“A fascinating, fast-paced history…full of remarkable characters and incredible stories” about the nineteenth-century American dynasties who battled for dominance of the tea and opium trades (Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award-winning author of In the Heart of the Sea).
There was a time, back when the United States was young and the robber barons were just starting to come into their own, when fortunes were made and lost importing luxury goods from China. It was a secretive, glamorous, often brutal business—one where teas and silks and porcelain were purchased with profits from the opium trade. But the journey by sea to New York from Canton could take six agonizing months, and so the most pressing technological challenge of the day became ensuring one’s goods arrived first to market, so they might fetch the highest price.
“With the verse of a natural dramatist” (The Christian Science Monitor), Steven Ujifusa tells the story of a handful of cutthroat competitors who raced to build the fastest, finest, most profitable clipper ships to carry their precious cargo to American shores. They were visionary, eccentric shipbuilders, debonair captains, and socially ambitious merchants with names like Forbes and Delano—men whose business interests took them from the cloistered confines of China’s expatriate communities to the sin city decadence of Gold Rush-era San Francisco, and from the teeming hubbub of East Boston’s shipyards and to the lavish sitting rooms of New York’s Hudson Valley estates.
Elegantly written and meticulously researched, Barons of the Sea is a riveting tale of innovation and ingenuity that “takes the reader on a rare and intoxicating journey back in time” (Candice Millard, bestselling author of Hero of the Empire), drawing back the curtain on the making of some of the nation’s greatest fortunes, and the rise and fall of an all-American industry as sordid as it was genteel.
Warren Delano II loved sitting at his big desk at Algonac, his Hudson River estate. Around him were treasures of Chinese art: temple bells, porcelains, silk wall hangings. This day, through the wavy glass panes of the library windows, he could see a fall breeze rustle the red and gold leaves on the trees, and the sun glitter on the river. The air was crisp, and a coal fire glowed in the hearth. Penning letters to family and friends, with advice on business and stern judgments about character, he was at home, in charge, and seemingly at ease, managing a business empire that spanned the globe.
Fifty years old in the fall of 1859, Delano was a tough man to the core: well over six feet tall, with chiseled features, a hooked nose, a leonine beard, and bristling sideburns. Suspicious of strangers, he loved his family without reservation. All coldness melted away when his six children tumbled around the library, as they often did while he worked. If two of them got into a fight over a toy, he would look up from his desk, smile, utter firmly, “What’s that? Tut, tut!” and the squabble would stop. It was not fear of the patriarch but fear of disappointing him that kept his children well behaved. He never spanked them. Nor did he share his worries on days when letters brought ill news. In the words of one daughter, he had a remarkable knack for hiding “all traces of sadness or trouble or news of anything alarming.”2 To be a true Delano, one had to keep a pleasant disposition, no matter what life threw at you.
The Delano clan had been risking their lives on the high seas ever since the Flemish Protestant adventurer Philippe Delannoy first made the Atlantic crossing to the Plymouth Bay Colony in 1621. Building the family’s maritime fortunes required spending much of life apart from those they loved, and demanded a delicate balance of poise on land and toughness at sea. It was a fact of life in seagoing New England: the longer the absence and the larger the risks, the greater the financial rewards. The old whale-hunting cry “A dead whale or a stove boat!” could well have been the family’s motto.I
For two centuries, the clan had sacrificed much to attain modest prosperity. But Warren Delano’s opulent fortune had sprung from his mastery of another kind of maritime gamble: trading in tea and opium. He had made two visits to China as a young man, first as a bachelor, and then with his wife, Catherine, whom he had married only a few weeks before they set sail. They had lost their first-born child in that country, a tragedy that had driven his young bride to near-suicidal despair. Another child would come home chronically ill.
Yet Warren was expert at keeping his private emotional life divorced from the grand vision by which he and his contemporaries had transformed the world. Their hard work had made a young republic into one of the world’s great commercial sea powers, with a fleet of fast ships that challenged Great Britain’s maritime supremacy. The success of Yankee clippers, which Delano helped mastermind, shook Old Britannia’s complacency, cracking ancient, restrictive trade laws that had kept foreign-built vessels out of British ports. “We must run a race with our gigantic and unshackled rival,” snarled the London Times upon the first visit to London of a Yankee clipper, in 1850. “We must set our long-practiced skill, our steady industry, and our dogged determination against his youth, industry, and ardor.”3 The American clipper in question, Oriental, had cut the trip from China to London nearly in half, from six months to a mere 97 days, and her cargo of tea sold for a whopping $48,000. This was at a time when an average American worker made between $10 and $12 a month.4
Delano’s great wealth from trade had allowed him to remove his family to Algonac, a sixty-acre estate north of New York City. The mammoth scale of the house was in no small part inspired by a great rambling palace Delano had seen on the banks of China’s Pearl River many years before, while it also reflected the latest in nineteenth-century American architectural fashion. The architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, was a proponent of the “picturesque”: a whimsical Gothic window here, a wood-and-glass cupola there. Downing seems to have understood his seagoing but home-loving client. As a self-taught tastemaker, Downing skillfully used his pen to appeal to the longings of his prosperous but increasingly harried bourgeois clientele. “The mere sentiment of home,” Downing mused in The Architecture of Country Houses, “has, like a strong anchor, saved many a man from shipwreck in the storms of life.”5
For Delano, Algonac did exactly that. The tan stucco house, designed in the Tuscan villa style and adorned with towers, gables, and wide porches, was his fortress—a refuge from all of the uncertainties that had dogged his early life. Screened in by stone walls and tall trees, Warren was the realm’s benevolent yet exacting ruler. Here, all of the world’s problems were kept at bay, and all of life’s questions answered. He played games with his children and tended his fruit trees. He and Catherine wrote what they called their “Algonac Diaries,” lovingly describing their children’s “explosions of fire-crackers,” and one particularly “splendid bonfire in the henyard.”6 The crash of a gong summoned the family to their evening meal, in an east-facing dining room with a spectacular view of the Hudson River.
Yet Warren didn’t tell stories to his children about his time in China as a young man—the violence he had lived through, or his loneliness there before Catherine, or facing down the hard edges of life on the other side of the world. He was determined that his children not go through what he’d experienced. For all his present comfort, he knew what it had taken to make his money, in a foreign country, skirting the fringes of the law.
At Algonac, there was a silent witness to the source of his wealth, in spirit if not in life: a Chinese patriarch was enshrined in an oil painting that hung in the paneled library. He had a thin, pinched face and melancholy eyes, and he was dressed splendidly in flowing silk robes, necklaces of bright jade. A close-fitting cap, topped with the red coral button that denoted his high “mandarin” social status in the Chinese governmental hierarchy, sat next to him on the table.
This was Houqua, the great Chinese merchant whose favor had helped make Warren Delano one of America’s richest men. By 1859, the man in the painting had been dead for more than ten years. But through the first half of the nineteenth century, he had been one of the wealthiest men in the world, and a financial father to Delano and other young American merchants of that time. The painting at Algonac was a gift from Houqua himself. Every partner at Delano’s firm, Russell & Company—the largest and most profitable American enterprise in China—brought home a portrait of Houqua. His visage adorned counting rooms in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. So revered was the great merchant that one of Delano’s partners named his tea-carrying ship, arguably the first of the sleek Yankee clippers, in Houqua’s honor.
In the years since his time under Houqua’s patronage, Warren Delano had invested the fortune he had made from his Chinese business into more clipper ships, and then into copper and coal mines, Manhattan real estate, and railroads. Delano himself had achieved tremendous stature, not only for his wealth but also for his character. One contemporary wrote, “He was a man of quick perceptions, accurate judgment, indomitable will, and possessed in a remarkable degree the rich endowment of common sense . . . the result of clear thinking and strict adherence to the facts.”7
Yet by that fall day in 1859, the business letters Delano was writing from the library at Algonac were getting increasingly frantic. A financial panic two years earlier, triggered by speculation in railroads, had caused his investments to suffer. His clipper ships were particularly hard hit. Within several months of the crash, he had gone from being a millionaire to being close to penniless. Despite Delano’s obsession with privacy at Algonac, there was no way to keep this financial cataclysm away from his family hearth. Meanwhile, America was hurtling toward the reckoning between North and South, a conflict from which even the gates of Algonac could not shelter the Delanos.
Warren Delano had a big family, an expensive house, and above all, a reputation to maintain. He had taken big risks throughout his life, and now, staring at bankruptcy, he was not about to sit still. He saw only one way to avoid certain ruin: he would return to China and the opium and tea trade.
His wife and six children would remain at Algonac. Warren promised Catherine, several months pregnant with their seventh child, that he would be gone only two years. She did her best to keep calm as he packed his bags and prepared to leave. She knew firsthand the danger of ocean travel and the volatile political situation in China, a country where Westerners were not welcomed as guests but rather derided in the streets as fanqui. Foreign devils.
* * *
When Warren Delano boarded ship in the Port of New York, the sounds and smells around him would not have differed greatly from the scenes of his first voyage more than a quarter century before: the tang of salt water, the shouts of the sailors, the thunder of the canvas as it dropped from the yards and captured the wind, and the gentle motion of the deck as the vessel glided through the Upper Bay and then out into the gray expanse of the North Atlantic. In his ears would be the sonorous calls of the chanteymen, singing work songs to keep time as they hauled in the lines and spun the capstans—old sailing songs, tuned to the new clipper era:
Down by the river hauled a Yankee clipper,
And it’s blow, my bully boys, blow!
She’s a Yankee mate and a Yankee skipper,
And it’s blow, my bully boys, blow!
The name of the ship that took him on this voyage is lost to history, but it was almost certainly one of those rakish, swift vessels that he helped pioneer: majestic clippers, flying before the wind like great birds of prey, their vast spreads of canvas stretched taut, their deep, sharp bows piercing wave after wave. On such a vessel, the trip would take fewer than three months. When Warren had first gone to China in 1833, six months was considered an acceptable run. In this respect alone, time spent aboard ship had changed.
Still, life on a long sea voyage would have quickly worn thin: dinners with the captain; letter writing; endlessly rereading the same books and outdated periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly; listening to other passengers tell stories, play the piano, or sing. Delano had played the guitar as a young man. Perhaps now he sang a few songs with his fellow passengers to pass the time.8 But this private man likely despised being forced into the shipboard company of people he didn’t know. At night, his huge frame jammed into a narrow berth built for a much smaller man, he may have stared out his port light and yearned for Algonac and his family.
An ocean away, his five-year-old daughter, Sara, found the separation from her beloved Papa hard to bear. She later remembered her father vanishing without explanation. As many Yankee children lamented, “Dear papa done Tanton [gone Canton].”9 When Warren’s letters began to arrive, young Sara steamed off the stamps and pasted them in her collection.10
The letters meant that Warren Delano had arrived safely. Renting a large house called Rose Hill and settling into his Russell & Company duties, Delano was going back to the work he knew. He missed his family, but he was making money—as he had done thirty years ago.
I. Stove as in broken, holed, or smashed by an angry whale.
Steven Ujifusa received his AB in history from Harvard University and a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, A Man and His Ship, tells the story of William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect who created the ocean liner SS United States; TheWall Street Journal named it one of the best nonfiction titles of 2012. His new book, Barons of the Sea, brings to life the dynasties that built and owned the magnificent clipper ships of America’s nineteenth-century-era of maritime glory. Steven has given presentations across the country and on the high seas, and has appeared as guest on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR. A recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Literary Award, he lives with his wife, a pediatric emergency room physician, in Philadelphia. Read more about him at StevenUjifusa.com.
“Full of remarkable characters and incredible stories, Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea is a fascinating, fast-paced history of America’s clipper ship era. Highly recommended.” — Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award-winning author of In the Heart of the Sea
“Fast-paced and entrancing... recounting freak storms, improbable romances, and mutinies on the high seas.... Ujifusa tells these stories with the verve of a natural dramatist.... Masterfully done.” — The Christian Science Monitor
“Barons of the Sea is a riveting, raucous book. If you love the sea, it’s all here: dreams, money, ambition, and competition.” — Jay Winik, bestselling author of April 1865
“Barons of the Sea moves as fast as a clipper ship at full sail. With a seemingly effortless command of the shared history of China and the United States in the nineteenth century, Ujifusa takes the reader on a rare and intoxicating journey back in time.” — Candice Millard, bestselling author of Hero of the Empire
“Ujifusa has produced a carefully researched, lovingly written tribute to a now-vanished breed of ships and people, an entertaining chronicle of a few heady years when vision, speed, and daring helped the United States begin to establish its leading role on the world stage.” — Foreign Policy
“Among the pleasures of Barons of the Sea is the author’s extensive knowledge of ship design and nautical history; the book is almost a beginner’s manual in sailing and is infused by a clear love for the regal triple-masters of the past.... The ships themselves, rather than the owners and captains, become the main characters.” — The Wall Street Journal
“As learned as it is entertaining. Ujifusa has brought the golden age of American maritime commerce to vivid life. Extraordinary people and the wondrous clipper ships they built fill its pages with both great stories and deep insight into what makes humans of any age tick.” — John Steele Gordon, author of An Empire of Wealth
“Barons of the Sea is a true adventure story. It’s got everything — wars, races, treasure and shipwrecks… You might drink a cup of tea with more reverence after reading this.” — The Bowery Boys
“Barons of the Sea has the... narrative ease of a novel. Occasionally funny and always richly detailed, this book paints a comprehensive portrait of an American era all but forgotten in the days of next-day delivery.” — Sail Magazine
“This crisply told story of the race to build the fastest ship in the world reads like a thriller, reminiscent of the best of Nathanial Philbrick’s sea writing. It carries the reader along like a precious cargo on the high seas. I simply could not put it down.” — Admiral James Stavridis, Chairman of the US Naval Institute and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO
“Barons of the Sea captures both the majesty of clipper ships and the heart of the bold men who wanted to see them go faster and carry more. This story of ambition, innovation, and technology in the age of swift-sailing merchant ships will keep you enthralled.” — Dean King, bestselling author of Skeletons on the Zahara
“Brilliantly chronicled.... A vivid account of larger-than-life if not always attractive characters and a technological marvel that briefly captivated the Victorian world.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Ujifusa presents a sweeping, little-known piece of commercial history written by men willing to take risks, and occasionally work the grey areas of the law, to achieve some measure of fame and fortunes that survive to this day.” — Washington Independent Review of Books
“Ably synthesizing research into narrative, Ujifusa has produced a highly entertaining read for the American-history fan.” — Booklist
“For any historian or maritime enthusiast who wishes to learn about the brief but glorious clipper ship era, I would recommend Barons of the Sea as an excellent choice that provides scholarship, sophisticated writing, and an enjoyable read.” — Sea History Magazine
“Historian Samuel Eliot Morison called them ‘the noblest of all sailing vessels, and the most beautiful creations of man in America.’ But to that select group of merchants and shipmasters who employed the clipper ships in the China trade, they were also the source of vast profits — and sometimes catastrophic losses. In this deeply researched and boldly drawn account of the rise and fall of the clipper ship, Steven Ujifusa sheds dramatic new light on the lives, aspirations, and moral dilemmas of those daring Americans who traded with China in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.” — Llewellyn Howland III, author of No Ordinary Being: W. Starling Burgess, Inventor, Naval Architect, Aviation Pioneer, and Master of American Design
“Chronicles an age of technological innovation, sharp competition, and the rise of new fortunes.” — Harvard Magazine
“Ujifusa reconstructs the lavish social milieu of Yankee shipping magnates in this account of how clipper ships unlocked a new world of risk and riches in the mid-19th century.... This tale of industry will appeal to seafaring and commerce enthusiasts.” — Publishers Weekly
“By casting new light on major players, Steven Ujifusa has illuminated a long-overlooked facet of the clipper era.” — W.H. Bunting, author of Live Yankees: The Sewalls and Their Ships and Sea Struck