Barons of the Sea|
And their race to build the world's fastest clipper ship
Simon & Schuster, 2018, HC, 448 pp, $29.99
With around seventy pages of notes, an index and appendix one might infer that Barons of the Sea could be a dry read. The opposite is true. Steven Ujifusa takes us on an historical journey into the opium trade, the excitement of trade competition, and the men who built the fastest ships in order to make, of course, the most money.
Ujifusa's research is evident and detailed, however his book is fast paced and hard to put down. Except for the fact that the names are so familiar such as Delano, Forbs, and William Low and later even Kennedy, it almost reads like a novel. Ujifusa describes these barons of the sea and their thirst for power and money on a very human level. Some came up raised on the docks, and began their journey as cabin boys. Others had family money and were interested in innovation and trusted their ship's designers to advance their place in the trade market. Patrick Kennedy "the progenitor of the Massachusetts political dynasty" was in fact a cooper emigrated from Ireland.
Within the stories of the individuals, Ujifusa adds depth to the history and connections between China, England and America. The illegal trade of opium to China (which was mainly overlooked by the Chinese government) brought on a race for the fastest ships, these became the Clippers. Much of Ujifusa's book describes the genius of the ship's designers. He describes how different wood is chosen for different aspects of ship building and how some designers were eccentric and book- learned, while others learned to build ships from a life on the sea.
For me some of the most fun in Barons of the Sea were the details. Ujifusa peppers the book with tidbits of fascinating information. For instance, the phrase holding fast: "As for the iron bolts, corrosion (to a point) was a positive thing: when exposed to the sea air, the iron bolts would expand in their holes, adding to the strength of the connection, something shipyard workers would call "holding fast." Also holding fast would be tattooed onto the knuckles of the shipmen as homage to the lines they would attach to themselves so as not to be swept off the deck in harsh weather.
Ujifusa doesn't leave the women out either. Many wives had to decide between staying home and traveling with their husbands. Several decided on travel, some would suffer seasickness, others died in childbirth in a far away home. However they were often bookkeepers, as well as social experts in networking and advocacy for their husband's advancement. In fact, many of the barons married into families whose daughters were also involved in the ship trade, and these daughters and wives were smart and a force amongst themselves.
I very much enjoyed reading Barons of the Sea. I think it would be a wonderful read for anyone interested in wooden boat building and history.