The Cutty Sark is most famous for being one of the last tea ships or clippers to be built in Britain. But its voyages, which started from 1869, were not confined to just China, where Britain’s love for tea exploded, during the mid-1800s. In its later years, this infamous ship also transported wool and coal from Australia. The ship was then sold to the Portuguese in 1895 where it was renamed the Ferreira.
But I was not aware that the ship had such a connection to Africa – let alone Ghana. So to visit the museum recently and see so many references to Ghana was an exciting revelation that I wanted to share with you.
Under Portuguese ownership, this quintessentially British symbol of craftmanship and commerce, transported cocoa from Ghana, and traded with numerous Portuguese colonies including Angola, São Tomé, Mozambique and Brasil (*spelt the Brasilian way), as well as further afield. See here.
The port scene in Ghana (above) is just one of a number of destinations across the world the Cutty Sark visited. But its international existence starts with its name. Construction of the ship took six months and was completed in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland by Hercules Linton.
The clipper’s name is taken from the Scottish word for short/little dress or shirt, sark also shares its roots with the Norwegian word ‘berserk’. In Norwegian, beserk means to be without a shirt ….as one would behave in a state of heightened madness.
The ship is believed to be named by the wife of the first master of the ship, George Moodie in Dumbarton on 22 November 1869. She took the moniker from Robert Burn’s well-known 1791 poem Tam o’ Shanter.
Cutty Sark and witches
The poem recounts the tale of a group of witches dancing round a bonfire. One of these witches – a young woman wearing an ill-fitting dress or sark that show her assets – draws the attention of a passing drunken farmer. He becomes so enraptured by her dancing that he vocalises his appreciation instead of remaining inconspicuous to the women.
The witches stop jubilating and chase after farmer Tam with the nubile witch called Nannie Dee leading in hot pursuit. Remembering that witches can’t cross water, Tam flees on his horse and just about manages to out-pace them. The young witch however manages to catch the tail of his horse and pulls it clean off. And it is that image of Nannie holding the tail that has come to symbolise the Cutty Sark clipper.
Once built by architect Hercules Linton for owner John ‘White Hat’ Willis, in Scotland in 1869, the Cutty Sark was fitted with a sculpture of Nannie, dressed in her ill-fitting sark, angry-faced and with a horses tail in her hand. On each journey back to England, it became customary for the crew to replace Nannie’s horse tail made from frayed rope with a new one as a symbol of the ship’s Scottish roots.
India and USA
Inside the ship you will find influences from India where teak originates. Red oak from the US was also used in conjunction with metal to create an ingenious composite ribcage design within the ship. Its construction was innovative for its time because it allowed Willis to circumvent a then new tax regime from the 1850s that meant the wider and deeper the ship, the more it was taxed.
This composite design not only allowed the ship’s owner to save money but helped make the ship faster than its rivals. In March 1884, for example, the clipper beat other ships sailing to collect wool from Australia.
The Cutty Sark’s voyaging history is impressive. It survived many perilous journeys, dodging icebergs and managing to still operate during the First World War when Portugal declared war on Germany and the threat of attack was high.
Even when most of the seamen were conscripted into the Portuguese army to fight against the Germans and it looked like the ship would be crewless, new recruits made up of local Mozambicans helped to keep the ship operating.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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