Dickmeyer on Ujifusa, 'Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship'

Steven Ujifusa
Laurie Dickmeyer

Steven Ujifusa. Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Illustrations. xiv + 427 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4767-4597-8

Reviewed by Laurie Dickmeyer (Angelo State University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54994

Captain Charles Porter Low paced the deck of the N. B. Palmer, an extreme, experimental clipper ship. He paused for a moment, scanning the harbor with a practiced eye, and nodded his head in determination. It was the spring sailing season, and a lot was riding on a speedy voyage from New York City to San Francisco via the perilous Straits of Magellan. Another clipper ship, the Surprise, had made the voyage in a record ninety-six days the previous year, and several clippers—Flying Cloud, Challenge, Gazelle, and N. B. Palmer—were vying to break the record. It was not only a matter of pride for the owners, A. A. Low & Brother, the captain, and the crew but also a matter of profit. Captain Low and the N. B. Palmer arrived in gold rush-era San Francisco 107 days out of New York City, but the harbor pilot, who was familiar with local conditions, refused to guide the ship to the wharf. Knowing that even a day’s delay in unloading the cargo could cut into profits, Low flouted convention and precaution and guided the ship to the wharf himself in a daring move observed by a crowd gathering along the pier.

Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea concerns the businessmen, ship captains, and shipwrights who competed to design the fastest vessels and reap the largest profits by trading for such Chinese luxury goods as tea, porcelain, and silk. The book spans the 1830s to the late nineteenth century, but the bulk takes place during the 1850s in the short-lived golden age of clipper ships. The first few chapters describe the Canton System, in which China restricted European and American trade to the single port of Canton (Guangzhou) and British and American merchants dealt in the illicit drug opium to balance trade. China’s loss of the First Opium War (1839-42) put an end to the system, opened additional ports to trade, and gave numerous privileges to Europeans and Americans. To gain an economic advantage, Americans (and occasionally the British) competed to build and sail extreme clipper ships to make voyages between New York and Canton in record time. At the same time, the California gold rush made San Francisco an important destination for clippers. This is a well-trodden topic, and Ujifusa uses primary sources that will be quite familiar to scholars of nineteenth-century American maritime history and the China trade, including writings by the likes of William C. Hunter, John Murray Forbes, and Richard Henry Dana Jr. Tales of eccentric shipwrights, daring sea captains, and risk-taking businessmen are not new, but Ujifusa presents these stories in an engaging manner, with intriguing details, drama, and a good deal of suspense. 

Eighteen chapters long, the book follows a series of characters involved in the China trade, finance, and shipbuilding, some only touched on in a single chapter and others returned to time and again. One anchor in the book is Warren Delano II (the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), an American merchant who made a fortune in China dealing opium, lost it all, and returned to China again to make a fortune yet again. His story and those of his contemporaries serve as bookends to Ujifusa’s narrative, beginning with their exploits in Canton and ending the book with their diverse investments in industry, the arts, and philanthropy. The large number of historical figures sketched out almost calls for a cast of characters list (like Stephen R. Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom [2012]). Ujifusa excels at creating evocative character studies of these men. Another key character, Donald McKay, the dedicated designer of some of the fastest ships of the clipper era, receives sympathetic treatment: “McKay’s house was only a short walk away from his shipyard on Border Street. There, on a typical day, Donald McKay worked alongside his men in the shipyard: hammering tunnels into frames, planing hull planks, and joining keel scarphs into iron pins. Night watchmen swore that McKay would sometimes get up in the middle of the night, walk down to the yard, and caress the hulls of his vessels as they sat on the stocks” (p. 171). 

Despite the broad geographical scope of the book, Ujifusa rarely strays from his central subjects to consider connections with the people and places of these global maritime voyages. The exceptions made are often standard ones, such as the American-friendly Chinese Hong merchant Houqua (Wu Bingjian), who, in the early 1800s, was perhaps the richest person in the world. Women figure into the narrative as the wives of sea captains and businessmen, like Cordelia Waterman, who sailed only once with her husband, the captain of the Sea Witch, and Eleanor Prentiss Creesy, who skillfully used a brass sextant and chart to keep her husband’s ship, Flying Cloud, on course. And working-class people, who supported the trade in luxury goods, extracting and processing tea leaves, producing silk, and serving as crew members on ships, are discussed only in the most extreme of circumstances. For example, in chapters 12 and 13, Captain Robert Waterman and First Mate James Douglass during an 1851 voyage on the Challenge brutally killed ten crew members as they pushed the ship and crew to their limit en route to San Francisco. The resulting trial exposed their brutality, the rough conditions for clipper ship crews at sea, and the poor compensation for sailors’ labor. Ujifusa uses such examples to bring light to the exploitation underlying an extremely lucrative industry and points to the hypocrisy of merchants who decried the slavery but would not acknowledge the abuses that made their own success possible.

For environmental historians, there are a couple aspects of the book that will prove interesting. Barons of the Sea conveys a sense of increasing space-time compression and globalization as new clipper ships pushed the limits of design for sail ships. All the while, steamships loom in the background as a growing threat to the age of sail. Also, finding large crews of sailors to man extreme clippers became increasingly difficult, making slower medium clippers the preferred sailing vessels. Ujifusa also pays attention to the physical construction of ships and the vast resources needed, such as the detailed discussion of woods used in building ships in chapter 6. Included at the end of the book is a helpful index with diagrams of various ships and their parts, so that the uninitiated can grasp Ujifusa’s explanations of novel clipper ship designs, the damage caused by storms at sea, and the sabotage carried out by resentful crew members. Ujifusa should also be commended for his inclusion of sensual details of sights, smells, and sounds, gleaned from primary sources and conjured from imagination, in setting the scenes found in New York City, in San Francisco, and aboard clipper ships as they careened across the Pacific. 

Barons of the Sea is a popular history intended for a general audience for pleasure reading. Any reader with even a slight interest in history will be entertained by the nimble anecdotes of business triumphs and fiascos, daring new clipper ship designs, and risky calls by sea captains desperately trying to preserve their ships and maximize profits, and jockeying for new record speeds. Along the way, readers may grasp important lessons about globalization, world trade, and the development of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century as they peer into the lives of people swept up into networks of technology, commerce, and labor.

Citation: Laurie Dickmeyer. Review of Ujifusa, Steven, Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World's Fastest Clipper Ship. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54994

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.