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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Barons of the Sea
Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship
By Steven Ujifusa
Simon & Schuster, 2018, ISBN 978-1-4767-4597-8, US $29.99 / CAN $ 39.99

Also available in trade paperback, ebook, and audio formats


These were our Gothic cathedrals, our Parthenon; but monuments carved from snow. For a few brief years, they flashed their splendor around the world, then disappeared with the finality of the wild pigeon.
This quote from Samuel Eliot Morison opens the final chapter in this account of merchants, ships, and shipwrights of the nineteenth century in their quest for speed and profits. (339) Their designs were based on the “Baltimore clipper,” like Isaac McKim’s Ann McKim (1833), but with less drag, less rake, more speed, and more elegance and grace. They initially sailed to China to trade for tea, porcelain, silks, and spices. Later they ventured around the tip of South America to deliver goods to California after gold was discovered in 1848. Making money and delivering cargo faster than anyone else were these men’s primary objectives. In the process, they revolutionized global trade, transformed a remote outpost into a burgeoning region, and aided in the spread of opium.

First and foremost, this is a story about merchants like Warren Delano II, John Murray and Robert Bennet Forbes, and Abiel Abbot Low. They acquired assets that allowed them to deal in exports and imports. They owned the ships and oftentimes the cargoes they carried. They hired shipwrights like Donald McKay and John Willis Griffiths to build their ships, as well as those vessels’ captains: Charles Porter Low, Nathaniel Palmer, and Joshua Creesy to name a few.

It is also a story about the places and cultures to which their ships sailed. Initially, China was an insular country, the government unwilling to trade with Westerners until Jorge Alvares visited Canton in 1513. By the mid 1800s, merchants from many European countries and the United States were purchasing Chinese goods. Warren Delano II belonged to a good, established family, but he lacked money. When he ventured to China in 1833 as a young bachelor, he had two goals he wished to achieve. He wanted to acquire enough funds to make him independently wealthy – $100,000 that would require living in China for at least five years – and to become a member of the prestigious firm of Russell & Company. What he soon realized was that living in China was very different from living in America and it could quite dangerous for foreigners. He wasn’t permitted to learn Chinese. He had to operate according to many strict dictates. He had to live in a section of Canton in a compound allotted to those who brokered goods for export. Wives of these men, if they came, had to live in Macao, as they were never permitted on the mainland. One Chinese merchant headed the Cohong (a guild of traders) and was personally responsible for the foreign merchants. Wu Ping-Chien (whom Westerners called Houqua), mentored some of these foreigners, including Delano. While the Chinese had much to offer in the way of exports, Westerners had little to offer in return, except money and opium. The illegal importation of this addictive drug led to a shortfall of silver in China and many became addicts unwilling to work. Eventually the government intervened and Houqua was arrested. While the Americans tacitly acquiesced to China’s demands, the British did not and the First Opium War soon erupted.

Aside from the cultural and personal aspects of this account of the “barons of the sea,” this book is also a tale of the ships. The sooner merchant ships returned home to New York or Boston, the sooner the tea could be auctioned. This not only led to greater profits, but also increased a firm’s reputation. This is why men like Delano and Low sought ships with greater speed and cargo capacity. For example, when Oriental arrived in London in 1850 – the first Yankee clipper to do so – she did so in 97 days, a vast improvement from the usual six months which British ships normally took to go from China to London. Her cargo sold for $48,000, a vast sum when compared to the $10-$12 an average working man earned in one month.

Prior to this time period, ship design had remained fairly stable for 200 years. Ships that sailed to China and India were called “Indiamen” and a typical one averaged 175 feet in length, 30 feet in width, and possessed a deep draft and rounded topsides. Beginning in the 1830s, the shipwrights and merchants began to revolutionize the design to create Yankee clippers. But the men who built these vessels didn’t agree on what designs were best. Captain Nathaniel Palmer favored ships with sharp bows and flat bottoms that he believed would average 12-13 knots when laden with tea. John Willis Griffiths, who never went to sea, designed vessels with V-shaped bottoms because his draftsman’s mind believed this would make them faster. One of his ships, Sea Witch, traveled 264 miles each day for ten days during a monsoon. Her best single day’s distance was 302 miles.

These Yankee clippers underwent even more radical changes once the merchants turned their attention to the California trade. Donald McKay’s designs and skill turned the building of such ships into an art. Stag Hound, built in 1850 for the California runs, could carry 1,500 tons of cargo and her sails consisted of 9,500 square yards of canvas. She was the first of the extreme clippers. But McKay went on to design even bigger ones. Sovereign of the Seas’ tonnage exceeded 2,400 and she measured 252 feet in length, while the Great Republic as designed would carry 4,555 tons and be longer than today’s football field.

Memnon, one of Delano’s ships, traveled 15,000 miles from New York to San Francisco Bay in 123 days. Until then the journey around Cape Horn often took over 200; covered wagons leaving Independence, Missouri to go overland averaged six months. It didn’t take long before the various merchants began competing with one another. Their ships were “majestic clippers, flying before the wind like great birds of prey, their vast spreads of canvas stretchws taut, their deep sharp bows piercing wave after wave.” (6) In 1851 three clippers left New York bound for San Francisco. Captain Charles Low commanded N. B. Palmer, owned by the Lows and named for Captain Nathaniel Palmer, on her maiden voyage. Moses Grinnell’s Flying Cloud was captained by Josiah Creesy, whose wife served as his navigator. The third ship, Challenge, was owned by N. & G. Griswold and cost over $150,000 to build. She had three decks instead of the normal two and her masts rose more than 200 feet above the weather deck. Her captain was Robert Waterman. There could be only one winner, and the race became one that involved rough weather, major repairs at sea, sabotage, mutiny, and ended with the arrest of one of the captains and his first mate.

As with all things, though, the time for Yankee clippers ebbed. Fewer men wanted to earn their livings at sea. As California grew and developed, her citizens became more self-sufficient and no longer had need for ships to bring them necessaries. They could make or grow these items themselves and purchase them for far lower prices than the East Coast merchants charged. Confederate raiders took their toll on Northern shipping during the Civil War. Steam ships were becoming more and more plentiful. Finally, the sinking of SS Central America in 1857 proved fatal not only to the 420 male passengers and crew aboard, but also to the American economy. Lost during the hurricane was the nine tons of California gold and specie that she carried. The loss, valued at around $2,000,000, resulted in more than just a run on banks. Fewer and fewer ship owners could afford the beautiful, graceful vessels that had brought great wealth to men who became pillars of nineteenth-century American society and whose influence on our culture and politics lasted far into the next hundred years.

These are the stories that Steven Ujifusa weaves together in his book. He includes an inset of photographs, an appendix with ship and sail diagrams, a section of notes that double as a bibliography, and an index. He also defines unfamiliar terms at the bottom of the pages where the words occur. Barons of the Sea is informative, entertaining, and enthralling. It’s a voyage not to be missed, whether you’re fascinated with sailing ships, the tea trade or the gold rush, or just history in general.

Review Copyrighted ©2019 Cindy Vallar

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