An Ominous Day in US Maritime History

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.

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