- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003


By Stephen Fox

Harper Collins, $29.95, 493 pages, illus.


Squirming in an uncomfortable seat, eating food out of plastic packets, squinting at blurry movies on a tiny screen, and arriving both worn out and malodorous — this is the current state of transatlantic travel. It was not thus in our fathers’ day, and many families still have in their attics the stout trunks plastered with the labels of a glorious day of travel, labels which read Cunard White Star, Peninsular and Oriental, US Lines, or Nord Deutcher Lloyd.

Our parents and grandparents were steamship passengers — and prizes to be fought over by the great, vanished shipowners of the North Atlantic trade. To be a passenger then meant their every wish was catered to (that is, unless they were immigrants in steerage), their menu, their music, their surroundings crafted to create an impression of luxury and ease, combined with great quality.

And whether steerage or first class, they were adventurers in a way that the airline passenger can never be today. They faced, perhaps, an Atlantic storm, certainly a weather front, certainly what a sailing friend of mine calls “the peace that comes only 1000 miles from shore.” And they experienced, too, the lives, manners and thoughts of their fellow passengers; the boredom, the joy, the seasickness, the sight of the captain and crew in action. And they saw the limitless sea.

Stephen Fox, in this admirable pen portrait of an era, has brought the great ships, their triumphs and their dreadful calamities, to life in a richly illustrated “Transatlantic.” What is it about a ship which charms and fascinates? Strength combined with beauty, speed and the threat of danger, yes, but most of all the creation of a completely human world in the midst of that inhuman and irrational desert known as ocean.

And the highest expression of this intellectual creation was the passenger ship, created by tradition, experience and experiment to carry human cargo through the world’s most dangerous road, the sea lane from the United States to the western shore of Europe. Not only were the great steamers able to make the voyages which earned them their keep, they did it with incredible style, and gradually turned an ordeal into a routine matter, so that their direct descendants, the cruise ships which today populate the temperate zones of the world, have themselves become destinations.

The Cruise ships no longer go anywhere — they are themselves the point, the nexus, the reason.

In a sense they are a celebration of steamship life without its reason for existence. And Samuel Cunard would turn over in his grave at the wallowing tubs and wedding cake barges that rule the cruise trade and pass as ships.

As Mr. Fox ably relates, the steamers of this golden age of travel, basically from 1870 to 1935, were all vying for one goal — speed across the ocean. Speed means safety, though there is danger associated with it.

This argument cuts two ways: the longer one spends at sea, the more likely to meet a fierce storm, therefore speed equals less exposure, more safety. On the other hand the faster the ship, the less able it is to avoid time-honored perils: collisions in the fog, icebergs, reefs. The steamship passenger, however, always chose speed, and would flock to it.

Mr. Fox’s narrative system is chronological, and begins with the first “enduring” steamship service between England and America, the 1840 paddelewheeler Brittania, 14 days.

Before that, regular sailing packets, dependable three and four-masted workhorses of the sea, took twice as long. By the late 1830s, he writes, “twenty packet ships were running from New York to Liverpool, twelve more to London and sixteen to Le Havre … an average of one ship every thirty hours, all year long, regardless of the wind and weather.”

When onto this scene burst the steam engine, subtly the entire game changed, competition between rival shipping lines becoming like an arms race. No longer were sailing skills and a skipper’s judgment of the best course, or the shape of a hull the deciding factors, but the more ruthlessly logical matters of length and the horsepower that the huge side-beam steam engines could apply to paddlewheels.

No passenger steamship dynasty can compare in reputation, longevity or fame than that of Cunard. Samuel Cunard (who built the Brittania of 1840) was not British, but descended from German Quakers who settled in Philadelphia, and later moved to Nova Scotia as did loyalists and Quakers who were persecuted by the American revolutionaries in the war with Britain. There he married a Scots woman and found a career in shipping, which eventually led him back to Britain.

Quaker simplicity, Scots thrift and a belief in science and engineering — these were the foundations of the Cunard Steamship Company that caused “Cunarders” to endure as other ocean empires rose and fell. But Cunard’s big idea had less to do with ships than with global business. He decided to finance his shipping line by securing a contract with the British government for transatlantic mail delivery, shrewdly undercutting rivals and contracting with Scots engine building innovator Robert Napier of Glasgow to build both ships and engines.

Not only does Mr. Fox dwell lovingly on the remarkable life of Cunard and his sons, but on rivals, intrigues, disasters, shipwrecks and the eventual entry of Germany and other nations into the race for transatlantic mastery. We also learn of the experience of scores of travelers high and low who wrote of their ocean journeys including literary giants like Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Mark Twain.

In Mr. Fox’s telling these ships almost have souls. It is well he ends his story with one of the most memorable and beautiful of all the grand Atlantic steamers, the wonderful Mauretania, a ship which still brings mist to the eyes of all who lived aboard her, or saw her coming into the West Side docks in New York. Her four raking funnels spoke of her great speed “so fast that competing steamship lines did not even try to surpass her,” Mr. Fox comments.

“I thought … I had never seen a more beautiful sight” wrote Theodore Dreiser as he left her at Liverpool; she was the queen for 27 years until she was broken up in 1935. Mauretania was decorated with “the look of an English country house” by architect Harold Peto; a country house which could charge through Atlantic graybeards at 25 knots.

Her remains are still treasured. They were bought — the woodwork and some of the fittings, the chandeliers from the first class lounge, and installed in a pub in Bristol known, of course, as The Mauretania. There they may still be savored, as Mr. Fox savors this great one and others, as we sadly contemplate the course of transatlantic travel since.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer and critic.

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