Why is a clipper ship called a clipper ship?
Answer: they clipped time off journey durations.
The American clipper ship, sleek and narrow with a formidable yardage of sail could convey high-value, low-volume freight at up to 400 miles per day. It was the technological apogee of the sailing ship. Combined with the telegraph it was the mid-19th century forerunner of the internet and the jet plane. Combined with a few other factors, they led to the 1850’s producing what Ben Wilson calls the Dawn of the Global Age.
A plethora of gold strikes:
“Among the accidents which have influenced the fortune of the world will hereafter be ranked the creation of a sawmill on a branch of the Sacramento.”
The rise of newspapers:
"I think the papers are making the country a worse place to live, don't you feel like that? Just the unremitting horror of the Daily Express; they might as well get rid of news and just have every day, "DON'T GO OUTSIDE! It's full of queers, blacks and crime! Oh if only Diana was here!" They're all the same: the Daily Mail, every day, "ASBOs, Muslims, speed camera, speed camera, ASBOs, Muslims, speed cameras..."; the Sun: "Are you a paedo!? Are you a paedo!? Have a bang at her tits, 16 today, are you a paedo!?". The Independent, you try and read it, it's like it's grabbing you by the throat: "ARE YOU RECYCLING?! ARE YA?! YOU'VE JUST KILLED A POLAR BEAR, YOU!". All the while, The Guardian's in the corner, fanning itself with a wall-chart: "You silly little things. Tell 'em, Telegraph." "CRICKEET! CRICKEEET!" It's too much!"
—Russell Howard , Mock the Week*
The expansion of possibilities:
“Good luck to the new world citizen. There is no more splendid time to enter the world than the present…The new world citizens won’t be able to comprehend how small our world was.
Karl Marx, March 25, 1852
Heyday, The 1850’s and the Dawn of the Global Age, by Ben Wilson, takes us through a decade that sounds awfully familiar: the time between cities, countries, continents almost vanishing overnight. One minute it takes days, weeks, months to travel or to get news to far away places with strange sounding names; the next, a reply comes over a wire from Melbourne, Australia saying something about a gold strike and newpaper headlines propel hordes of fortune-hunters aboard the clippers.
Telegraphs, clipper ships, gold strikes and the proliferation of newspapers defined much of the 1850’s. But there was one product upon the price and availability of which the global economy depended, much as the global economy of our time has depended on the price and availability of oil, and that was cotton.
Cotton, for much of the first half of the 19th century, depended on the American south. Upon slavery.
The productions of slave labor have advanced the United States a century ahead of what they would have been without it. It has built up towns in America and Europe where there were none, and imparted energy to commerce, trade, and civilization all over the world.
New York Herald, May 28, 1856
The 1850’s may well indicate why the south was so adamant in its insistence on maintaining its “peculiar institution.” As anti-slavery sentiment arose in England, not to mention the northern U.S., the attention of the Manchester cotton mills began to look toward India. Before reading both this book and the essays contained in the 1619 Project I had little idea of the importance of the cotton crop of the U.S., planted, nurtured, and harvested by slave labor. And yet it was cotton that sailed to England in those great clippers and cotton prices sent to the exchanges of the world by telegram and printed in the great newspapers for private individuals to read and steer their investments that made the world go round. Yes, as many southerners claim, the Civil War was fought for economic independence, but that economic independence meant the continued use of slave labor. In fact, as Wilson points out, there were schemes afoot to extend the Confederacy into Middle America, if not Mexico, envisioning a vast plantation of cotton extending from the Mason-Dixon Line to the future banks of the Panama Canal, all made possible by the introduction of slave labor.
Then somehow, almost miraculously, a wrench was thrown into the entire scheme and instead of an empire of cotton and slaves the south was left for a time to lick its wounds while cotton from India took its place. Unfortunately, it used that time to construct a fantasy world of the ante-bellum south composed of peaceful plantations with happy slaves, all destroyed by a ravening army and a perverted attempt to turn their world upside down. I suspect it is this happy past to which many of today’s right wing wish, in their heart of hearts, to return, no matter that their own ancestors never came within sight of the great white house in their dreams. And some of them retained a few tricks of the trade in exploitation. I could name names, but you know them all anyway.
The 1850’s were a rollicking good time for white men roaming the world as if they owned it. And then some unsettling truths began to bubble to the surface, like they do. The Civil War was fought, in part, to settle a long-standing quarrel between the states. I would argue that the war was never won, that it never really ended. When you look closely, the idea of chattel slavery remains alive and well. But so does Lincoln’s dream. Reconstruction becomes the New Deal becomes Build Back Better. The wheel turns round. It all still matters.
*This quote, obviously, did not come from Mr. Wilson's book. He has a lot of material on the rise of newspapers in the 1850's, but I couldn't find a quote that says what this one does about the influence they had begun to have upon the British public.