Author: Steven Ujifusa,Author

Publisher: Simon and Schuster,
ISBN 978-1-4767-4597-8

Steven Ujifusa, author of Barons Of The Sea, is a graduate of Harvard (undergrad) and earned his Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania (Historic Preservation). (2018, inside back cover) Barons Of The Sea is his second book. The first was heralded as best nonfiction title in 2012 by the Wall Street Journal. (A Man and His Ship) Ujifusa has been a guest on NPR and CBS Sunday Morning. To learn more about this author please visit his website.

Ujifusa begins this book with a bit of background into that period of history with Warren Delano II. Delano’s father came to America aboard the Mayflower. (2018, p.12) Ujifusa describes the son of Delano (Delano II) as being, “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 hook nose, a leonine beard, and bristling sideburns. Suspicious of strangers, he loved his family without reservation.” From this description we can see that this is an astute man not to be trifled with.

Water had always been a pleasurable place for the Delanos, Forbes, Perkins, et.al. and as such they sailed, rowed, raced, and eventually traded on the water. At this time America was in her infancy and occupationally speaking, a wide open range awaiting the desires of her people. Delano and others jumped when they saw opportunity.

Many trading companies knew that opium and tea were good commodities. Both could bring a tidy profit for those who capitalized on the shipping industry. Hailing out of Baltimore Harbor was the Empress of China who sailed from New York with her holds filled with ginsing headed to China. She was the first merchant ship to enter the trading sector from American shores.

Most ships sailed into Canton. In Canton it was frowned upon for the Cantonese to mix with the Americans or Brits. The foreigners stayed in what was called Factories, but they were not like the factories of today. They were more rooming houses where the various trading companies housed their accountants and traders while deals were being struck. The men dined on elegant fare and slept in clean spaces. They cavorted as they could and kept to what the Cantonese government stipulated.

Delano’s father had the foresight to note that China was a perfect place to capitalize on opium, sugar, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery, cutlery, tinware, clothing and tea. Opium was being smuggled from India into China at that time. The Turkish, Americans and the Brits all partook. The East India Trading Company had been the sole provider of tea. Things were about to change. Delano jumped aboard the Commerce, gambled and made out huge. He was not the only one to profit hugely from trading. Eventually the sons of these titans would enter this industry and bust trading wide open.

Part of what Delano and others did in Canton was to keep careful notes on what their companies paid for tea and opium so their bosses back home could keep abreast of their businesses abroad. Trading on the open seas was not an easy feat. Ships often got caught in an array of bad weather that ranged from typhons to running aground to rogue waves swamping them. Those had to limp back to port or even worse risk sinking.

Typical round trips were tabulated at 140 days give or take. As new ships were designed these records were broken and fortunes multiplied. Thus, the race for the fastest designs on the water became a sort of game of chess for these large scale trading companies. Boats grew in length and width. Shipbuilding became a big moneyed industry along America’s eastern seaboard. Obviously, the faster the ships could transport these goods from east to west the more money they could make.

Ship designs were devised based on what type of cargo they were transporting. Some had flat bottoms and others had pointy bows and sterns. Some sailed in excess of thirteen knots with a full load of cargo! All sailed without the benefits of the modern maritime technology we have today. The captains and mates were well versed in celestial navigation which required calculating the ships latitude north or south of the equator at noon and longitude, which was a bit more loosey goosie. Mariners managed this calculation with the aid of what is called a sextant. Eventually, the chronometer would be a valuable aid for these calculations along with the sextant.

This book is steeped in a rich tapestry of history amongst those with the temerity and wherewithal to oversee and participate in the difficult, but lucrative trading and shipping industry. Many of our Fortune 500 families came into their various fortunes thanks to their family lineages doing just this. I had no idea about the inside scoop of this industry until reading this fascinating book. I loved learning about the early shipbuilding and their record breaking sailing skills in bringing these goods to market. If you want a historically correct winter read filled with fantastical people and their journeys across the globe this may be just the book for you.