This Week in History


The Ship has come in!

For the week of Monday July 13, 1998

On July 17, 1840 the paddle steamer Britannia arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 12 days after leaving Liverpool, England. The ship then went on to Boston, Massachusetts, completing the new Liverpool–Halifax–Boston mail route in 14 days and 8 hours. This was the first scheduled transatlantic mail service by steamship, a blow to the "Age of Sail" and the start of the Cunard Line, which would thrive until the era of the jumbo jet.

Sir Samuel Cunard

Sir Samuel Cunard
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-124022

Samuel Cunard, who was aboard Britannia for this first historic passage, was born and raised in Halifax. In the Maritime provinces, he founded a commercial empire which comprised primarily shipping but also included banking, lumber and coal. Cunard was always interested in transatlantic steam shipping. He was a shareholder in the wooden paddle wheeler Royal William which in 1833 made a historic crossing of the Atlantic, mainly under steam power.

In 1839, Cunard and several associates established the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which soon became known as the Cunard Line. Cunard won an Admiralty contract to provide a fixed schedule service to carry the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston mail. The first Cunard ship sailed in May 1840, and Britannia made her historic mail run two months later.

Cunard Poster, circa 1924

Cunard Poster, circa 1924
© Library and Archives Canada / C-136191

Samuel Cunard provided ships for government service during the Crimean War, and was made a baronet in 1859. Two years later, he transferred the headquarters of the Cunard Line from Halifax to Liverpool, where he retired. In 1935 the Cunard Line combined with the White Star Line, whose most famous ship the Titanic had been sunk in 1912. The Cunard Line dominated the Atlantic passenger trade with liners such as the Lusitania and Mauretania and the still-active Queen Elizabeth 2 until jet aircraft finished the transatlantic passenger trade, and sent the few remaining superliners into the cruising business.

For his commercial empire of shipping, banking, lumber, land and coal, Sir Samuel Cunard is recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a person of national historic significance. He is commemorated by a plaque in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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