Barons of the Sea


Steven Ujifusa




Date Reviewed:

January 30, 2020

arons of the Sea is the story of the American clipper ships, a class of merchant sailing vessels designed for maximum speed in the newly developing global economy. This book tells the history of the few short decades in the 19th century when the clipper ships were the fastest forms of transport, before they were supplanted by coal burning steamships and the transcontinental railroad.

The book begins with the history of the opium trade with China. China possessed luxury goods that were desired by wealthy Europeans: silks, porcelain, and especially tea. But Europe had nothing that the Chinese wanted except silver - trading with China meant that the precious metal reserves of the west were all draining into the Middle Kingdom. Desperate to find something that the Chinese would buy from the west, the British introduced opium. Soon there were Chinese addicts at all class levels, and a strong demand for the drug. Although opium was officially outlawed by the emperor, bribes ensured a flourishing market. Opium was sold to the Chinese, and tea was purchased, to be carried back to London and New York. The fastest ship would arrive first with the freshest tea leaves and make the largest profit. This kicked off a race to build faster ships, the result was the clipper ships.

Originally, the clipper ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, through the Indian Ocean and then up to China. They would loaded up with cargo and then sail back the way they came. After gold was discovered in California, suddenly there was a surge in demand for passengers and goods to be transported directly from New York to San Francisco. Sailing that route required the clippers to round the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn, and brave the wild storms and ferocious winds of the great southern ocean. The ships were built ever bigger and faster to fight through this passage. The best time recorded was 89 days, recorded by the clipper ship Flying Cloud - a record that would stand for 140 years.

There are several characters that Ujifusa describes playing a huge role in the clipper ships - financial magnates like Warren Delano and Abbott Low and Moses Grinnell, ship builders John Willis Griffiths and the legendary Donald McKay, ship captains like Nathaniel Palmer and Josaih Creesy and the infamous Robert Waterman, but I never felt that the portraits Ujifusa painted of these individuals gave me a good understanding of their lives. Only occasionally does Ujifusa describe what an actual trip on a clipper ship must have been like. There is one description of the Flying Cloud on its record breaking voyage, and another description of the cruelty of Waterman's journey as captain of the Challenge, but I wished there had been more descriptions of the actual voyages and less talk of the finances.

One of the intriguing parts of the book is a mention of a book of winds and currents compiled by Matthew Fontaine Maury. Apparently, this guide advised clippers ships to sail far to the east, toward Africa, when leaving the Atlantic seaboard, so as to avoid "the doldrums" of the Carribean Sea. The ships crossed the equator and then sailed back toward Brazil. I wish the book had included a map of the route the clipper sailed.

Curiously, the building of clipper ships appears to have been strictly an American enterprise. The British did not imitate their American counterparts, despite the obvious financial incentives to do so. When gold was discovered in Australia, there was suddenly a great demand for ships to carry freight and passengers to the distant Land Down Under, it was American built ships that made the passage. Ujifusa describes how the Americans tried to induce the British into an official race, with a prize of £10,000; the prize was increased to £20,000, but still there were no British challengers.

The book mostly ignores the crew of the clipper ships, other than describing their suffering during Waterman's tyrannical captaincy of the Challenge. The crew was poorly paid, just $25 a month, and it was hard to get enough men (up to sixty crew were needed on a large clipper) to run the ship. I wondered why they simply didn't offer higher wages. If the run to San Francisco took 120 days, that is just 4 months - at $25 per month, each man cost just $100 - the expense of the entire crew was just $6000. This at the time when Ujifusa describes that a successful roundtrip could bring a profit of over $100,000. Why not offer more money and get a seasoned, motivated crew?

It is a bit sad how short the era of the clipper ships was - just a few decades. Transcontinental railroads and steamships soon took over (the building of the Suez Canal and the Panama railroad allowed steamships to make regular runs and stop at coal refueling stations once they no longer had to sail around South America or Africa.

Barons of the Sea is worth reading, but it's not the "riveting, raucous book", nor is it a "rare and intoxicating journey back in time" that the blurbs promised on the back cover.