America's complicated and often-fraught trade relationship with China is fresh in the headlines, but it’s actually one with historical roots in the pre-Civil War era. Commercial fortunes were made and lost importing Chinese luxury goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain—a business built from the profits of the opium trade.
Importers faced a challenge in bringing their goods to market, since the journey from Canton to New York could take six agonizing months. Historian Steven Ujifusa examines the story of a handful of cutthroat competitors who raced to build the fastest, finest, most profitable clipper ships to carry their cargo to American shores.
Drawing on his book Barons of the Sea, he examines how between 1843 and 1860 innovations in ship design and rigging cut down the typical trip from China to New York to less than 3 months. He discusses how these swift vessels built the state of California during the Gold Rush, sailing around Cape Horn in record times with their holds full of hundreds of thousands of dollars of goods to be sold in San Francisco.
He also looks at the era’s eccentric ship builders, dashing captains, and the merchants behind the commercial fortunes generated by the clippers, such as ship owner Warren Delano II, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who built an American dynasty.