Editor's Choice

Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic

August 11, 2017


William M. Fowler Jr.'s new maritime history is the perfect book to take to the beach this summer.

Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic by William M. Fowler Jr., Bloomsbury USA, 368 pages,

The Box, by Marc Levinson, is a favorite around here. It is the story of how the shipping container revolutionized oceanic transport, transformed the global economy, and changed the world—one of the biggest stories of modern commerce. William Fowler Jr.’s new book, Steam Titans, tells a similar, but much older tale. The book's opening sets the scene:


In 1492, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in thirty-five days; three centuries later, passage from Europe to America took just as long.


That all changes with the steam engine, which powered the Industrial Revolution on land and transformed the Atlantic into “a pulsating highway over which steamships ferried people, supplies, money, and information with astounding speed and regularity.” How we got to that point is a tale that Fowler begins with the American Revolution, the commerce clause of the US Constitution, and the work of founders such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to promote international trade to not only build the country’s economy, but (in a country staunchly opposed to taxes) to fill the government’s coffers with the duties on such trade. It was a time when the four main port cities of the country’s East Coast—Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York—dominated trade and drove the country’s growth, exporting the country’s vast natural resources all over the world—doing an especially brisk trade across the Atlantic, and returning stateside with manufactured products. 


In terms of exports on a per capita basis, the new nation was twice as trade-oriented as Europe and more than five times the world. To accommodate this enormous growth, by 1807 the American merchant marine numbered nearly 1,300 hundred vessels and employed 20,000 seamen, the largest wage-earning class in the country.


It was this sea-faring world, mercantilist world that Samuel Cunard and Edward Knight Collins would come of age in—Cunard in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Collins in New York City. A global war between Britain and France that lasted from 1793 through 1815 would play a part in both men's lives. Americans were officially banned by Great Britain from direct trade between the West Indies and the European continent at the time, but the defeat of the French Navy opened up a way around that: 


With their own merchant marine in disarray, France, conveniently rejecting traditional mercantilist doctrine, threw open her ports to all comers. Loath to miss opportunities for profit, American shipowners, taking the broadest interpretation possible, took refuge behind the cry of neutrality, and sailed into the West Indies taking on cargo at French ports and carrying it across the Atlantic to the Continent, thereby defying the British blockade. American profits soared and British anger boiled.


When the British cried foul, the Americans had a simple answer. They simply shipped the goods to America first, filled in the customs forms there, and shipped them on to Europe stating the United States as the country of origin. It was an officially legal (until 1805) way around the British blockade known as the “broken voyage,” but the British were not pleased or appeased. It was a long and circuitous route of bungled embargoes, bad policy on both sides, and British belligerence that would lead to the war of 1812.

Edward Knight Collins’ father, Israel, did well running ships "coastwise" underneath a British blockade during the war, but made his fortune as a merchant and shipping agent when he came ashore after the war and settled in New York City, using the connections he formed in Charleston during the war to ensconce himself as an important part of the “cotton triangle” of trade that ran from the American South, through New York City, and on to Liverpool, where cotton would be dispersed to the hungry textile mills of the English midlands. The vessel would then return to New York weighed down with English manufactured goods from the region. After his father’s death, Edward transitioned the business from the American South/New York City leg of the cotton triangle, to the New York City/Liverpool leg, building the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious ships of the day to do so. His regular service to Liverpool and back was dubbed the Dramatic Line, due to the fact that its ships were named after actors and playwrights, and it put Collins at the head of the shipping profession in New York City. At a time when the nation still looked more toward the Atlantic than its interior, and tales of seafaring captured the American imagination, it made him both wealthy and famous. But these boats were still powered by sail, and he had caught “steam fever.”


It originally struck him on a spring afternoon in 1838 when, at the height of his fame … he strode down from Houston Street to the Battery to join thousands of other New Yorkers who thronged on the shoreline to catch a glimpse of two British steamers, Sirius and Great Western, that had arrived within hours of one another, promising a “new era in the history of Atlantic navigation.” Collins, gazing out, proclaimed prophetically: “There is no longer any chance for enterprise with sails; it is steam that must win the day.”


Samual Cunard would beat him there by a decade, when the British decided it was time to abandon the practice of routing its mail to and from its Canadian provinces through New York City, and run a steamer directly to Halifax. Cunard had already had the government contract to carry the Royal Mail between New York City and Halifax, acquired years earlier, and would make a fortune when he secured the “exclusive right to market tea in the British Atlantic colonies” from the East India Company when that company decided to stop making the trip itself in 1824. But it was the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (which would come to be known as the Cunard Line), launched in 1840, that would make him famous. In the process, he would cut the average time it took to make the from Liverpool down to “an impressive fourteen days and ten hours—less than half the passage time of a sailing vessel.” Other than the government subsidies he received for carrying the mail, the line relied on freight and passenger service to sustain itself. It was here that the numbers were not so good. With the steam engine and coal needed to run it taking up much of the valuable cargo space, the economics were difficult, and even with an annual government subsidy of £60,000, the venture was still losing money. There was even a time early on, while in London on business, that Cunard was in real danger of ending up in debtor’s prison.

When it joined the fray in 1850, the Collins Line (officially the New York and Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company) was also subsidized by the government—originally to the tune of a $385,000 dollars, but eventually reaching $858,000 annually. His steamships were larger, more luxuriously outfitted, and even outpaced the Cunard line. The general consensus, even in Great Britain, was that they were simply superior:


The London Times declared, “The truth must be told—the British steamships have been beaten.”


It would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, as there was another area in which the Collins line outpaced the Cunard line—losses. In addition to its financial losses, there was the even more serious loss of life when two of its steamships, of a fleet of four, were lost at sea. Collins himself lost his wife, brother-in-law, daughter, and son when the steamship Arctic sunk after colliding with another ship at sea. The company itself wouldn’t last the decade. The Cunard Line, surviving even the advance of air travel, was finally bought by Carnival Cruise Lines in 1998, which has retained the Cunard name on the service of the three ships it acquired in the deal.

It is all an immensely entertaining history, in which the founders of our country, Frederick Douglas, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and P.T. Barnum all make appearances. But what really stands out to me is how much of America’s early economic history is maritime history, with our country’s growth greatly tied to the economics of the sea. It was so important to the growing nation that Thomas Jefferson sent Naval forces to attack Tripoli when its ruler declared war on the United States for not paying tribute in exchange for sailing in waters he claimed. 

That changed with the Civil War, when taxes and Confederate raiders “made a near wreck of America’s merchant marine,” from which it never recovered. After the war, Fowler tells us, “the nation faced a series of complex issues that pressed on the national consciousness and drew interest away from the sea.” Business interests were pulled away from the sea, as well, as a Second Industrial Revolution took off in America. Collins himself moved into mining interests and real estate, though he did well in neither, and died a relatively poor and largely forgotten man. Cunard earned a baronetcy and the title of “Sir” in 1859 for the services provided by his steamship line in the Crimean War, and died a hero in both Halifax and Great Britain. 

The logistics involved, the deals struck, the real world machinations and engineering that went into building and financing these companies is complicated and fascinating. Each winds their way through the halls of government as well as the streets of finance, centers of manufacturing and ports of call. The tale also includes an economic history of cotton, of industrialization, and of New York City, Halifax, and Liverpool—and, course, steam power and steamships. It is also a history tied to the slave trade, not only through the cotton coming from slave labor that Collins built his fortune on, but from Liverpool’s dominant position in the slave trade itself, which was “undoubtedly,” Fowler concludes, “the backbone of the town’s prosperity.” It stretches back centuries to incorporate it all, and it emerges with one clear victor—not Samuel Cunard, as you might expect, but New York City, which emerges from the story as the center of finance and international trade it is today. If you’re headed to the beach this summer, this maritime history will make a great companion.


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