Clipper Ship Owners Made Millions. Others Paid the Price.

Clipper ships traveled at blistering speeds but conditions on board were brutal, and opium was their most profitable cargo.

In their day, they were the fastest ships ever to have been built. They revolutionized global trade, ferrying tea from China and delivering provisions and equipment to the burgeoning settlement of Gold Rush-era San Francisco. Their owners would become some of the richest men in the United States. But as historian Steven Ujifusa shows in his new book, Barons of the Sea, clipper ships also had a dark side: They serviced the opium trade, which left millions of Chinese addicted, and employed brutal, and sometimes dangerous, methods to make their ships sail faster.

When National Geographic caught up with Ujifusa in Washington, D.C., he explained how clipper ship owners reconciled their religious backgrounds with the opium trade, how steamships and the railroad eventually rendered clipper ships obsolete, and how a clipper ship with a female navigator held the record for the fastest voyage from New York to San Francisco right up to the 1980s.

A historian said of the clipper ships: “Illicit and desperate practices followed close in their wake throughout their existence.” Explain what he meant, and what the Americans’ goal was in producing them.

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So-called Baltimore clippers, which were built in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay area in the 1810s and 1820s, were used as slave smugglers and privateers. By the 1840s, American merchants doing business in China took these designs and expanded them into China clippers, carrying tea from Canton to New York and, later, Hong Kong. These merchants also used variants of the Baltimore clippers as opium runners, smuggling opium into China, thanks to bribes given to Chinese officials who were there to stop the opium trade but, instead, facilitated it.

What’s distinctive about a clipper ship as opposed to other types of vessels?

The definition of an American clipper ship is a three-masted, full-rigged ship with square sails on each of her three masts that was built for speed rather than capacity. So the designers of the great clipper ships of the 1840s and 1850s sharpened the bow and stern, creating much hollower lines than before. They were built to carry high-value freight, like tea from China or, during the Gold Rush, dry goods and provisions to California that would fetch very high prices. These ships were also much more loftily rigged than typical merchant ships. This made them very expensive to operate because you needed crews of 50 or 60 men.

Shipping barons like Warren Delano and Robert Forbes got rich from the opium trade in China, which left millions addicted or dead. Introduce us to these men and explain how they squared their Protestant morality with what was essentially drug running, and how it eventually led to the Opium War.

Several of the men I feature come from a tight-knit group of Yankee families in the Boston and New Bedford area. They didn’t see anything wrong with the opium trade. Robert Bennett Forbes compared the opium trade to nothing worse than dealing in liquor or strong spirits, and Warren Delano wrote that the opium trade was a perfectly honorable, legitimate trade. But when they were living in the foreigners’ colony in Canton in the 1830s, they didn’t actually see its effects on the Chinese population all that much.

In 1838, a new governor of Canton Province was tasked by the emperor with showing the foreign devils, as western traders were known, who was boss. This new commissioner demands that the Americans and British hand over 20,000 chests of opium to the Chinese government for destruction. The British and Americans say, “This is our opium; how can you do this?” So the commissioner promptly blockades the Foreigners Colony, in Canton, and the opium is thrown into the Pearl River.

The British traders leave, saying, “We’ll be back with force because you just confiscated the Queen’s opium.” On their return, they shell Canton in revenge and Canton is burned. Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, the Chinese government is forced pay 21 million pounds sterling as reparations, not just for the seizure of the British opium but also for the costs for the British Royal Navy to sail over there. The treaty also forces open several other ports for Western trade, which allows opium to flow unchecked into the Celestial Kingdom, thus beginning the so-called “Century of Humiliation” for the Chinese.

Mid-1800s Shipwreck Discovered Thousands of Feet Deep July 3, 2018 – NOAA researchers came upon this shipwreck 150 miles off North Carolina’s coast, thousands of feet deep. They took a close look with the remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer and found items that paint a picture of the mid-1800s submerged ship and the persons on board.

You call the clipper ship builder Donald McKay a “mechanic and craftsman as American hero.” Tell us about him and the “extreme clippers” he built in Boston.

He was an immigrant success story. He was born in 1810 in Nova Scotia, the son of an itinerant shipwright and farmer, came to New York, then opened up his own yard in East Boston in the 1840s, becoming a kind of Jacksonian, common-man hero. He once said something to the effect of, “My words and language are rough but my feelings are honest and true.”

He began building a series of very successful, very large ships for the California trade. There’s an old naval design rule that the longer the waterline length of a vessel, the faster it can go. So McKay built clippers that were significantly larger than the old China clippers. McKay’s clippers to California grew to almost 300 feet long and The Republic was almost 400 feet long. This represented a tremendous growth in terms of how big these ships got and how fast they went.

Clipper ships like these helped build San Francisco into the city we know today. Starting in 1848-1849, there was a huge demand for miner’s supplies —furniture, chairs, tables, provisions, and lots of booze—to be shipped around Cape Horn from the East Coast, to the new city of San Francisco, which grew from a fishing village of 2,000 people to a major metropolis of over 100,000 by the mid-to-late 1850s.

This was similar to how Jeff Bezos revolutionized the supply chain for goods from all over the world. The China clippers would bring tea from Canton or Hong Kong to New York, cutting down the typical sailing speed from 160 days to under 100 days. This was truly revolutionary. One of McKay’s clippers reportedly logged 22 knots, a speed that steamships would not reach until the 1890s.

Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is about a ship’s captain who makes a deal with Satan in exchange for speed. The clipper ships had their own version of the legend in “driver captains” like Robert Waterman. Tell us about him and his fatal voyage in Challenge.

Robert Waterman had a long history of making record passages from China. While onshore, he was a dandy and a ladies man, but on ships he was an absolute tyrant. In 1851, he was given command of a clipper ship called The Challenge. She was 2,000 tons and had masts well over 200 feet high. His bosses, the Griswold brothers, offered him a $10,000 bonus if he made it to San Francisco in less than 90 days. But Waterman was given the dregs of the waterfront as a crew.

Ultimately, there is a near-mutiny, several men are beaten to death or fall from the yard, and the ship sails into San Francisco Harbor after a voyage of 109 days, flying a distress flag. Waterman is tried for murder in San Francisco. This is one of the more violent episodes in the clipper ship era and exposes to the nation and to the world how men and safety were sacrificed for the quickest possible passage to get goods to market first.

This was an era before any sort of regulation of conditions on board or of labor. The way crews were recruited was a bit like the Royal Navy with its press gangs. Actually, that’s where the term Shanghaied came from. Captains would often have a hard time getting enough men to crew up these clipper ships, which needed 50 to 60 men to sail efficiently. So, they would send out so-called “crimps” to the brothels and bars of lower Manhattan or Boston and, working in cahoots with the madams and saloonkeepers, drop drugs into the drinks of the patrons, who would then wake up with a splitting headache, a third of their wages gone and on the way to China or San Francisco. [laughs]

I was amazed to read that the Flying Cloud’s record of 89 days and 21 hours from New York to San Francisco stood until 1989. Tell us about the various attempts on that record, and what it says about the clipper ships.

The Flying Cloud was unique. Not only was she an exceptionally well-built clipper, and arguably McKay’s masterpiece before The Great Republic, but she also had a very good team. She had a very good captain, Captain Josiah Creesy. He had been in the China trade before. He also had a very valuable asset: his wife, Eleanor Creesy, who served as his navigator. She used a new set of charts that allowed the navigator to find the optimal winds and currents to make a quick passage by avoiding the doldrums. Without her, the Flying Cloud would not have made that voyage. And it was not until the late 1980s that the sailing yacht Thursday’s Child broke the record. Some people say that it doesn’t really count because she was a yacht, not a commercial vessel, and that the record under sail still stands.

Eventually, clipper ships became what you call “beautiful anachronisms.” Talk about their legacy for the United States, and the sea barons who built them.

The end of the clipper ships came about due to the railroads, first across the Panama Isthmus and later across the continental U.S., which made such long-haul voyages by sail less profitable. Also, the rise of long-distance steam ships and the trans-Atlantic cable, which allowed information, especially financial information, to be transmitted almost instantaneously. The Civil War also wreaked havoc on the clipper ship era, when Confederate raiders chased down and sank several clippers.

As for the legacy of these ships, even though their era was extremely brief, they still persist in the American imagination. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morisonsaid that these clipper ships came and went with the finality of the passenger pigeon, but these were our cathedrals of wood, our Parthenons, the most complex structures we had ever built. And they still elicit wonder today. They were built for brutal, laissez faire capitalism, but in terms of their angelic beauty they are peerless.

Warren Delano II was one of the most famous of the men who derived their fortunes from owning clipper ships. He and several of his business partners would diversify their China trade fortunes into industries such as the railroads, coal and copper mining, the Trans-Atlantic cable, and real estate. When Warren Delano died in 1898 he bequeathed well over $1 million to each of his children, which would put him on the Forbes 400 list of wealthy men in America at the time. His most famous descendant was his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, as a successful politician, loved to quote his grandfather’s famous dictum: “In business, never let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.”

Many of the great clipper ship fortunes funded famous preparatory schools, like Milton Academy, and universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as well as many other well-known cultural institutions. It’s a contradiction that these men were engaged in the opium trade but, when they came home, used their fortunes to invest in early American industries and civic institutions that we still know, and venerate, to this day.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.