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The First American Ship to Carry Tea from China to London

The first American ship to carry a cargo of tea from China to London after the repeal of the Navigation Laws was the clipper Oriental, 1,003 tons, built for A. A. Low & Brother, New York, by Jacob Bell in 1849. She was 185 feet long, 36 feet in breadth, and built of live oak, white oak, locust and cedar with a deck of white oak.

Her maiden trip to Hong Kong by the eastern passages took 109 days. She returned to New York with a cargo of tea in 81 days.

On her second voyage she made Hong Kong from New York again in 81 days. Then she was chartered by Russell & Co. to carry tea to London at £6 per ton of 40 cubic feet, even as British ships went begging for London cargoes at £3 per ton of 50 cubic feet. The Oriental delivered 1,600 tons of tea in London in 1850, being 97 days out of Hong Kong – a feat of speed never before equaled. The cost to build this ship was $70,000; her revenue on this one shipment of tea alone was $48,000.

On her voyage of 367 days from New York through Far Eastern seas to London she had sailed 67,000 miles, logging about 183 miles a day.

On January 26, 1853 she sailed from New York under command of Captain Fletcher and arrived in San Francisco in early May after a passage of 101 days. Off Cape Horn she lost her foremast which was repaired at sea. After discharging her cargo at San Francisco, Oriental sailed across the Pacific to China to load again a cargo of tea for London, first at Canton then completing in Foochow. She was lost on the River Min when she was towed out from Foochow by local boats and under pilot directions, she hit a rock and sank on February 25, 1854.

Other California clipper ships that followed in the wake of the Oriental to London, causing the English shipowners to lose the London tea trade almost entirely to American ships, were the Surprise, White Squall, Sea Serpent, Nightingale, Argonaut, and Challenge. The American clippers continued to command twice the price per ton asked by British ships.

The discovery of gold in California turned the attention of Americans very largely to their own coasts, only a few of their ships going across the Pacific to China for a return cargo of tea, but the British shipping companies built against one another in competition that was just as keen as it had been against the Americans.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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