Month: July 2016

On August 1, 1840, the steamship Britannia sailed out of Boston for Liverpool. This was the return leg of her maiden voyage, which had commenced with her outbound departure from the English port on July 4. Her voyage marked the inauguration of transatlantic service by the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company. If that formal name doesn’t sound familiar, the company’s informal popular name almost certainly will: the Cunard Line, so called after its founder, Samuel Cunard.

RMS Britannia of the Cunard Line
Royal Mail Steamship Britannia of the Cunard Line

Cunard’s enterprise was by no means the first to offer steamship service across the Atlantic; three other British companies had beaten his to that distinction—although two of them went out of business very quickly, and the third lasted less than a decade. The Cunard Line, in contrast, is still in business today, since 1998 as part of Carnival Corporation & plc.

     One key factor in the Line’s initial survival was the substantial payments it received from the British government for carrying mail across the Atlantic, which gave it a significant financial advantage over early British rivals. The company was in fact founded after winning that mail contract in response to a request for proposals by the UK Admiralty, which was anxious to foster the development of a British steamship line that could challenge the dominant position in transatlantic trade that America’s sailing packets had established over the previous two decades. The near-monopoly enjoyed by US shipping lines in carrying passengers, goods and mail across the Atlantic was seen as a potential strategic threat.

     For its part, the US was slow to respond to this initiative by the British. After glorying in the superiority of their sailing packets for over twenty years, most US shipowners saw little threat from the arrival of noisy and smoky steamships on the Atlantic, referring to them scornfully as “tea kettles.” And when one of their number with greater vision, Edward Knight Collins, sought a mail contract from Congress so he could start a steamship line to compete with Cunard on an equal footing, he had to wait until 1847 to get one. At that point he still had to sell off his sailing packets and raise additional capital before he could start building his steamships, and it was not until 1850 that his first of these ships, the Atlantic, crossed the ocean of the same name.

     For the next five years the “Collins Line” more than held its own against the Cunard Line on the crucial route between New York and Liverpool. But as detailed in The Lost Hero of Cape Cod, it did so at enormous cost both financially and in terms of human lives, and by 1858 had gone out of business—leaving the Cunard Line and other British and European companies to dominate Atlantic trade for much of the next century.

The Collins liner Baltic
The Collins liner Baltic

At 1.05 am on Saturday July 8, 1854, the steamship Baltic of the Collins Line arrived in New York from Liverpool just nine days, sixteen hours and fifty-two minutes after leaving the English port. This was a new record time for a westbound crossing on what was then the busiest and most important shipping route in the world. The Baltic herself had set the previous record in August 1851, with the first-ever westbound crossing in under ten days. Indeed, the four ships of the Collins Line had repeatedly broken speed records in both directions across the Atlantic since the Line commenced operations in 1850. America’s merchant marine had regained the pre-eminent position in transatlantic trade that its sailing packets had established in the decades following the War of 1812, but which had been whittled away in the 1840s by British steamships.

     The renewed American ascendancy did not last for long. Like Britain’s Cunard Line, the Collins Line was heavily subsidized by its government with a mail contract; but unlike the Cunard Line, it was barely able to make ends meet in spite of this subsidy. It was therefore unable to survive after Congress drastically reduced its subsidy following the loss of two of the Line’s ships in rapid succession, the Arctic in 1854 and the Pacific in 1856. And over the next few years, both of the country’s other transatlantic steamship lines also went out of business after Congress declined to renew their mail contracts too. The US then had no meaningful steamship presence on the most important commercial shipping route in the world.

     Regrettably, this situation continued for much of the next century. With support from its government for a much longer period than its American competitors enjoyed, the Cunard Line flourished. As did several other British, German and French shipping lines. Their dominance can be seen from the history of the “Blue Riband” record for the westbound crossing of the Atlantic. This was reclaimed for Britain by the Cunard Line’s Persia in 1856, just as Congress was cutting its subsidy to the Collins Line. Between then and 1952, a period on 96 years, the Blue Riband was held by British liners for 79 years, German for 13 years, French for 2 years and Italian for another 2 years. Only in 1952 did an American ship finally win it back—the aptly named United States.

     Six years later, however, commercial jet service across the Atlantic began, quickly bringing an end to the golden age of the ocean liners. Over the course of more than a century, crossing the Atlantic in one of these liners had been a defining experience for millions of migrants and adventurers. But for the 98 years between the record crossings by the Baltic and the United States, their home country’s ships had largely been absent from that experience. This must surely count as one of the major failures in America’s commercial history.