Ujifusa, Steven. “Barons of the Sea”, Simon and Schuster, 2018.
The seas have always played a huge part in history and we know that in the early years of the republic and fortunes were made and lost importing luxury goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain from China. This was a secretive, glamorous, ugly business that had been built off the profits of the opium trade. There was a handful of cutthroat competitors who raced to build the fastest, finest, most profitable clipper ships to carry their precious cargo to American shores. “Barons of the Sea” revisits that history of nineteenth-century American dynasties and the battle for dominance in tea and opium trading. As might be expected, this history is filled with scandal, decadence and intrigue and it makes for a thrilling read. We read of the rise and fall of an American industry yet we also gain practical information such as which sail is which.
“Barons of the Sea” is the story of how the ships made huge fortunes for their owners using money from the opium trade to buy luxury goods in China—silks, teas, and porcelain—and sell them in America. These barons of the sea were initially wealthier than the railroad, oil, and steel barons. Uniting the building of the fastest ships with the China goods, the California gold rush, and the growing wealth of Americans gives us a fascinating story of trading that most of us are unfamiliar with. There are many shorter stories within the overall story of life on the seas and the enormous fortunes that seemed to justify the risks taken. We also read about the lives of the men and women who took the risks.
We begin in February 1784, when the “Empress of China” sailed from New York to Canton and returned, 14 months later, filled with cargo that sold for gigantic profits. This started a rush by young American entrepreneurs to develop partners, routes, and ships that would eventually create great wealth and power. Soon American shipyards began building vessels designed to be faster and capable of carrying more cargo than their predecessors to take advantage of early season marketing that produced the biggest profits.
The “clipper” ships that became the secret to gaining advantage over others and merchants and ship owners, mostly New Englanders risked huge sums of money trying to outdo each other at dominating the trade. Ship builders were given contracts to build the fastest and most reliable vessels possible. Ship captains were chosen for their efficiency and were employed and charged with making sure shipments were delivered as needed.
Ujifusa did tremendous research and wonderful prose in order to give us the best possible picture of what went on and provide a vivid account of intriguing characters, aggressive marketing, and innovative technology from a bygone era.