Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Q&A with Steven Ujifusa: Author of "Barons of the Sea"

Q&A with Steven Ujifusa: Author of Barons of the Sea

1. Your book starts in 1837, with a young Warren Delano at the center. What was the state of American clipper ships and trade with the Chinese at that point, before ‘the race to build the world’s fastest clipper ship’ began?

Even before the first American clipper ships arrived on the high seas in the early 1840s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that America captains were hell-bent on speed. “The European navigator is prudent when venturing out to sea,” he wrote. “The American, neglecting such precautions, braves these dangers; he sets sail when the storm is still rumbling by night as well as by day; he spreads full sails to the wind; he repairs storm damage as he goes; and when at last he draws near the end of his voyage, he flies toward the coast as if he could already see the port.”

Before the First Opium War (1839-1842), Western merchants were only allowed to do business in the city of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou). The Chinese government, fearful of foreign influence, tightly regulated all aspects of the tea trade. To grease the wheels of the Chinese bureaucracy, Western merchants used a complex code of bribes and “pidgin” expressions, especially when smuggling opium into China to pay for the tea. The First Opium War changed the rules of the tea trade, at the expense and humiliation of the Chinese government. Shortly before he sailed back to America after a decade in China, Warren wrote home about the need for a new type of vessel that would be able to carry large quantities of tea home, “and fast.” He and other capitalists would invest considerable funds to build sharp, heavily-sparred vessels (with many design-cues from the “opium clippers”) that would out-sail the slow, kettle-bottomed British “East India” packet ships.

Warren Delano with two of his children, Warren III and Sara. Sara would later become Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mother. Sara Delano Perkins Collection.

2. What are some famous names in Barons of the Sea that you think readers will be surprised to come across, or that surprised you in your research?

The clipper ship fortunes were built to last. The founders and their descendants became the backbone of New York and Boston’s aristocracy, holding positions of leadership in government, finance, education, and the arts. Warren Delano’s grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt’s political success was due in large part not just to his maternal grandfather’s fortune, but also to his ferocious drive and poise under pressure. He liked to quote his grandfather Delano’s favorite business maxim: “Never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”


3. Why did men decide to join the Chinese tea and opium trade – which seems perilous and required years of separation from their families – what was the appeal? What was life like for the American men who made the trek? What was it like for their families?

Going to China and becoming partner at one of the big China trading firms was one of the quickest ways for a young American to get rich in the early 19th century. It was a bit like moving to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in today’s tech start-up world, only with a much greater chance of dying! Many young men, mostly from New England, dreamed of securing the connections to spend a decade or so in China and come home with a “competence” of at least $100,000, which in those days was enough to make one independently wealthy. Yet it was also a journey fraught with risk. One scion of a clipper ship family died by suicide after being turned down for a company partnership for the third time. Generations of Boston children recited the old lament: “Dear papa done Tanton [gone Canton].” In some cases, wives and children sailed to China and settled on the island of Macao, 80 miles downriver from Canton.


4. Who (and later, what) was Houqua?

Houqua was leader of the Co-Hong, the guild of Chinese merchants in Canton. These dozen or so men were the only people allowed to trade with Westerners, known colloquially by the Chinese as fanqui (“foreign devils”). His actual Chinese name was Wu Binjian, but to his American friends he was known by the Western “business” version of his name. His control of the Chinese side of the tea business made of the richest men in the world during the 19th century, with a fortune of approximately $8 billion in today’s money. He was the godfather of an official fraternity of American men who revered him, his business smarts, and his memory after he died in 1843. One of American protégés named one of the first clipper ships in his honor. His name lives on today in Hu-Kwa tea, a smoky blend that still is a favorite of the descendants of the Yankee China traders.

Houqua. By permissions of Frederic Delano Grant, Jr. 

5. What were the most pressing technological challenges faced by the traders and their ships? What is particularly noteworthy about their design and set them apart?

These American clipper ships were the perfect balance of beauty and commerce. As naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote:

With no extraneous ornaments except a figurehead, a bit of carving and a few lines of gold leaf, their one purpose of speed over the great ocean routes was achieved by perfect balance of spars and sails to the curving lines of the smooth black hull; and this harmony of mass, form and color was practiced to the music of dancing waves and of brave winds whistling in the rigging.

Clipper ships were the culmination of decades of experimentation on the part of American merchants and shipbuilders. In the early 19th century, the American government placed virtually no regulations on ship design and operation, so profit maximization was the principal design consideration. By the mid-1840s, American clippers had cut the sailing time between China and New York almost in half. American customers got their tea faster and were willing to pay a high price for the season’s first pickings. High value freight more than made up for the extra crew cost and reduced cargo capacity.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the clipper ship business became a round-the-world enterprise, in which ship-owners deployed even larger, faster vessels to sail around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and then across the Pacific to China. These California clippers became legends, such as Flying Cloud, Young America, and Sovereign of the Seas.

By cutting the speed of the global supply chain essentially in half, American clipper ships revolutionized trade in the 19th century in the same way Amazon has in our time.

When it came to the clipper ship business, the Americans and the British were fierce rivals. The British had long operated their tea business under a state-sanctioned monopoly, and speed was not a concern at all for the ships of the British East India Company. When the first American tea clipper sailed into London in 1849, beating all British ships to market, the London Times declared: “We must run a race with our gigantic and unshackled rival.” Soon, the British were building their own clipper ships for the China trade, the most famous of which is Cutty Sark (namesake of the famous whisky) preserved today in dry dock in Greenwich, England. She is the only extreme clipper, British or American, to have survived intact.

Sea Witch.Courtesy of the Kelton Foundation, Los Angeles

6. What first drew you to the world of Barons of the Sea and inspired you to write about it?

The ships are long gone, but their romantic, intrepid allure lives on to this day, in paintings, stories, and song. My hope in Barons of the Sea is to bring the clipper ship era to full and vivid life. It’s a historical canvas populated not just by arguably the most beautiful ships ever to sail the seas, but also by a cast of colorful, ambitious, and flawed characters.

Eleanor Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite niece, joined Warren Delano’s clan in 1905 upon her marriage to his grandson Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1938, after three decades of living with Delano family drive (both from her husband and mother-in-law) she wrote, “families are the most interesting thing in the world…for in the story of every family is the stuff from which novels and eventually history is written.”

For me, the draw was the challenge of writing a book that was not just about ships, but about families. Barons of the Sea also is about a quest to build a transcendently beautiful type of vessel, the American clipper ship, but it is also the story of dynastic ambition. The clipper ships were not the end goal, but the means to a goal: American dominance of global trade and great wealth for the owners. The men and women in Barons of the Sea were talented and driven in so many different areas (shipbuilding, navigation, and trade), but they were all intensely loyal and ambitious for their families.


About the Book
In the grand tradition of David McCullough and Ron Chernow, the sweeping story of the nineteenth-century American dynasties who battled for dominance of the tea and opium trades.

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.

Barons of the Sea 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 draws 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.


About the Author
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; The Wall 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.


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