How Samuel Cunard shaped the shipping industry

Posted Jun 9, 2015

Halifax-born Samuel Cunard was a born entrepreneur, but no one ever dreamed he’d grow up to be a shipping magnate.

By the age of 17, he was managing a General Store in Halifax, N.S., and he later joined his father in the family timber business in Catham, N.B.

He volunteered during the War of 1812 and quickly became a Captain, and continued building his reputation as a smart, honest businessman after the war ended. He made shrewd investments in steam enterprises, and co-founded the steam ferry company in Halifax harbour — as well as investing in the pioneering steamship, Royal William.

But Samuel had much bigger plans and knew there was more in store for him. When the British government called for tenders for a steam-powered Royal Mail contract, he jumped at the opportunity — moving to Britain and bidding for the work.

When he won the bid, he formed the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. He would be responsible for transporting mail from Liverpool to Halifax, Québec and Boston for £55,000 annually for 10 years.

His first ship, Britannia, sailed in 1840, and it was an immediate success — crossing from Liverpool to Halifax and then Boston in just 14 days and 8 hours. The company soon became known as “Cunard’s Line,” and was considered the world’s leading transatlantic shipping company.

But Samuel’s entrepreneurial mind didn’t stop there. If the ships were carrying mail, he reasoned, why couldn’t they also carry passengers? He began transporting people — as well as mail — while maintaining scrupulous safety precautions. While his competition was losing ships — and their fortunes — by being reckless, he was steadily building his business.

Samuel believed in “safety over speed” and understood the importance of doing a job properly, with an emphasis on the wellbeing of his passengers and crews.

He was believed to be against all forms of racial prejudice and was upset when one of his employees arranged for African-American writer and social reformer Frederick Douglass to travel in segregation.

“No one can regret more than I do the unpleasant circumstances surrounding Mr. Douglass’s passage from Liverpool, but I can assure you that nothing of the kind will again take place on the steamships in which I am connected,” Samuel said.

His strong morals and compassion led him to be able to purchase many of his rivals, such as the Canadian Northern Steamships Limited and the White Star Line — owners of the Titanic.

He also owned some of the most famous ocean liners in the world, like the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. He was made a baronet in 1859 by Queen Victoria, spent 13 happy years married to his wife, Susan, and they had nine children together.

Samuel died in London at the age of 78, but his name lives on in the Cunard fleet of luxury ocean liners, which includes the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary II, and Queen Victoria. There is a huge exhibit in his honour at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, and a bronze statue of him stands proudly on the Halifax waterfront.

He serves as a poignant reminder that it’s never too late to take a chance, to chase a dream, to embrace the unknown …