Friday, July 01, 2005

10: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 10

In China it is known as “cha”. It is a commodity that for centuries traveled the Silk Road, the Spice Road, and the sea routes that replaced them when seafaring technology allowed it. It is neither silk, nor spice, although some say it is as smooth as silk, and some add spices to it. In English, it is known as “tea”.

Tea was a commodity brought back from China to Europe by the great traveler himself, Marco Polo. Once European exploration and colonization allowed bulk cargos of silks, spices and tea to be shipped by sea, tea became perhaps the most significant product imported into European countries, and later to the American Colonies. So high a value was placed on it that in the early 1770s, when the British placed a rather exorbitant tax on it, the good residents of the American colonies started smuggling their tea into the colonies. That act caught the attention of the British. The British then passed an act that would allow the British East India Company to land and sell tea without taxes or fees, thus enabling them to undercut American tea smugglers, like John Hancock. In what some historians feel is one of the first instances of women banding together in a common cause to influence a political situation, the ladies of the American colonies began to boycott tea imported by the British East India Company. Eventually, all the colonies but Massachusetts refused landing rights to ships carrying “Company” tea. The Sons of Liberty, as they called themselves, dumped the cargos of tea from three “Company” ships into Boston harbor one night, carefully cleaning up after themselves and ensuring that no one was hurt, and only the tea was damaged. No one simply threw away a whole cargo of tea like that! Thus, tea became one of the issues leading to the American War for Independence.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, getting from Europe, or the east coast of the United States to the South Pacific Spice Islands, or to China itself for the “cha” was a long and arduous journey. From the American Colonies, and later the United States, ships heading for India had to cross the Atlantic, sail down the west coast of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, sail up the east coast of Africa before turning east and crossing the Arabian Sea to India, where tea was produced in abundance. To travel to the East Indies (as the spice producing Islands of Indonesia were called), ships leaving from American ports had the option of going around the Cape of Good Hope, or risking the shorter but perilous passage “around the Horn”.

Notorious for its ubiquitous bad weather and harsh westerly winds, rounding Cape Horn at the Southern tip of South America was hazardous even in decent weather. The many small islands contained dangerous shoal waters, where a slip of the wind, or a moment’s loss of attention could crush a ship to pieces. Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner sailing for King Charles I of Spain, took just over three months to work his way through a passage he would name All Saints Channel, and history would rename as the Straits of Magellan in his honor. This narrow, dangerous passage between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (so named because the local indigenous tribes would line the cliffs of the passage with large fires) remained the main route to the west coast of South America used by the Spanish to transport and then supply their Conquistadors. (Their treasure, however, would go by land to Panama, and across the isthmus to the Gulf of Mexico for transport to Spain by Spanish Galleon…if Drake didn’t get it first!). Attempting to follow Magellan some 59 years after his 1520 passage through the Straits, Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego was not a solid landmass to the south, but a large island, and some years later, the Drake Passage was fully discovered. With its ample waters, calmer (but colder) weather and a better angle of sailing into the wind (on the beam reach or the broad reach), it offered ships a respite from the winds and storms and rocky shoals of the Straits.

Enter the Clipper Ship. Gracefully beautiful, and built for speed more than anything else, these sleek, narrow, four-masted vessels with incredible amounts of sail were able to double the speed of a normal three-masted cargo ship, on the clipper’s worst days. The clippers sailed from American and European ports usually around the Horn to San Francisco. In the late 1840s the Clippers left Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans and made the run around the horn taking the Forty-Niners to the California gold fields. On their return journey they would bring tea, silk, and spices hauled across the Pacific from the Orient to San Francisco in slower merchant vessels.

Eventually, American clipper ships would become supplanted during the Industrial Revolution, and the age of steam, first by steam powered ships of greater speed and capacity, finally to the American transcontinental railroad that would make the trip to San Francisco in a matter of days, not the weeks it would require for the clipper to journey there. And there was little limit to what the railroads could haul in the way of either passengers or cargo.

That romance and mystique of the trade routes to the mysterious Orient had vanished with the sound of the steam whistle, and the clatter of steel wheels on iron tracks.

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Next: Part Eleven
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