Whampoa Reach was the large deep-water anchorage in the Pearl River where incoming cargoes for China were measured and assessed for tax and where the clipper ships would lie idle as they waited for the new season's tea crop to come down from the hills ready for the legendary races home to England or the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Particularly in the early days of the China tea boom, the anchorage at Whampoa was, at the height of every season, as busy a port as any other in the Far East although it was gradually superseded by Foochow as the years went by. Dawson has depicted Whampoa Reach in the gathering dusk, with a few junks still in the river but dwarfed by the majestic clippers swinging lazily at their anchors, and with the famous nine-tiered pagoda, one of the most distinctive landmarks to all involved in the China trade, standing atop Whampoa Island on the right. Although Dawson has neither inscribed nor titled this painting, the central clipper bears a striking resemblance to Thermopylae, arguably the most celebrated of her breed and an eminently suitable subject for a composition such as this one.
Thermopylae, 947 tons, was built for George Thompson & Co. of London by Walter Hood of Aberdeen in 1868. A splendid seaboat, she acquired her reputation for speed on her maiden voyage - a record run from Gravesend to Melbourne in 60 days - and thereafter lived up to this promise throughout her career, first in the China tea trade and then on the Australian wool run. Eventually bought by the Portuguese government in 1896 for use as a training ship, she was renamed Pedro Nunes but only survived until 1907 when she was sunk as a derelict. Considered by many to have been the fastest clipper of them all, some experts believed her to have been the fastest commercial sailing vessel ever launched; whatever the truth of these claims, she was -and has remained - one of the great legends of the age of sail.