ship would arrive first and thus command the premium on its tea cargo.

Remarkably, after a journey of more than 15,000 miles – across the Indian ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope – three of the ships – the Ariel, Serica and Taipeng all arrived in London on 6 September and docked within two hours of each other on the same tide. The Taipeng being eventually declared the winner but only following an agreement that the prize money and tea premium would be shared with the Ariel to prevent any disputes. Ironically, the tea clippers had all been beaten by the auxiliary steam ship[3] the SS Erl King that had left with its own consignment of new season tea a week after the tea clippers and had arrived in London on 20 August, beating the tea clippers by two weeks,[4]  and contributing to an unexpected glut of new season tea.

Further developments in steamship technology and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant that sailing ships could no longer compete with steamships, and the last tea race was in 1871. The tea clippers had to be redeployed, and many began carrying emigrants to Australia and New Zealand. Amongst these was the tea clipper the Wild Deer which was chartered to New Zealand Shipping Company in 1871 and made ten voyages from Great Britain to Port Chalmers before she was wrecked off the coast of Ireland in 1883.[5]

The new season’s tea commanded a significant premium. There is no evidence that these teas were superior to tea that had been in storage for months, or even years, although tea connoisseurs would probably claim to be able to detect subtle differences in the flavour notes, and maybe they could. The 19th century tea races reminds us that high-value food is not just about its nutritional content, but about its story. While the nearest equivalent today to the tea races may be the annual race to distribute Beaujolais Nouveau in November of each year, we all experience the pleasures of the seasonal produce, such as the arrival of apricots and other stone fruits in the supermarkets, and the sight of the first roadside cherry stalls in December.

The early years of the tea clipper races in the 1850s coincides with the first America’s Cup race in 1851, in which the schooner America beat a field of eight cutters and five schooners in a 53 mile race around the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England. The America’s Cup race and the Tea races are testament to the advance in sailing technology that had occurred in the early 19th century. While the tea clipper races of the 19th century are now no more and are largely forgotten, the America’s Cup race continues…


[1] Tea from the dried leaves of Camilina sativa contains a wide range of polyphenolic compounds that are often associated with health promoting effects.

[2] A clipper is a three-mast sailing ship designed for speed and cargo volume. Vessels had long waterlines, fine bows and tall masts up to 30m and were able to achieve speeds of 35 km/h

[3] An auxiliary steam ship is one that combines sail with steam.



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