The name "Cunard" could conjure up a lot of images--luxurious ocean liners slicing through the waves, crowds of immigrants disembarking at Pier 21, or even the liner Carpathia steaming to the rescue of the Titanic. What it might not evoke is the picture of a plain-spoken colonial merchant quietly constructing himself both a commercial empire and place in history.
Retired Nova Scotian lawyer John Langley, founder and chairman of the Cunard Steamship Society, has written this book to prop up Cunard’s neglected legacy. He begins by tracing the world events that brought Samuel Cunard’s family to the place of his birth, beginning with a German Quaker couple settling in the new colony of Pennsylvania and ending with Cunard’s Loyalist father, Abraham, finding refuge in Halifax.
Abraham Cunard, a master carpenter at the Royal Navy Dockyard, began the family business with land on the Halifax waterfront, a warehouse and wharf, and a small fleet of ships. Samuel, as the eldest son, joined A. Cunard and Son in 1812 when he was 25. By 1815, Cunard was the leading member of the firm, and he took sole proprietorship in 1820 when his father retired.
Trade in lumber played a large part in the growth of the company, but the mail contract with the British government eventually became the heart of Cunard’s business. Reliable, timely mail delivery was essential at the time, since communication between Britain and the colonies could take up to 12 weeks, and Cunard’s skillful negotiation of the contract was one of his greatest accomplishments. He also played an important part in launching the Age of Steam, since fast, dependable mail service demanded a small fleet of steamships. His flagship Britannia was the first to regularly cross the Atlantic and proved that steam travel was indeed a viable option.
Anyone who has seen the Queen Mary 2 in port would be surprised that the founder of the Cunard line hated extravagance. He lived simply, despite his wealth, and he demanded that his ships be built with as few amenities as possible. In another striking contrast, the man who saw ahead to the innovation of steam in ocean travel refused to upgrade his fleet until the latest mechanical improvements had been verified as safe and reliable. His caution served him well in the end, as the Cunard line achieved a reputation for safety unmatched by any competitor.
As a biographer, Langley sometimes lets his fascination for his subject carry him away. Enthusiasm is endearing, and Langley’s obvious zeal makes his subject inviting, even if his writing lacks vigour. However, he errs on the side of being too positive in his assessment of Cunard as a businessman, father, and person. He even applauds Cunard’s commercial failures, such as his attempt to revive the whaling industry, as partially successful because they provided employment and economic renewal for depressed industries. And, when he excerpts a portion of Cunard's correspondence, he calls it honest and straightforward, while a more moderate judge might call it blunt.
The amount of research that must have gone into this book is impressive, but Langley includes a major error that detracts from his credibility. In the text, he says that Cunard’s daughter, Susan, was fourteen years old in 1833, while her biography at the end of the book states that she died in 1829 at the age of ten. If the latter is true, Langley’s failure to mention the death of Cunard’s daughter in his life’s story or to speculate on what such a loss might have meant to a devoted father is a serious omission on the part of a biographer.
Nevertheless, Langley’s theme is clear, consistent and well-developed—Cunard was a remarkable man. His list of accomplishments is impressive for any age: world merchant, pioneer of steamship travel, provider of troop transport during the Crimean War, and member of the House of Lords advising on colonial issues. Add to these distinctions his community work: fourteen yers asfirwarden in Halifax, twenty years as commissioner of lighthouses working to ensure the safety of coastal mariners, and his involvement in the creation of the colony’s first bank, and you come up with a man who deserves to be better remembered than he is.