Review: Barons of the Sea

Barons of the Sea: And their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship by Steven Ujifusa

Simon and Schuster, 2018.  Hardcover, 448 pages.BaronsoftheSea

In the early 1800s, merchants were establishing trade for a new nation.  Many on the East Coast, especially in Boston and New York, took advantage of the opportunities of trading good in an attempt to make a fortune.  Tea and opium were transported from Asia at profit while American goods were also taken to the Orient for trade. In addition, the journey to make these trades often took about six months round-trip, so the need for faster ships became apparent.  To this end, merchants invested in new types of ships in hopes of increasing profits, with different designers trying different methods to increase speed and/or cargo capacity. Later, trade to Gold Rush California also became a means for increasing wealth.

Intermingled with the story of the trade and shipbuilding that supported it are the stories of the men involved.  One will learn how the Delano family made its fortune through the exploits of Warren Delano, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, and his trade with China as part of Russell and Company. Russell and Company itself was founded by Samuel Russell and later ran by his nephews Robert Bennet Forbes and John Murray Forbes, whom are also profiled.   Particular attention was paid to the Low family since two sons (Abiel Abbot and William Henry) participated in the China trade as the trading company A.A. Low and Brothers while another (Charles Porter) served as a captain of a ship (Abiel was first a partner in Russell and Company). And the families these men left at home were not excluded from the narrative.   Also key were the designers of the newer, faster ships such as Captain Nathaniel Palmer,  John Willis Griffiths, and Donald McKay and the ships themselves, such as Houqua, Sea Witch, Memnom, Flying Cloud, and others.

This book addressed a time in history that was critical to our budding nation, but is also underrepresented in literature.  Even textbooks fail to address it. By focusing on an ancestor of a famous president, I think that will draw in readers of literature about FDR as to better understand his mother’s family background.  For me personally, as an avid tea drinker, learning about the early tea trade was fascinating. For those with a love of sailing and ships, the descriptions of how the clipper ships were developed will surely provide insights to improve understandings.  Additionally, the book’s appendix includes a plethora of diagrams to help readers understand the designs of the various clippers plus the standard sail formation.

Do you think you will read this book?  Do you know of other titles on early American trade and shipbuilding that may be of interest?

I received this book from FSB Associates for review.



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