'On The River Min' History
After 40 years of researching everything connected to the Tea Trade and the Clippers, Chinese Junks and Sampans, I spent one year producing a pencil working drawing of "On the River Min"
In 1996, I visited China and the Pagoda Anchorage. I also continued my research visiting Museums in Shanghai, Canton, Hong Kong, Foochow and Macao. Now after five years work, I have finally completed the 2.9 metre painting of "On the River Min".
The City of Foochow was one of the four treaty ports opened to western trade after the First Opium War in 1839. The tea trade developed rapidly and Foochow was the most important, as the earliest pickings of the season were available at this port. The Pagoda Anchorage at Mawei was twenty-five miles from the entrance to the Min River and twelve miles below the City of Foochow.
The year 1869 was an important year for the tea industry as it was also the year of the opening of the Suez Canal. This gave a big advantage to the early steamships, which until then could not compete economically with the sailing ship. Now they could reduce the voyage to China by up to 50%. However, for the sailing ship it was quicker by way of Good Hope with a prevailing wind system.
The ship THERMOPYLAE was built in Aberdeen in 1868. With his new clipper, George Thompson hoped to lower the colours of the noted Clyde built ships of Robert Steele. With a picked crew under the command of Captain Kemball, THERMOPYLAE set sail for Melbourne on 7th November 1868. On this, her first voyage, she broke the record on each stage of the voyage. From Pilot to Pilot, her passage was only 60 days to Melbourne. From Melbourne, THERMOPYLAE went up to Newcastle New South Wales, where she loaded for Shanghai, and then made the passage across the Pacific in 28 days, another record.. From Shanghai she sailed down to Foochow to load tea, with the golden cock at her masthead, which raised much indignation amongst the crews of those ships that had already won the Blue Ribbon of the Sea as the Foochow Tea Race was justly called. THERMOPYLAE's figurehead was said to be a magnificent carving representing the Spartan King Leonidas, who defended gallantly the Persian advance through THERMOPYLAE Pass in Greece during the Persian Invasion of 480 BC.
It took some weeks for the tea to come down from the numerous tea plantations in the mountainous interior of the River Min. The River Min is tidal in the lower reaches, with the ebb the current can run, at some seven knots through the narrow Mingan Pass below the Pagoda Anchorage. The tea was brought down the river in sampans and the loading at the Pagoda Anchorage was done with much haste. The first lighters down distributed a ground tier, after which there were two or three sampans alongside each ship until loaded.
The British composite built ship during this period was one of the most perfect creations ever made by man, and the Fukien Junk, even if she lacked the lines and sailing qualities of the clipper, nevertheless, possessed an oriental beauty and dignity all her own. Built of Fukien softwood, she is of quite exceptionally strong construction for there are 25 frames and 15 full bulkheads divide the Junk. The sides of the hull are composed of long heavy planks laid on edge. Longitudinal strength is provided by means of a great number of wales. The distinctive features of these junks are the oval sterns. This form of construction lends itself to the Chinese artist. Here at Foochow, richness of colour and design is more in evidence than in any other part of the Flowery Kingdom.
These huge junks, some up to 180ft long, transported the local Fukien pine to Shanghai for export. The shorter logs were stowed in the deep broad holds which occupied the entire hull from the foremast to the Orlop Deck. Timber was also carried on deck, and the longer poles were lashed in a fore and aft position alongside in the shape of gigantic bundles. The bamboo ropes securing them passed right around under the junk and was secured to the mainmast. In the middle background of the painting one of these pole junks can be seen outward bound down the river with a heavy load of timber.
THERMOPYLAE was of composite construction; 947 tons registered; length 210 ft; breadth 36 ft; and depth 21 ft. Her hull was painted Aberdeen Green. There was great excitement with the shippers at the coast ports of China in 1869, when it became known that the THERMOPYLAE was chartered to load new teas at Foochow for London. The "Opening of the Tea Market" was a feature peculiar to the Foochow tea trade. As soon as it became known that Jardine's or some other well-known English firm had opened the market, all the rest of the merchants began to buy their favourite "Chops" at appropriate prices. Speed was the order of the day.
The ARIEL was built in 1865 and was composite built. Her dimensions were 197.4 ft by 33.9 ft. by 21.0 ft. Her masts and spars were painted flesh colour. The panels of her bulwarks and midshiphouse were pure white, with a narrow green edging and a touch of delicate pink stencilling in the centres. She had brass let in flush to all her bulwark rails and stanchions, inside and out.
Robert Steele built SERICA for James Findlay of Greenoch, in 1863. This was the last wooden tea clipper built by Steele. Her dimensions were 185.9 ft. by 31.1 ft. by 19.6 ft. This gave her a net tonnage of 708 tons. She was fitted with a half poop and four boats. The lower masts and their yards were of iron.
The ARIEL completed loading first, getting away from the Pagoda Anchorage on July 1, 1869 and returning to London in the time of 103 days. THERMOPYLAE followed 2 days later, leaving on July 3. She completed her most successful maiden voyage with another record, 91 days to London. This success was short-lived, however, as ARIEL's sister-ship SIR LANCELOT, shortened THERMOPYLAE's time by a further two days, just two weeks later.
Having arrived late at Foochow this year, SERICA did not leave with her load of tea until July 24, completing her voyage home to London in 114 days. In 1872, SERICA left Hong Kong on November 2 for Monte Video, but was wrecked on the Paracels the next day; there was only one survivor.
In 1870, ARIEL was dismasted south of Yokohama on an intermediate passage. After refitting, she left Yokohama for New York going across the Pacific and around Cape Horn. She passed Diego Ramirz on November 30 and reached New York on January 15, 1871. In 1872 she left London for Sydney on January 31 and was never heard of again. It was usually assumed that she was fatally pooped when running her easting down.
As the steamers forced the tea clippers out of the tea trade, THERMOPYLAE was put on the Australian run carrying the wool clip until 1890. The times of her outward and homeward passages whilst under the Aberdeen White Star Line house flag, show the wonderful consistency of her work. The average of her best ten passages out to Melbourne from Pilot to Pilot, give the astonishing time of 67 days.
In 1890 THERMOPYLAE was sold to Mr Redford of Montreal, and put into the rice trade between Rangoon and Vancouver, British Columbia. She was then sold in 1895 to the Portuguese Government, which turned her into a training ship and renamed her Pedro Nunes.
Finally, on the 13th October 1907, she was towed out of the Tagus by two Portuguese men-of-war and torpedoed.
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