Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea ends with a quote from Captain Charlie Porter Low, a man who had run away to sea and spent his life as the master of large, fast merchant ships plying the oceans between China and New York, London and San Francisco.
One who loves the sailing of a ship is always watching for the wind to blow, and the wind is never in the same quarter for any length of time, and the sails have to be trimmed very often and the yards braced forwards or squared, to catch the veering winds.
In the trade winds from Cape of Good Hope, you can run for weeks without altering the yards, in which time you can trice up all the running rigging clear of the rails, tar down all the standing rigging, scrape and oil the masts, paint the ship inside and out, holystone and oil the decks, and have her all ready to go into port in good shape; but in the variable winds, you must have everything ready for bad weather at any time.
Barons of the Sea was written for two audiences: (1) sailors and those who love sailing, and (2) shore-bound people like me.
Sailors will read Low’s words and feel them viscerally. They know the touch of a breeze on the skin of a cheek and what that bodes for what is to come. They have experienced and have images in their memory — in their bones — of the bad weather Low speaks of.
Shore-bound people like me have no idea what it means to “tar down all the standing rigging.” Or what it means to “trice up all the running rigging.” Or how the trade winds and the variable winds differ.
For us, sailing is a foreign language, and, in a book like Barons of the Sea, we try to keep up, hoping to guess, by the tone and gesture of the sentences, the meaning of it all. For us, we can imagine — we can fathom, if you will — the romance of the sea, the intimate interaction of human being and Nature, the danger and exhilaration.
An affable, pleasant journey
The good news is that, even for landlubbers, Barons of the Sea is an affable, pleasant journey on the high seas and in the counting rooms of Canton and New York during the first half of the 19th century.
The surprising news is that it is so amiable and interesting, even though it has so many things going against it.
For one thing, Ujifusa’s subtitle — And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship — is one of many subtitles employed by publishers today that promise something that the book doesn’t end up delivering. In this case, it’s not that there’s no race; it’s that there are many races. Every shipping season, in fact, is a race to get the first load of tea from Canton to London or New York to get the best price, or from New York to San Francisco to deliver the goods and merchandise that the gold-mining economy there requires. There are records that are set for the fastest trip between this port and that port, but there’s no central “race” as such.
Also, this book isn’t really about building “the world’s fastest clipper ship.” It’s about building various sorts of ships and about refinements made to the designs of each type, some of which work, some of which don’t. There’s no Ultimate Clipper Ship although, for sure, Ujifusa focuses on the very, very large merchant ships known as extreme clipper ships.
Also, there’s no central character here, but a collection of American men from affluent families who, in the early chapters, go off to China to make their fortune of $100,000 or so — the equivalent of about $1.5 million in today’s dollars — which will permit them to return to the U.S. and live with their families on Easy Street. The story is framed a bit by the life of Warren Delano II who is one of those affluent young men and who, in 1859, as a middle-aged man, has to return to China to remake his fortune. He is the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but Ujifusa doesn’t have enough about him to give him central stage in the book. Instead, the book has an ensemble cast.
So, no central race, no central ship, no central character — and Ujifusa’s book doesn’t have much of a story arc, except that these guys go to China in the early part of the century, make their money, build their ships and then are either sitting pretty or left high and dry when the business-model falls apart after the Civil War.
So, how can it be that Barons of the Sea works? Not only for sailors but for the shore-bound as well?
Their joint story
Maybe some of it has to do with the deft manner with which Ujifusa uses his ensemble cast. Indeed, in some ways, Barons of the Seas is reminiscent of those many Robert Altman movies which weren’t star vehicles or even banking on a couple of actors, hot at the time. Instead, his ensemble cast existed together on the screen in a manner that was a lot like life, with one actor talking over another’s lines and with multiple story lines and without much of a plot. They would begin and then end, but the viewer had the sense that there had been a lot of activity in the story before the parts that appeared on screen and a lot that would occur, even though “The End” had actually or metaphorically been shown just before the rolling of the credits.
That’s how Ujifusa’s book works, I think. In life, these guys — the main characters, as befits the business world of the early 1800s are all men, although there are a few women who are highlighted, such as Eleanor Creesy, the navigator-wife of Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy, and Sarah Lyon, who flirted with another passenger, Laban Coffin, also a future captain, and then married him upon arriving in San Francisco — were in and out of each other’s affairs, sometimes working closely, sometimes competing, sometimes just part of the scene, and that’s how Barons of the Sea tells their joint story. As interwoven stories, making up one larger look into the period and into the activities of people at a certain (very high) rung on the economic ladder.
“Easily pay off”
Make no mistake. These people are wealthy, and they become wealthier, for the most part. Some end up going bankrupt, but most are sitting pretty throughout the book.
Ujifusa is diligent in pointing out some of the not-so-nice wrinkles about these guys, such as the fact that an important part of the profit that most of them made in China had to do with importing illegally opium, thus ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people and families.
Also, the hard discipline that many captains and mates administered to their crew — many members of which did not actually sign up for the voyage but were scooped up by thugs from the port taverns and woke up to find themselves on their way in a trip of several months, and expected to do the work of the ship, such as climbing to the tippy-top of the masts — is detailed by Ujifusa.
And, also, the low pay of sailors.
A typical clipper cost between $50,000 and $120,000 to construct, depending on the size of the vessel and the quality of materials used. If a ship arrived in San Francisco at the right time, its cargo of dry goods and supplies could be worth up to $100,000; that first voyage alone could easily pay off most if not all of the cost of building the ship.
After that, the profits of every future voyage were gravy.
$25 a month
By contrast, the pay for a sailor was about $25 a month. Or the equivalent today of about $600.
Ah, yes, the romance of the sea.
Except when you’ve been shanghaied — the China destination was often Shanghai — and expected to climb up to furl or unfurl the sails in a driving rainstorm and high winds on a ship tossed about by the waves like a toy.
That part I didn’t have trouble understanding.
Patrick T. Reardon