The Cunard Line

How Joseph Howe and T.C. Haliburton propelled Samuel Cunard into fame and fortune

Samuel Cunard established the first steamship line across the Atlantic Ocean, and with it, his fame and fortune. Cunard’s success was somewhat by coincidence, having friends in the right place at the right time.

Samuel Cunard was born in Halifax on November 21st, 1787, to loyalist parents from the southern United States. During the war of 1812, Cunard became a merchant and ship owner, establishing 'A. Cunard & Son' with his father on Upper Water Street near Proctor LaneCunard grew into a shrewd businessman, made many friends, and was well liked. As an alert ship owner, he was aware of the development of steam engines, and became a shareholder of the 'Saint John and Halifax Steam Navigation Company.' In September 1830, the investors commissioned Messrs. Campbell and Black of Quebec to build a trans-Atlantic paddle steamer called the Royal William. It was ungainly, built similar to a three-masted sailing vessel but swollen amidships by paddle boxes, and further disfigured by a tall skinny funnel between fore and main-mast, which belched enough coal smoke to choke the hands laying out the yards to make sail. The steamer was launched on April 27th, 1831, at Cape Cove, Quebec. She made several trips to Halifax that year, but was quarantined in 1832 due to a cholera epidemic. The next year, her owners decided to sail her to Europe to find a buyer. On the crossing, her top speed of 8-10 knots was sometimes exceeded by sailing packets, given the right wind. But as the wind was not consistent, the Royal William simply sashayed over the waves in utter disregard of weather, making it to Gravesend in twenty-five days, well ahead of sail in 'hare and tortoise' fashion. The Royal William was credited with achieving the first crossing of the Atlantic almost entirely under steam power, using sails only during periods of boiler maintenance. She was later sold to Spain.

Despite the successful voyage of the Royal William, it wasn't until 1840 that Cunard established a regular steamship line – and somewhat by coincidence. In July, 1838, Joseph Howe and his friend, Judge T.C. Haliburton, departed for England on the sailing ship, Tyrian, to promote Haliburton's new book, Sam Slick, the Clockmaker. Halfway across the Atlantic, the Tyrian was overtaken by the steamship, Sirius, out of New York. The Captain of the Tyrian had important mail on board for the British Government, so he hailed the Sirius and arranged for the mail to be transferred to the faster ship. Howe, always alert for a story, agreed to deliver the mail once in port, and boarded the steamship with Haliburton. The Sirius quickly pulled ahead, free from the tyranny of the wind.

That voyage convinced Howe that steam was the future of Atlantic shipping, and on August 24th, 1838, he presented a memorandum to Lord Glenelg, Colonial Secretary, expounding on the merits of steam. In October, when the British Admiralty advertised for tenders to operate a steam-packet service to carry mail from Liverpool to Halifax, Haliburton saw an opportunity. He immediately contacted Samuel Cunard, who was fixated with the idea of an 'ocean railway' and had been for years. Cunard went to London straightaway and met with marine engineer, Robert Napier, to design the steamships. Cunard then contacted Burns and MacIver, a prosperous shipping company. Together they formed the 'British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company,' later renamed the 'The Cunard Line.' The company submitted a bid for the mail contract, and secured a seven-year guarantee from the British Government. The Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia, and Cumberland were the first four ships built by the company. While under construction, Cunard acquired a coastal paddle steamer, the Unicorn, to be used between Halifax and Montreal. When it arrived in Halifax on May 16th, 1840, the wharves were jammed with people cheering as if at a great victory, and many Haligonians went aboard to inspect of the 'marvel of the age.'

Cunard enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Atlantic steam navigation, and with it came fame and fortune. His company later dominated the passenger trade, too, with famous liners such as the RMS Queen Mary, and RMS Queen Elizabeth. His name lives on today in the Cunard Line, now a prestigious branch of the Carnival Line cruise empire.