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Who the heck was Samuel Cunard?

On your occasional visit to the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, you’ve definitively passed by a large, bronze, man-shaped statue with the name Samuel Cunard written at the foot of it.  

What’s the story of the man behind that name, immortalized in the looming statue staring out from the Halifax harbour? 

A teenage entrepreneur  

Born in Halifax on Nov. 21, 1787, Sir Samuel Cunard discovered his talent for business at an early age. At 17, he bought and managed his own general store.  

After proving himself a successful young businessman, he laid aside the urge for youthful independence and started to create a shipping empire that would change nothing more than the transportation and travel between North America and Europe forever. 

In 1812 Samuel joined forces with father Abraham Cunard, a master carpenter, wealthy landowner and timber merchant, to create the shipping firm A. Cunard and Son. Halifax’s geographical location in the North Atlantic and its political position in an expanding British Empire were the perfect baseline for Samuel to get his foot in the door in a range of maritime economic activities.  

Besides expanding on the timber trade, Samuel was interested in trade with the West Indies and acquiring their exquisite goods. The Cunards’ importation of spirits, molasses, brown sugar, and coffee from places like Martinique, Jamaica, Guadeloupe and Trinidad made every delicatessen enthusiast in North America happy. It also brought Samuel and his father to influential and respected status as Nova Scotian citizens.  

Ocean trains 

Throughout his life, Samuel was convinced that no one succeeded without close attention to business. Known for his brisk step, it was no surprise that he would realise a visionary idea that would change the future.  

As one of a few people in his time, Samuel saw the advantages of steam navigation for fast voyaging on a predictable schedule. His experiments with steam led him to the position as founding director of the Halifax Steamboat Company. In this position, he studied the use of steam power. In 1830, the company built Nova Scotia’s first steamship and longest serving ferry in the Halifax harbour: the SS Sir Charles Ogle. The ship served as the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth until 1894. 

Like every ambitious businessman, Samuel also had to overcome obstacles and learn hard lessons. In 1831 Samuel become head of the town’s shareholder committee that invested in the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company to realise the SS Royal William, the first steamship to make a transatlantic passage. Unfortunately for the owners, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic at Quebec in 1832 forced the ship into quarantine and brought heavy financial losses.  

However, that couldn’t stop Samuel from realising his vision of a fleet of steamships crossing the ocean as regularly as trains crossed land. At 2 a.m. on July 17, 1840, the mail steamer Britannia arrived in Halifax after a 12-day and 10-hour passage from Liverpool, England. It was the first steamship of Samuel’s new company: Cunard Steamships Limited (later called the Cunard Line).

The world’s first sustained transatlantic liner service was born. To make the success even more prestigious, Samuel and his daughter Ann Cunard were on board and discharged passengers and mail as quickly as possible. The ship then went on to sail and dock at Boston at 10 p.m. two days later. Samuel and Ann’s arrival was followed by a very warm welcome of 1,800 dinner invitations.  

Samuel’s ships continued to prove successful, and after securely leaving his Nova Scotian operations to his sons Edward and William Cunard, he moved to London. He resided in the district of Kensington, enjoying parties given by such hostesses as social reformer and author Caroline Sheridan Norton.  

Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1859, the “Steam Lion” as Samuel was nicknamed, died in London in 1865.  

The success lives on 

Samuel Cunard was one of the first Nova Scotians to build such a hugely successful business empire. Today, the Cunard Line is a well-known cruise line company. Samuel, as a smart entrepreneur, evidently left his mark in Halifax, honoured not just with a statue, a street name and an event centre, but also a lasting legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. 

“Who the heck?” is a rotating history column in the Gazette’s Arts & Lifestyle section, reporting on the namesakes of buildings and institutions on campus and around the city. Have an idea on who we should feature next? Contact arts@dalgazette.com. 

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