International Trade: Steamer Lines

Figure 1.--One of the Red Star steamers was "SS Filand". Passengers could have keepsakes like this inset photograph made. It operated from 1902-28, mostly on trans-Atlantic routes. It was concerted to a troop ship duting World War I. We are not sure just when the portrait was taken.

Major developments after the American Civil War (1861-65) gave rise to a significant expansion of world trade and ocean commerce. First was the expolsive growth of the United states which rapidly increased both its agricultural and industrial production. Second was the European economies on the otherside of the Atlantic also grew rapidly, especially as Germany and France following Britain also industrrialized. Three, just as production in several countries began rapidly increasing, technical advances in naval engineering and propulsion made rapid, low cost naval transport available. Four, the opening of the Suez Canal (1859) reduced the cost of moving goods to India and the Far East. Five, political and economic conditions in Europe drove millions of people to emigrate. As the number of emigrants rose, steam ship companies began to find carryng emigrants a lucrative trade. These developments gave rise to the great steamship lines of the 19th and 20th century. The major steamer lines were American, British, Dutch, and German, but many countries had smaller lines. Some of these lines are quite famous. One of the most noted steamer lines was Cunard which came to dominate the Atlantic passanger trade. Great profits were made and the lines played an important role in internationl commerce and the developing world economy. Lines competed in the all inportant North Atlantic trade for spped, luxury, and reliability. Many of the lines were badly affected by Wotld War I. Changes in America's immigration policy ended the large-scal transport of emogrants. Further damage to the lines occurred as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. the two world wars. Steamship lines involved in passanger service were adersely affected by the development of fast, low-cost air travel after World War II. Even Cunard eventually was ansorbed by the cruise company Carnival.

American Line

Atlantic Transport

British India Steam Navigation (British)

The British India Steam Navigation Company was one of the most important company offering services between Britain and India. Its flag ship passenger liner was the India Like the P and O they also had services to the Far East.

Cunard (British)

One of the most noted steamer lines was Cunard which came to dominate the Atlantic passanger trade. Cunard was founded by Canadian shipping magnate Samuel Cunard with engineer Robert Napier, and businessmen James Donaldson, Sir George Burns, and David MacIver at the very beginning of steam-pwered trans-Atlantic travel (1838). The company was founded as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company's initial success was due to winning the lucrative transatlantic mail shipping contract between Britain and America which is why Cunard ships carried the designation Royal Mail Ship (RMS) The company changed its name to Cunard Steamships Limited. The company's first trans-Atlatic steamer was the paddlewheel SS Unicorn (1840). Regular service began the same year with Britannia, another paddelwheel steamer. Britannia was a pioneer in the trans-Atlantic transportation of passengers. The firt route was from Liverpool to Halifax and then on to Boston, a 14 day run. New York was later added as a major destination port. Cunard dominated the North Atlantic route, but it dud not just carry British passangers. Smaller lines from different European countries, especially Scandinavia brought passangers to Britain for the trans-Atlantic run. For example Norwegians might travel by a Wilson Line steamer from Norway to Hull on England's North Sea coast and then travel by train to Liverpool. Cunard often did not have the largest and fastest liners, but developed a reputation for safty and reliability. Cunard's major competitor was the White Star Line, the operator of the ill-fated Titantic. Cunard evetually acquired the White Star Line. Another competitor was the Canadian Northern Steamships which Cunard also acquired. As the dominant company on the world's most important sea route, Cunard played an important role in the development of the modern international economy. Cunard also played a role in the the wars fought by Britain from the Crimean War to the Falklands War. The German sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania (1915) was one of the primary causes of the United States entering World War I. The Argentine Air Force sank Cunard's Atlantic Conveyor with an Exocet missile (1982). Cunard was adersely affected by the development of fast, low-cost air travel. The assessts were puchased by Carnival.

Canadian Northern Steamships (Canadian)

Another competitor was the Canadian Northern Steamships which Cunard also acquired.

Compagnie Générale Transatlantique/French Line (French)

The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) also known as the French Line was founded in 1861. The company began operations from Le Havre to Mexico (1862). Le Harve is of course France's principal Atlantic port located close to Paris on the Seine. The French Governments efforts to establish a colonial presence in Mexico was probably a factor here. The Civil War wageing in America may gave disuaded the line from opening a route to the United States, but the company quickly did so with a route to New York (1864). The company added additional routes to Canada via Plymouth as well as Mediterranean and Caribbdan routes. CGT expanded by acquiring the Cie Valery Eugene Pereire and their Mediterranean service and 12 ships (1880). The CGT was not a major participant in the mass transport of emogrants to the United States, in part because relatively few French partiipated in the mass emigration. The CGT purchased the Cie Franco-Tunisienne with three ships (1907). and Cie Havraise Peninsulaire (1915). CGT during World War I formed a subsidiary company Cie Générale d'Armements Maritimes (CGAM) in partnership with Cie Chargeurs Reunis (1916). They also acquired Cie Navale de l'Oceanie and its five ships (1917). I am guessing that the CGT played a major role after America rntered World War I in transporting the AmericaN expoditionary Force (AEF) to France (1917-18). This needs to be confirmed. By the end of World War I they controlled Cie d'Orbigny, Societe Plisson, Societe des Vapeurs de Charge and Societe Marseillaise d'Armament Fritsche & Cie (1919). They also became a major shareholder in the Fabre Line. The CGT became such a major factor in French maritime commerce that it became known as the French Line. One of the ships most associated with the CGT was the Ile de France . It was an liner built after World Wat I. It did not include any especially innovative design features, but it was a beautiful ship decorated in the popular Art Deco syle of the time and a precursor for the Normandie. The CGT with French Government support agreed to build four modern ocean liners (1912). World War I interbened to delay the project. CGT after the War launched Paris (1921) and Ile de France (1926). Ile de France made its maiden voyage from Le Harve to New York (1927). We note Jackie Coogan crossing on the Ile de France (1929). The CGT when World War II broke out in Europe decided to lay it ships up for saftty because of the danger of U-boat attacks (September 1939). and Normandie were laid up in New York harbor. Both ships were used by the Allies during the War and then returned to the CGT. The company merged with Cie des Messageries Maritimes to form Cie Generale Maritime.


Hamburg-American Line (German)

The Hamburg America Line was Germany's first transatlantic steamship line. Sship broker August Bolten, ship owner Ferdinand Laiesz and banker Adolph Halle fouded the company (1847).The original name was the Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft (HAPAG). It became a major participant in the trans-atlantic passaenger trade and the transport of emigrants to the United States. The Hamburg-American Line operated the St. Louis which in the days just before World War II was involved in an incident that showed the plight of Europan Jews. The St. Louis had 937 passengers when it sailed (May 13, 1939). Almost all were Jews escaping NAZI oppression. Most had fradulent Cuban visas. They had applied for American visas and hoped to travel from Cuba to the United States as soon as those visas were granted. While the St. Louis was operated by a German company, the Jews aboard were not mistreated or harassed in any way as far as I can tell. The voyage, however, proved tragiv when the ship reached Havana. Cuban authorities would not allow the Jews with fradulent visas to land. The ship hd to return to Europe. The Jews were not forced back to NAZI Germany. Here American diplomacy played an important role. The refugees were able to obtain entry permits for the Netherlands (181), France (224), Britain (228), and Belgium (214). [Thomas and Witts]

Hansa Line (German)

Hansa was a major German steamer line. The company was founded in Bremen, Germany's principal Bltic port (1881). The initial runs were in the Baltic, Mediterranean and India. The company quickly terminated Baltic services as unprofitable. They reduced Mediterranean service just Spain and Portugal. Hansa began services to River Plate (1890) and later U.S. Gulf ports ficusing on cotton. Bremen was the center of operations, but Hans initiated services from North America to India via South Africa (1901) and expanded the U.S. operaions to the Dutch East Indies and Australia (1907). Operations were of course impaired by World War I and the British Rpyal Navy's command of the Sea. After the War, Hansa began service from the United States to the Persian Gulf ports (1920s), but terminated the River Plate serviced. The company was further affected by World War II. Hansa did not resume services between New York and South and East Africa after World War II. Hansa specialized in transporting heavy equipment and many ships were fitted with heavy lifting gear. Hansa also offered some passenger accommodation.

Holland-American Line (Dutch)

Antoine Plate and Jonkheer Otto Reuchlin founded Plate, Reuchlin & Co. in Rotterdam (1871). Rotterdam was a major Dutch port because of its connections to European rivers. Larger ships, however, could not enter the port because of the Voorne Canal. As a result, Rotterdam was being eclipsed by Amsterdam. This only changed with the opening of the New Waterway (1893). The world shipping industry ws in the midst of a major change. America emerged as a major trading country after the Civil War (1861-65). In addition Ferdinand deLesseps built the Suez Canal (1859-69), substantially reducing the length of voyages to India and the Dutch East Indies. This combined with improvements in naval archetecture created the need and capability of building larger merchant vessels. In addition to cargo, a growing number of Europeans desired to emigrate, especially to America. The SS Rotterdam made its maiden voyage to New Tork (1872). Operations proved successful, but capital wascneeded to expand. W. Van der Hoeven provided that capital and the company was renamed the Nederlandsch-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij (Netherlands-American Steam Navigation Company--NASM) (1873). Because of the importance of doing business in America, the company wa nenamed the Holland-America Line (1896). W. A. Scholten decided to invest in the company rather than found a steamship line of his own. Expansion was impaired by a depression in America (1874-76) which cut down on both cargos and emigrant traffic. The Amsterdam was added to the fleet !879). Expanding emigrant traffic caused the company to convert one of its vessels, the Schiedam from a well-decked to a flush-decked ship with steerage accommodation (1879). The company decided to also use Amsterdam for both cargo and passenger service (1882). Edam, the sistership to Amsterdam made runs to New York from Amsrerdam. Routes were broadened including stops at Boulogne for Americand traveling to France as well as a boarding point for Mediterranean emigrants. The company also added a new route to Brazil and the River Plate (1880s). The opening of the New Waterway permitted the acquisition of larger ships (1890s). The American company buying into foreign steamship lines, the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM), also bought into the British shipbuilders Harland & Wolff. IMM established a controling interest in Holland America through Harland & Wolff. Subsequently half of this holding was sold to the IMM, a quarter to the Hamburg-America and a quarter to the Norddeutscher Lloyd. Both of these German lines cooperated with the Holland-America Line. The outbreak of World War I (1914) had a devestating impact on the Holland american Line. The Company was operating five Atlantic liners (Rotterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Potsdam, Noordam, and Ryndam. The Royal Navy blockaded German and German-contolled ports. Provision was made for Dutch ships to pass through the blockade after inspectiom. The company's vessels were one of the few links betweem Europe and America. Gradually the company lost liners due to mines and U-boat attacks. After America entered the War, the U.S. Government chartered Ryndam for use as a troopship (August 1917).

International Mercantile Marine Company-IMM (American)

The Spanish-American War (1898) had an impact on the world steamship line system. The American war effort was severly hampered by an inadequate merchant marine. This served as the background for a largely American effort to monpolize the trans-atlantic shipping trade. Similar monoplies, often called trusts in America at the time, had been established in America. Shipping magnates Clement Griscom (American Line and Red Star Line), Bernard Baker (Atlantic Transport Line), J. Bruce Ismay (White Star Line), and John Ellerman (Leyland Line) founded the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM). The Dominion Line was subsequently included. The IMM project was financed by Americn financier J. Pierpont Morgan. The IMM negotiated profit-sharing associations with several other lines (including the German Hamburg-Amerika Line and the North German Lloyd lines). IMM also bought into the important British shipbuilders Harland & Wolff. IMM established a controling interest in Holland America through Harland & Wolff. Subsequently half of this holding was sold to the IMM, a quarter to the Hamburg-America and a quarter to the Norddeutscher Lloyd. Both of these German lines cooperated with the Holland-America Line. This American effort caused great concern with the British shipping industry. Steamship lines at the time were presigious nation symbols and an important factor in world trade. This was a major reason why the the British government decided to assist Cunard build three modern new ships (RMS Lusitania, RMS Mauretania, and ????) to ensure they remained competitive. The IMM did not generate the profits anticipated by its founders. There were difficulties from the beginning in that the IMM badly overpaid in acquiring interests in other lines. A series of misfortunes then occurred. Trans-atlantic trade was disrupted by World War I. After the War, the United States adopted new immigration policies, ending the profitable mass transport of emigrants. The Freat Depression (1929) sharply reduced world trade and travel and thus company earnings. The U.S. Congress decided against a subsidy bill. Faced with growing losses, the IMM was finally disolved (1932). Cunard purchased the White Star Line. The Ammerican lines thatvhad been part of the IMM were combined to form the United States Lines.


KNSM at first had difficulties with its American service, but began to run regular Amsterdam-New York passenger and cargo services (1881).



Norddeutscher Lloyd (German)

The Norddeutscher Lloyd Line added the SS Bremen (1929). It was one of a pair of modern ocean liners built for transatlantic passenger service. The service no longer included the low-cost transport of steerage passangers because the United States changed its immigration policies after World War I. The expanding world economy, however, did create a demand for two-way ocean transport. The Bremen was especially notable for it modern design and low streamlined profile. We note a boy prodigy, Grisha Goluboff, making a crossing on Bremen.

Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company--P&O Line (British)

The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company was popularly known as the P&O Line. It was a British shipping and logistics company which dates to the period just after the Napoleonic Wars. Its beginnings were modest. Brodie McGhie Willcox, a London ship broker, and Arthur Anderson, an experienced Shetland Isles sailor formed a partnership to operate a shipping line (1822). At the time, shipping was still based on sail. The first routes were primarily rotes from England to Spain and Portugal. Dublin shipowner, Captain Richard Bourne, joined the original two partners (1835). With the new partner, the company was able to begin regular service between London and Spain and Portugal. It is at tghis time the Company's name was adopted--Peninsular Steam Navigation Company (1837). Services were offered to Vigo, Oporto, Lisbon and Cádiz. The company flag colors were chosen from the colors of the Portuguese and Spanish flags at the time. The British Admiralty awarded P&O a contract to deliver mail to the Iberian Peninsula on their existing runs (1837). The Company can claim to have operated the first pasenger pleasure cruise (1840). The company won an even more important mail contract, this time to Alexandria, Egypt (1840). Egypt was not yet a British protectorate, but in the period before the construction of the Suez Canal, it was a major connection with India. was incorporated in the same year. William Fane De Salis joined the Company (1849). These mail contracts were extremely important to the company's success. The Company became one of Britain's major steamer line, offering both cargo shipping and passenger services. P&O did not compete in the Trans-Atlantic trade, but rather focused on trade with India and the Far East including Australia. The opening of the Suze Canal (1869) substantially deccreased sailing times. The Company took over the British India Steam Navigation Company (1914). The British India line was at the time Britain's largest shipping line with 131 steamers. The Germans sank 85 P&O ships during the War. The company at the end of World War I further expanded acquiring a controlling interest in the Orient Line, which had been its partner in the England- Australia mail route (1918). The company also made some smaller acquisitions. P&O was operating nearly 500 ships in the inter-War period. Another 170 P&O ships were sunk in Wotld War II, mostly by the Germans. After the War, the P&O trade with India began to decline as a result of Indian independence, but increased with Australia. A major factor here was the paid-passages promoted by the Australian Government for European immigrants. They became known as Ten Pound Poms. P&O built 15 large passenger liners, primarily forthe Australian runs. The first was SS Chusan and the last SS Canberra (1961). The ships carried many of the 1 million immigrants to Australia that arrived after the War unti; the Australian Government terminated the program (1945-68). With the advent of inexpensive air fares, the maritime passenger marget collapsed. P&O scrapped its older liners and converted the newer ones to cruise ships. The focus of the company became cargo trade. It expanded into the tanker trade (1959) and the roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry business (1960s). P&O's cruises were run in association with Carnival Cruises. P&O was purchases by Dubai Ports, making it a subsidiary of DP World (2006).

Red Star Line (Belgian/American)

The Société Anonyme de Navigation Belge-Américaine was founded in Antwerp (1872). It was the Belgian subsidiary of the American company International Navigation Co, of Philadelphia which itself was formed a year earlier (1871). The company's ships flew a wjite flaf with a red star causing it to be more commonly called the Red Star Line. The coroprate history is rather complicated. The company's vessels were initially registered in Belgium, but some ships were also registerfed in America and Britain. It was one of the lines amalgamated in the IMM (1902). After the IMM was disolved (1932), the REd Star assessts were sold to Arnold Bernstein of Hamburg who operated them as Bernstein (Red Star) Line until 1939 when the ships and goodwill were acquired by the Holland-American Lines.Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart Maatschappij N.V.

United States Lines (American)

The IMM was a trust formed by combining many American and European steanship lines. The IMM dis not, however, prove prifitable and eventuall failed (1932). The American units of the IMM were reorganized as the United States Lines.

White Star Line (British)

John Pilkington and Henry Threlfall Wilson founded the White Star Line in Liverpool (1850). Trade with Australia expanded after the discovery of gold there. There were mergers and breakups with other lines. Thomas Henry Ismay, son of a British shipbuilder, purchased the company (1867). As part of a partnership with Harland and Wolff, construction began on the Oceanic class of steamers (Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, and Republic. The line resumed operations with a run between New York and Liverpool and calling at Queenstown, Ireland (1871). The White Star Line emerged as the principal competitor to Cunnard. White Star's Tuetonic won the Blue Ribbon for tlantic steamship runs (1891). The Oceanic was the world's largest liner and made its maiden (1899). Celtic and "Cedric again set size records for White Star (1901). The United States International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM) formed to deal with problems encountered during the Spaih-Ameeican war bought the White Star and other lines (1902). White Star decided to build three huge liners--the Olympic-class (Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (1907). White Star launched Titanic (1911). It was the largest and most luxurious oceam liner at the time. Maiden voyage of the Titanic was from Southampton to New York via Cherbourg and Queenstown. Titanic sunk only hours after striking an iceberg resulting in over 1,500 deaths (April 15, 1912). The Gigantic was launched as the Britanic (1914). During World war I Britanic was converted to a hospital ship (1915). It hit a mine and sank (1916). Cunard and White Star, both feeling the impact of the Depression, after years of competition merged (1933).

Wilson Line

Norwegians might travel by a Wilson Line steamer from Norway to Hull on England's North Sea coast and then travel by train to Liverpool.


Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan Witts. Voyage of the Damned (New York: Stein and Day, 1974).


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Created: 2:58 PM 10/6/2006
Last updated: 5:18 PM 10/10/2009