As Cunard celebrates 175 years of transatlantic crossings, Stuart Forster explores the home turf of the visionary who began it all
Fish are leaping in the placid water by the wooden boardwalk of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 has just docked following a commemorative crossing from Liverpool. The sailing marks 175 years since the maiden transatlantic voyage of the Britannia, the rigged paddle steamer that helped revolutionise travel between Europe and North America. The Queen Mary 2 carries up to 2,620 passengers and at 1,132ft-long would have dwarfed the Britannia, which was 207ft-long and carried 115 passengers.
Samuel Cunard, a Halifax-born visionary, saw how steam power could enable his line to offer a fortnightly timetable of sailings — irrespective of the wind — to transport mail, freight and people. His company soon dominated North Atlantic shipping.
The harbour, one of the world’s biggest, remains ice-free in winter. This gave Halifax an advantage over North American ports such as Boston and Montreal in the era before ice-breakers. Even at low tide, the waterway is deep and navigable.
The cruise terminal is adjacent to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where I learn how liners brought a million people into Canada, via Halifax, between 1928 and 1971. “Samuel Cunard is a great hometown hero,” says curator Dan Conlin as we stand by huge monochrome photos of some of those who made the journey.
People from many different walks of life are proud of this local entrepreneur, the son of a refugee family. He built the world’s largest and most successful shipping company and put Halifax on the map.”
A statue of Cunard, who died in 1865, stands on a roundabout near the modern seaport. His parents, Abraham and Margaret, emigrated from Philadelphia in 1783 Abraham bought land now occupied by the naval dockyard, on the other side of Halifax.
The city grew up around the naval base, which Samuel helped defend as a militia officer during the War of 1812, fought between the US and the British. I watch as re-enactors wearing the uniforms of the 78th Highlanders and Royal Artillery regiments drill and interpret the military life of bygone times at the hilltop citadel, which was built to protect the base in 1749.
Heading to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic I meet Richard MacMichael, coordinator of visitor services and interpretative programming. He’s got plenty to say on Cunard’s ability to take advantage of technological advancements, including introducing a steam-powered ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth.
“By the end of the decade, Cunard’s ambitions had exploded from crossing Halifax Harbour to grabbing the North Atlantic by the scruff of the neck and creating the company that’s still with us today,” he tells me.
I wonder if the harbour ferry will join the flotilla in tonight’s festive departure of the Queen Mary 2.