The Age of Cunard

The Age of Cunard:  A Transatlantic History, 1839-2003

In 1840 Samuel Cunard, a Halifax, Nova Scotia businessman, took possession of a quartet of small paddlewheel steamers and  formed the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, soon to become known as simply the Cunard Line, the first–and ultimately last–great transatlantic passenger service.  In the more than 160 years that followed, the Line came to embrace and embody the glamour and the glory of the North Atlantic run, with its luxurious ships, its Blue Ribband speed records, and its glittering passenger lists.

Yet there was far more to the story than just glory and glamour.  The Line and the services it provided would ultimately change the world.  It transformed the flow of European emigrants to America from a trickle into a flood, changing the face and character of two continents; at the same time, by propelling British shipbuilding, steam engineering and steelmaking to feats of construction and production that had never before been imagined, it spurred them to become the driving forces behind the dynamics of  Victorian Britain, ushering in an era of social, economic and political progress on a scale never before seen.  It would be an exciting, sometimes tumultuous, occasionally troubled, story.  The Line would face showdowns with rivals at home and abroad, some explicitly dedicated to driving Cunard from the North Atlantic, only to eventually, like the White Star Line, be absorbed by Cunard.  It would endure the carnage of two World Wars, and in the Second provide the Allies with margin of victory in Europe.  And when the demand for the services that Cunard had long provided changed with the dawning of the air age, the number of passengers simply seeking transportation across the Atlantic rapidly dwindling, the company successfully reinvented itself to adapt to the world of cruising, so that when it could no longer fulfill a need, it satisfied a desire.

Of course, the Cunard story would include some of the most wonderful, beautiful, and amazing ships that ever to put to sea:  the little Britannia, the paddlewheeler that started it all; the elegant Carmania and Caronia, the “Pretty Sisters;” the modest Carpathia, which would become one of Cunard’s most famous ship when she rescued the survivors of the ill-fated Titanic; the bold and powerful record-setters Lusitania and Mauretania; the graceful Aquitania, said to possess the most beautiful interior ever put into a ship; the mighty Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth; and the new Queen Mary 2, the most awesome passenger liner ever built.  Indeed, the story of the Cunard Line is at times very much a history of shipbuilding.

Still, the heart and soul of The Age of Cunard is found not in a recitation of ships and statistics, but in the men and women who brought the Line to life.  Here is an opportunity to meet the stokers of the “Black Gang,” shoveling coal into the insatiable maws of the boilers; the stewards and stewardesses who were dedicated to catering to their passengers’ every whim; to the captains, officers, and seamen who responsible for safely navigating the ships; and finally the passengers, who were the reason the Line existed.

The Age of Cunard brings the whole amazing tale of North Atlantic passenger steamships vibrantly alive, from the tiny Britannia of 1840, to the Queen Mary 2, the new leviathan which is the ultimate confirmation of all that Samuel Cunard had once striven to achieve.  The black-hulled ships with the unique orange-red funnels have set the Cunard seal for all time over passenger travel on the North Atlantic: just as the ships of the Cunard Line were the first to regularly sail the great northern ocean, now they are the last passenger liners still making that crossing.  From beginning to end, the years of the great passenger ships were truly The Age of Cunard.

You can order The Age of Cunard here.

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