Barons of the sea And their race to build the world's fastest clipper ship

Steven Ujifusa

Book - 2018

"There was a time, back when the United States was young and the robber barons were just starting to come into their own, when fortunes were made and lost importing luxury goods from China. It was a secretive, glamorous, often brutal business--one where teas and silks and porcelain were purchased with profits from the opium trade. But the journey by sea back home to New York could take six agonizing months, and so the most pressing technological challenge of the day became ensuring one's goods arrived first to market, so they might fetch the highest price--making their sellers some of the first millionaires. Barons of the Sea tells the story of a handful of cutthroat competitors who raced to build the fastest, finest, most clipper ships to carry their precious cargo to American shores. They were visionary, eccentric shipbuilders, debonair captains, and socially ambitious merchants with names like Forbes and Delano--men whose business interests took them from the cloistered confines of China's expatriate communities to the sin-city decadence of Gold Rush-era San Francisco and from the teeming hubbub of East Boston's shipyards and to the lavish sitting rooms of New Yorks Hudson Valley estates. Elegantly written and meticulously researched, Barons of the Sea is a riveting tale of innovation and ingenuity that draws back the curtain on the making of some of the nation's greatest fortunes, and the rise and fall of an all-American industry as sordid as it was genteel"--Dust jacket.

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New York : Simon & Schuster 2018.
Main Author
Steven Ujifusa (author)
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
Physical Description
xiv, 427 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. 367-400) and index.
  • Prologue : the patriarch
  • The Canton Silver Cup
  • Breaking into the family
  • Opium hostages
  • Yankees in Gotham
  • Mazeppa and the problem child
  • Captain Nat
  • Family pressure under sail
  • Memnon : Delano's California bet
  • Enter Donald McKay
  • Grinnell grabs the Flying Cloud
  • At the starting line
  • Around the world
  • Frightful to look aloft : Sovereign of the Seas
  • Great Republic
  • Hill and river
  • Surprise and danger
  • Glory of the Seas
  • Keeping it in the family.
Review by Booklist Review

The fabled American clipper ships, whose elegant lines and bounding speed make them among the most romanticized vessels in maritime history, enjoyed only an evanescent existence, between the 1840s and 1860s. This was because, like any commercial ship's design, the clipper concept boomed and busted in response to business conditions. Striking an elegant balance between the poetic and the prosaic, historian Ujifusa recounts the clipper's economic origins; its high-profit, attention-attracting heyday; and its rapid relegation to obsolescence. While the originator of the idea of a sleek, fast carrier of high-value cargo had several claimants, the reason for building one was simple: American trade with China. Author Eric Jay Dolin described this exchange in When America First Met China (2012); Ujifusa goes further with details of Americans who conducted business in 1830s Canton, then the only Chinese port open to Westerners. Among them was Warren Delano, grandfather to future U.S. president FDR. Reconstructing his and colleagues' mercantile and social activities, Ujifusa arrives at their business dilemmas of marketing opium and tea, to which a fast ship seemed the solution. Enter the Houqua in 1844, named by the Americans in honor of their Chinese trading partner. Profitably vindicating its construction expense, its success, followed by the California gold rush, spurred building of more clippers. Noting their voyages and fates, Ujifusa pointedly contrasts the sublime exhilaration they could inspire with rough shipboard conditions endured, and sometime rebelled against, by their crews. Ably synthesizing research into narrative, Ujifusa has produced a highly entertaining read for the American-history fan.--Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Ujifusa (A Man and His Ship) reconstructs the lavish social milieu of Yankee shipping magnates in this account of how clipper ships unlocked a new world of risk and riches in the mid-19th century. In the aftermath of the First Opium War, American merchants like Warren Delano and Robert Forbes sought to exploit the newly opened China trade by launching swift clipper ships that would bring tea from China to New York in less than 100 days. With their combination of sharp-ended hulls and flat bottoms, ships based on the Baltimore clipper model combined speed and cargo capacity, providing a unique solution to the needs of New York's merchant elite. Crisscrossing the globe from New York to Hong Kong and California, the clipper ships and their voyages were the threads that bound together families like the Delanos and the Forbeses in complex webs of commerce and matrimony. Ujifusa is adept at evoking both the monotony and danger of sea voyages, where long days subsisting on salted beef and hard tack might be disrupted by "a solid wall of water" bearing down on a ship. Weaving together details of shipboard life, supporting figures, and the revolutionary changes brought about by clipper ships, this tale of industry will appeal to seafaring and commerce enthusiasts. Agent: Becky Sweren, Aevitas Creative Management. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Before the Civil War, sailing from America or England to China could take six months. The English had no interest in building a faster ship because they had little competition. In the United States, however, the Delano and Forbes families, among others, were hard at work to build faster ships; clipper ships that could reach China in half the time, three months. Ujifusa (A Man and His Ship) tells their story of engineering, greed, drug dealing, and profit. As Warren Delano built his shipping empire, he learned how to work with Chinese officials. His ships carried and sold opium illegally into Chinese harbors. There, he purchased large amounts of tea to ship back to America. Delano and others, such as Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray Forbes, funded the production of new clipper ships that could make the run to China in 90 days. Details of the building and sailing of these ships reads like an adventure novel. VERDICT Ujifusa's account is filled with escapades, courage, and deceit. Fans of maritime history, Chinese trade history, and shipbuilding will enjoy.-Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Barons of the Sea PROLOGUE: THE PATRIARCH He cared little for outsiders, but would do anything for his own family. --SARA "SALLIE" DELANO 1 Warren Delano II loved sitting at his big desk at Algonac, his Hudson River estate. Around him were treasures of Chinese art: temple bells, porcelains, silk wall hangings. This day, through the wavy glass panes of the library windows, he could see a fall breeze rustle the red and gold leaves on the trees, and the sun glitter on the river. The air was crisp, and a coal fire glowed in the hearth. Penning letters to family and friends, with advice on business and stern judgments about character, he was at home, in charge, and seemingly at ease, managing a business empire that spanned the globe. Fifty years old in the fall of 1859, Delano was a tough man to the core: well over six feet tall, with chiseled features, a hooked nose, a leonine beard, and bristling sideburns. Suspicious of strangers, he loved his family without reservation. All coldness melted away when his six children tumbled around the library, as they often did while he worked. If two of them got into a fight over a toy, he would look up from his desk, smile, utter firmly, "What's that? Tut, tut!" and the squabble would stop. It was not fear of the patriarch but fear of disappointing him that kept his children well behaved. He never spanked them. Nor did he share his worries on days when letters brought ill news. In the words of one daughter, he had a remarkable knack for hiding "all traces of sadness or trouble or news of anything alarming." 2 To be a true Delano, one had to keep a pleasant disposition, no matter what life threw at you. The Delano clan had been risking their lives on the high seas ever since the Flemish Protestant adventurer Philippe Delannoy first made the Atlantic crossing to the Plymouth Bay Colony in 1621. Building the family's maritime fortunes required spending much of life apart from those they loved, and demanded a delicate balance of poise on land and toughness at sea. It was a fact of life in seagoing New England: the longer the absence and the larger the risks, the greater the financial rewards. The old whale-hunting cry "A dead whale or a stove boat!" could well have been the family's motto. I For two centuries, the clan had sacrificed much to attain modest prosperity. But Warren Delano's opulent fortune had sprung from his mastery of another kind of maritime gamble: trading in tea and opium. He had made two visits to China as a young man, first as a bachelor, and then with his wife, Catherine, whom he had married only a few weeks before they set sail. They had lost their first-born child in that country, a tragedy that had driven his young bride to near-suicidal despair. Another child would come home chronically ill. Yet Warren was expert at keeping his private emotional life divorced from the grand vision by which he and his contemporaries had transformed the world. Their hard work had made a young republic into one of the world's great commercial sea powers, with a fleet of fast ships that challenged Great Britain's maritime supremacy. The success of Yankee clippers, which Delano helped mastermind, shook Old Britannia's complacency, cracking ancient, restrictive trade laws that had kept foreign-built vessels out of British ports. "We must run a race with our gigantic and unshackled rival," snarled the London Times upon the first visit to London of a Yankee clipper, in 1850. "We must set our long-practiced skill, our steady industry, and our dogged determination against his youth, industry, and ardor." 3 The American clipper in question, Oriental, had cut the trip from China to London nearly in half, from six months to a mere 97 days, and her cargo of tea sold for a whopping $48,000. This was at a time when an average American worker made between $10 and $12 a month. 4 Delano's great wealth from trade had allowed him to remove his family to Algonac, a sixty-acre estate north of New York City. The mammoth scale of the house was in no small part inspired by a great rambling palace Delano had seen on the banks of China's Pearl River many years before, while it also reflected the latest in nineteenth-century American architectural fashion. The architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, was a proponent of the "picturesque": a whimsical Gothic window here, a wood-and-glass cupola there. Downing seems to have understood his seagoing but home-loving client. As a self-taught tastemaker, Downing skillfully used his pen to appeal to the longings of his prosperous but increasingly harried bourgeois clientele. "The mere sentiment of home," Downing mused in The Architecture of Country Houses, "has, like a strong anchor, saved many a man from shipwreck in the storms of life." 5 For Delano, Algonac did exactly that. The tan stucco house, designed in the Tuscan villa style and adorned with towers, gables, and wide porches, was his fortress--a refuge from all of the uncertainties that had dogged his early life. Screened in by stone walls and tall trees, Warren was the realm's benevolent yet exacting ruler. Here, all of the world's problems were kept at bay, and all of life's questions answered. He played games with his children and tended his fruit trees. He and Catherine wrote what they called their "Algonac Diaries," lovingly describing their children's "explosions of fire-crackers," and one particularly "splendid bonfire in the henyard." 6 The crash of a gong summoned the family to their evening meal, in an east-facing dining room with a spectacular view of the Hudson River. Yet Warren didn't tell stories to his children about his time in China as a young man--the violence he had lived through, or his loneliness there before Catherine, or facing down the hard edges of life on the other side of the world. He was determined that his children not go through what he'd experienced. For all his present comfort, he knew what it had taken to make his money, in a foreign country, skirting the fringes of the law. At Algonac, there was a silent witness to the source of his wealth, in spirit if not in life: a Chinese patriarch was enshrined in an oil painting that hung in the paneled library. He had a thin, pinched face and melancholy eyes, and he was dressed splendidly in flowing silk robes, necklaces of bright jade. A close-fitting cap, topped with the red coral button that denoted his high "mandarin" social status in the Chinese governmental hierarchy, sat next to him on the table. This was Houqua, the great Chinese merchant whose favor had helped make Warren Delano one of America's richest men. By 1859, the man in the painting had been dead for more than ten years. But through the first half of the nineteenth century, he had been one of the wealthiest men in the world, and a financial father to Delano and other young American merchants of that time. The painting at Algonac was a gift from Houqua himself. Every partner at Delano's firm, Russell & Company--the largest and most profitable American enterprise in China--brought home a portrait of Houqua. His visage adorned counting rooms in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. So revered was the great merchant that one of Delano's partners named his tea-carrying ship, arguably the first of the sleek Yankee clippers, in Houqua's honor. In the years since his time under Houqua's patronage, Warren Delano had invested the fortune he had made from his Chinese business into more clipper ships, and then into copper and coal mines, Manhattan real estate, and railroads. Delano himself had achieved tremendous stature, not only for his wealth but also for his character. One contemporary wrote, "He was a man of quick perceptions, accurate judgment, indomitable will, and possessed in a remarkable degree the rich endowment of common sense . . . the result of clear thinking and strict adherence to the facts." 7 Yet by that fall day in 1859, the business letters Delano was writing from the library at Algonac were getting increasingly frantic. A financial panic two years earlier, triggered by speculation in railroads, had caused his investments to suffer. His clipper ships were particularly hard hit. Within several months of the crash, he had gone from being a millionaire to being close to penniless. Despite Delano's obsession with privacy at Algonac, there was no way to keep this financial cataclysm away from his family hearth. Meanwhile, America was hurtling toward the reckoning between North and South, a conflict from which even the gates of Algonac could not shelter the Delanos. Warren Delano had a big family, an expensive house, and above all, a reputation to maintain. He had taken big risks throughout his life, and now, staring at bankruptcy, he was not about to sit still. He saw only one way to avoid certain ruin: he would return to China and the opium and tea trade. His wife and six children would remain at Algonac. Warren promised Catherine, several months pregnant with their seventh child, that he would be gone only two years. She did her best to keep calm as he packed his bags and prepared to leave. She knew firsthand the danger of ocean travel and the volatile political situation in China, a country where Westerners were not welcomed as guests but rather derided in the streets as fanqui. Foreign devils. * * * When Warren Delano boarded ship in the Port of New York, the sounds and smells around him would not have differed greatly from the scenes of his first voyage more than a quarter century before: the tang of salt water, the shouts of the sailors, the thunder of the canvas as it dropped from the yards and captured the wind, and the gentle motion of the deck as the vessel glided through the Upper Bay and then out into the gray expanse of the North Atlantic. In his ears would be the sonorous calls of the chanteymen, singing work songs to keep time as they hauled in the lines and spun the capstans--old sailing songs, tuned to the new clipper era: Down by the river hauled a Yankee clipper, And it's blow, my bully boys, blow! She's a Yankee mate and a Yankee skipper, And it's blow, my bully boys, blow! The name of the ship that took him on this voyage is lost to history, but it was almost certainly one of those rakish, swift vessels that he helped pioneer: majestic clippers, flying before the wind like great birds of prey, their vast spreads of canvas stretched taut, their deep, sharp bows piercing wave after wave. On such a vessel, the trip would take fewer than three months. When Warren had first gone to China in 1833, six months was considered an acceptable run. In this respect alone, time spent aboard ship had changed. Still, life on a long sea voyage would have quickly worn thin: dinners with the captain; letter writing; endlessly rereading the same books and outdated periodicals such as Harper's Weekly; listening to other passengers tell stories, play the piano, or sing. Delano had played the guitar as a young man. Perhaps now he sang a few songs with his fellow passengers to pass the time. 8 But this private man likely despised being forced into the shipboard company of people he didn't know. At night, his huge frame jammed into a narrow berth built for a much smaller man, he may have stared out his port light and yearned for Algonac and his family. An ocean away, his five-year-old daughter, Sara, found the separation from her beloved Papa hard to bear. She later remembered her father vanishing without explanation. As many Yankee children lamented, "Dear papa done Tanton [gone Canton]." 9 When Warren's letters began to arrive, young Sara steamed off the stamps and pasted them in her collection. 10 The letters meant that Warren Delano had arrived safely. Renting a large house called Rose Hill and settling into his Russell & Company duties, Delano was going back to the work he knew. He missed his family, but he was making money--as he had done thirty years ago. I . Stove as in broken, holed, or smashed by an angry whale. Excerpted from Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship by Steven Ujifusa All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.