Fifty years before the robber barons, immense fortunes in the young United States flowed to great shipping firms, a brutal, sometimes lucrative, and technologically creative enterprise brilliantly chronicled by naval historian Ujifusa (A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States, 2012).
Ujifusa begins at the beginning, Feb. 22, 1784, less than a year after independence, when, free from British mercantile restrictions, the Empress of China sailed from New York to Canton, returning 14 months later laden with cargo that sold for a nice profit. The rush was on as shipping firms, mostly family-run and New England–based, took up the trade. The author delivers lively portraits of half a dozen young American entrepreneurs who, by the 1830s, had established themselves in China and grown rich. Equally significant, after 1840, American shipyards began building sleek, sharp-lined, tall-sparred vessels with a huge sail spread. Sacrificing cargo capacity for speed, clipper ships cut the 6-month voyage to China in half. An admirer but also knowledgeable (readers should keep Wikipedia’s glossary of naval terms on hand), Ujifusa emphasizes that they were complex, more fragile, and more expensive to operate than slower, capacious ships. For a decade, they dominated the China trade and carriage to gold fields in California and Australia, but entrepreneurs began preferring reliability and capacity to speed. Steam power and the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal dealt the death blow to clippers, although traditional sailing vessels remained profitable for several decades.
A vivid account of larger-than-life if not always attractive characters and a technological marvel that briefly captivated the Victorian world.