The Steamship Lines: Nationalism vs Commerce

Despite the nationalistic clamor, commercial instincts were at the heart of the great age of the transatlantic liner.

The Cunard Line’s reaction to J. P. Morgan’s bid for the company demonstrates the willingness of the steamship lines to exploit the nationalism of the era in exchange for government benefits:

Cunard’s reaction was worthy of wily old Sir Samuel (Cunard) himself. Government money had always provided the under-pinning of the company’s fortunes and now, cashing in shamelessly on the hysteria of pre-war jingoism by appearing to capitulate to the American multi-millionaire, Cunard extracted from the British treasury a vast loan,…with an annual subsidy into the bargain. Britain’s standard bearer on the North Atlantic was saved to redeem her country’s honor — and to make more money than ever for her shareholders.1

But while the steamship companies tried to depict each of their newly launched ships as a symbol of international rivalry, they were, in fact, equally the result of domestic competition.  Britain and Germany each had two major shipping companies — White Star and Cunard in Britain, and Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg Amerika in Germany — and each company was just as interested in winning business away from its domestic competitor as it was in competing with its foreign rivals.

And the competition for the Blue Riband itself was as much a domestic as an international rivalry.  As maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham wrote:  “How or when the Blue Riband changed hands during this decade is less important that that it was a uniquely German contest, a friendly rivalry within the Hanseatic family; Britain was, temporarily, out of the running.”2

For example, when Hamburg Amerika was planning an addition to its North Atlantic fleet in the 1890’s, the company first envisioned a liner in keeping with its tradition of building ships that were large and luxurious, but not designed specifically for speed.  But after the 1897 record crossing of Norddeutcher Lloyd’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, HAPAG decided to build a Blue Riband winner of their own. The company placed an order at the Vulkan yard in Stettin for a ship which would “outrival the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse,” and in July of 1900, Deutschland won the Blue Riband for Hamburg Amerika.

Not simply content that the trophy was in German versus British hands, the Norddeutscher Lloyd launched the Kaiser Wilhelm II to win back the award from HAPAG, which the NDL ship did in 1904.

The question of where to build their ships also reveals a lot about the attitude of the German shipping lines.  The Kaiser was particularly concerned that German ships be built at home, and the lines did, in fact, build their largest and most prominent ships in Germany.  But mindful of their profits, the German steamship companies were unwilling completely to forego the commercial advantages offered by British shipyards such as Harland and Wolff.  As Albert Ballin explained to his Board of Trustees, “HAPAG’s orders for new construction and repairs has nowhere been carried out more satisfactorily or cheaply than by the Belfast yard,” which agreed to build ships for Hamburg Amerika at cost, and receive a percentage of future profits. Encouraged by these favorable terms, HAPAG made an agreement with Harland and Wolff by which the shipyard always kept one slip at the disposal of the German line. 3

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  1. Robert Lacy.  Queens of the North Atlantic. (London: 1973). Page 31.
  2. Maxtone-Graham. Page 84.
  3. Huldermann. Page 122.; Hughes. Page 93.

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