July 05, 2019

Credit: Library of Congress

This piece was originally published on January 11th, 2019.

Back in the mid-19th century, some American entrepreneurs sailed halfway around the world - to China - to make their fortunes. These merchants would later build dynasties back home by investing money in promising American industries, including railroads and coal, as well as new technologies, like the telegraph.

It was the invention of the clipper ship that made it all possible. These were ships that were built for speed and profit, a profit that came not just by importing goods like tea to the U.S., but also by smuggling opium to China.

We talk with Steven Ujifusa, a historian and author of “Barons of the Sea: And their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship,” about these vessels - which once raced across the ocean - and the owners who used them to reshape America.

Three Takeaways:

  • Importing opium into China was banned by Chinese authorities but, because of the corruption of some Chinese officials, British and American merchants were still able to smuggle the opium to Canton, with help from tremendously rich Chinese traders.
  • Ujifusa says sometimes the wives of clipper ship captains accompanied them on their journeys. Eleanor Creesy was the wife of a clipper ship captain and also the navigator of the Flying Cloud - the world's fastest clipper ship in 1851. Her navigation and mathematical skills allowed the Flying Cloud to sail from New York to San Francisco in less than 90 days. 
  • According to Ujifusa, clipper ships in the 19th century were a marvelous invention, but there was little concern for the safety of those who helped operate them.

More Reading:

  • A look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s connection to China, which, not surprisingly, stemmed from the experiences of his grandfather, Warren Delano.
  • Learn more about the opium trade and the history of the Opium War from The New York Times.
  • Author David W. Shaw gives insights into the history of Flying Cloud, the world's fastest clipper ship in 1851, and Eleanor Creesy, the navigator for the voyage.
  • Interested in sailing? National Geographic lists Top 10 Sailing Cruises.

tea, clipper ships, Opium, Steven Ujifusa, history, Business

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