William Fowler, a longtime raconteur of nautical history, recounts the 10-year-long race for superiority of the North Atlantic shipping lanes during the 1830’s and 1840’s in “Steam Titans.”
Captain Edward Collins, the standard bearer for the United States, and Samuel Cunard, the helmsman for Britain, are the main contenders in this transatlantic rivalry.
During the early 19th century, Collins had created a fleet of sail-driven ships to ply the waters between New Orleans and New York. Then in 1836, he launched the Shakespeare, a handsomely appointed ship to carry passengers and cargo between New York and Liverpool. The route was immediately successful because it answered England’s growing demand for U.S. cotton and came at a time of renewed popular interest in international travel.
Cunard noticed the lucrative business opportunity. To assure his firm’s success, he secured a contract to provide regular mail service from Liverpool to Halifax and on to Boston. Cunard’s contract relied on steamships because of their speed and predictable schedules. By 1842, Cunard had four steamships crossing the Atlantic and halving the travel time between the two continents.
Collins knew he had to modernize his vessels in order to compete with Cunard, but he lacked the capital. He decided to follow Cunard’s example and turn to the government for help. Thanks to the influential efforts of Henry Clay and other politicians, Collins won a subsidy from the U.S. Post Office.
Once both shipping magnates had comparable equipment, the challenge became to see which steamship line could provide the fastest service. Collins outpaced Cunard regularly, but then tragedy struck. In 1854 one of Collins’ finest ships, the Arctic, collided with a French fishing vessel in a heavy fog and sank. Collins’ wife, two of his children and other members of his family were lost in the disaster. The next year, another Collins ship disappeared, probably after colliding with an iceberg.
Due to the twin disasters, investors withdrew their money and the Collins line had to declare bankruptcy. And so the Cunard line won the battle for the maritime supremacy in the North Atlantic.
This is a skillfully-written and well researched story about the competition between Collins and Cunard, as well as the United States’ and Britain’s struggle for commercial primacy on the North Atlantic Ocean Route. It describes fascinating details without becoming too technical. Fowler’s history reveals that steamships were prominent at least 50 years before the Titanic and Lusitania, which are the subject of most seafaring lore.
Fowler’s epilogue offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. In an effort to protect American shipbuilding, starting in 1921 Republican Congresses made it illegal to buy foreign built ships. Soon high tariffs on imported steel and other building materials made it too expensive to assemble ships in the United States. The result: “Today, although most of American commerce moves by sea, only 1% is carried in American ships, nor is there a single American-flag passenger vessel or cruise vessel registered in international service.”