*I did receive a physical copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.*
Clipper ships are some of the most iconic and recognizable sailing ships that were ever built and Steven Ujifusa’s work Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship puts the spotlight directly on these magnificent vessels. International and national American commerce on the high seas of the mid 19th century is explored alongside the wonder that clipper ships instilled in an awestruck population looking to prove itself against the rest of the world. The up and coming American merchant dynasties who owned these ships are also covered and the author certainly does not shy away from some of the darker sides of making a profit during this era.
There were only a few noticeable downsides to the book. First would be the slow introduction of actual clipper ships into the narrative. The first quarter or so of the book deals largely with the economical context that the clipper ship era entered into in regards to international trade across the oceans. The biographical backdrop of some of the prominent players, most notably Warren Delano II (grandfather to President Franklin Roosevelt), was also told at this time. While some setting is definitely needed, it did feel like the clipper ships took quite a while to be actually introduced in the narrative. The only other major aspect of the book that could have been fleshed out a little more would be the stories of some of the other countries that also engaged in clipper ship trade. While clipper ships were a largely American innovation, other countries also tried their hands with the design. This may have included British clippers that were only hinted at as well as the history of Dutch clippers.
That being said, there are many more highlights to to this work. It may have taken some time for the clipper ships to enter into the story, but, once they do, they take front and center stage and essentially become the main characters. This creates a lively narrative centered on the ships rather than simply the tycoons that owned them. When the world record is set for the fastest voyage from New York to San Francisco sailing around Cape Horn, the reader is rooting and cheering for Flying Cloud rather than the ship’s captain. Now, these high speed records came at a price and the author reveals the grim realities of how this was sometimes accomplished. Depending on the captain, some crews could be worked mercilessly and crew deaths and mutinies were certainly not unheard of. Another enjoyable aspect of the book is that the spotlight does get shown on some other lively characters of the clipper trade and not just the wealthy merchantmen. Most notable include Donald McKay, the eccentric Canadian born American clipper ship builder and designer who constructed many of the most notable clippers such as Flying Cloud and the largest clipper ever built, Great Republic. Another favorite is Nathaniel Palmer, a rugged Antarctic explorer and clipper captain.
Overall, Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ships is full of insight on the clipper ship era and is conveyed in an enjoyable narrative. The clippers take the forefront of the story and demonstrate why they are the iconic ships of the Golden Age of Sail.
4.5 out of 5 stars. (It was originally going to be 4 starts, but the terrific diagrams and illustrations in the back of the book were quite helpful in understanding different parts and aspects of clipper ships and were highly appreciated!)
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