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A gem of globalisation

After recovering from the revelries at the blogger bash, there was no better way to unwind than enjoy a trip down to Greenwich, east London, and wander around the superb clipper sailing ship in dry dock, the Cutty Sark.

This three-masted, square-rigged jewel of 19th century sailing technology was built to carry goods like Chinese tea, Australian wool and other products at high speed to London. The vessel that could moor up at the great port of London ahead of the competition would get the best prices for its produce. These great beasts of the high seas were sailed with the kind of white-knuckle speed and skill that would put a modern America’s Cup yacht race to shame. They often frequently would beat steam-driven vessels over comparable distances.

When we think about today’s rows about globalisation it is easy to assume that so many aspects of economic life are new. They are not. Our Victorian forbears already conducted trade on a vast scale. Ships such as the Cutty Sark commonly had cosmopolitan crews from countries across the world. There were very few regulations governing who could join up as a merchant seaman.

Of course, many aspects of life have improved since then. I dread to think what it must have been like to climb aloft the Cutty Sark’s mainmast in a gale to reef in a sail with the ship rolling about – and you can forget anything like safety harnesses. But these men enjoyed an enterprising life which at times makes yours truly almost feel quite jealous.

13 comments to A gem of globalisation

  • The history of how, somewhat later, the refigerated steam ships, made possible the huge extension of sheep farming in New Zealand, and provided the British people with affordable meat and dairy products is another fascinating part of the Merchant Navy story.

  • Good point about global trade not being exactly a new thing. Many “educated” people have no idea of the past. I recently saw a comment by a professor who said that, in 1900, it took “several weeks” for news to travel from the U.S. east coast to the U.S. west coast….guess he didn’t know about the railroads and the telegraph.

  • Sailing Speed:

    Many of the records set by those ships still stand, or have been beaten only by the tiniest margins by ultra modern unlimited class racing catamarans with latest in satellite weather and top notch crews.

    Those guys did it with sailors of little education, hauling serious cargo, a sextant, a clock and barometer.

    But in the end it was the multiple expansion steam boiler (which economised on fuel (hence $), and thus increased unsupported range) and a reliable service that really was valuable.


  • If you walk up the hill to the Greenwich observatory you can look at the various clocks and watches made by John Harrison in the course of winning the longitude prize in the 18th century, which had some significance in the development of the globalised world, too.

  • Ted Schuerzinger


    Don’t forget regarding John Harrison that the government’s longitude committee didn’t want to give Harrison the prize because he was a simple country clockmaker and not “one of them”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • A read of Moby Dick will help understand how much globalisation has been around since man took to the sea. As a guide to understanding all aspects of life on sailing ships, and how they shaped the world, Moby Dick is pretty good.

  • Alan

    Ah, the picture has brought back some happy memories. Visiting Greenwich, going to the National Maritime Museum and visiting the Cutty Sark was a regular treat when I was a small boy (many years ago now)…

    The comments about global trade not being a new phenomenon are very true – I suspect this ignorance (denial?) of the past in certain quarters is partly due to the growing trend – in Britain at least – of being ashamed about the growth of British influence around the world at that time.

    As Jonathan notes in the main article, competition played a big part in the speed and sailing times of those ships. There was a lot of prestige and money to be gained from being the first to return from the other side of the world with the latest commodity. Hence those ships were pushed to the limit – the epic race between the Cutty Sark and Thermopylae in 1872 being the best example. It’s pretty impressive to think that ships of that size could sail from China to Britain in under 120 days without the benefit of satellite navigation and up to date weather forecasts etc.

    The books of Patrick O’Brien also give an excellent insight into life on board a sailing vessel, albeit from a slightly earlier point in time and based in the Senior Service.

  • Ted: And Harrison’s cause was eventually championed by King George III. I will confess to being a republican, but that doesn’t prevent kings and queens from doing good things occasionally (just like anybody else).

    Alan: Greenwich is a particularly nice place for a day out. You have the Cutty Sark, the Maritime museum, the observatory, and a lovely big park on the side of the hill where you can sit down with some fish and chips and watch London.

  • Alan


    There’s also the Greenwich Foot Tunnel over to the Isle of Dogs. The view back over the Thames towards Greenwich is also very pleasant as I recall.

    But fish and chips? Don’t forget Goddard’s Pie and Mash shop for a traditional London treat. Either pie mash and eels with liquor on top or my own favourite of jellied eels – a delicacy you can’t get in Scotland.

  • S. Weasel

    I like to stand on the international date line and feel the wind blow up my pants.

  • Andrew Duffin

    The Greenwich foot tunnel was built by I.K. Brunel iirc.

    Bigger faster ships than the Cutty Sark sailed the world commercially as recently as 1939.

    If you would like some real insight into those last glory days of sail, read “The Last Grain Race” by Eric Newby.

  • To Follow up on Andrew’s comments:

    He is of course correct, the “Flying P’s” class, the (almost) all steel “last word” on commercial sail were amazing creatures, and if I recall two are still alive. One in NYC on life support at the South Street Seaport, the other is the Russian Sail training vessel.

    (but I may be mistaken)

    Btw: SSS has a great video of one (Preussen , I think.) rounding Cape Horn in a storm in the 1920’s-30’s, at one point most of the hull is *under water* as viewed from a mast still proudly carrying sail. Which is something to see in a 6000 tonne sailcraft. Great video.

    The amazing thing from modern Maritime perspective though is how small they were.

    Modern commerical crude tankers are easily in the 100-300 Kilotonne dwt class, (that’s 50x the cargo of a largest sail ships with 1/2 the crew) and what is considered are small “handysize” product carriers (gasoline diesel, etc…) easily tipping the scale in the 10-15K tonne range.

    Modern main line container ships carry 8000+ of those 40ft containers that each require a fair sized truck (lorry to you brits) to move. They can be unloaded in a day or so, compared to the weeks (month?) it took to load and unload a large sail vessel.

    The modern economy moves (literally) orders of a magnitude more stuff around with (again literally )orders of magnitude fewer people.


    It’s a lot nicer for the crews and a bunch less romantic though.


  • Weasel: The international date line actually passes through the Pacific. It’s a good thing, too, as it would be annoying if it were Tuesday in Paris when it is Monday here.

    Alan: Well, I might as well eat some cod before the Icelandic stock goes the way of the stocks on the Grand Banks. But, I will try the pie and mash next time I am in the area. The foot tunnel is an interesting walk, but lazy people no longer need to take it, as there is a railway tunnel parallel to it and it is now possible to get to the Isle of Dogs from Greenwich by Docklands Light Railway.

    Andrew: The foot tunnel was designed by Alexander Binnie and not Brunel – the Greenwich tunnel was built in 1902, a little after Brunel’s time.

    There is a Thames tunnel with the Brunel connection that goes from Rotherhithe to Wapping and is now part of the London Underground. The principal engineer on this was Marc Brunel, rather than his more famous son, although Isambard Brunel did work on his father’s project as a young man.