Sir Samuel Cunard, 1st Baronet (21 November 1787 – 28 April 1865) was a British shipping magnate, born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, who founded the Cunard Line. He was the son of a master carpenter and timber merchant who had fled the American Revolution and settled in Halifax.
Samuel Cunard was the second son of Abraham Cunard who was originally from Germany and raised a Quaker and Margaret Murphy, who was raised as an Irish Catholic who were Loyalists to the British Crown who came to Halifax in 1783.
Abraham Cunard was a master carpenter who worked for the British garrison in Halifax and became a wealthy landowner and timber merchant.
Cunard’s business skills were evident at an early age and by age 17 he was managing his own general store. He later joined his father in the family timber business which expanded into investments in shipping.
During the War of 1812, Cunard volunteered for service in the 2nd Battalion of the Halifax Regiment militia and rose to the rank of captain. He held many public offices such as lighthouse commissioner and maintained a reputation as not only a shrewd businessman but also an honest and generous citizen.
Cunard was a highly successful entrepreneur in Halifax shipping and one of a group of twelve individuals who dominated the affairs of Nova Scotia. He secured mail packet contracts and provided a fisheries patrol vessel for the province.
Cunard diversified his family’s timber and shipping business with investments in whaling, tea imports and coal mining as well as the Halifax Banking Company and the Shubenacadie Canal.
He purchased large amounts of land in Prince Edward Island, at one point owning a seventh of the province which involved him in the protracted disputes between tenants on the island and the absentee landlords who owned most of it.
Cunard experimented with steam, cautiously at first, becoming a founding director of the Halifax Steamboat Company which built the first steamship in Nova Scotia in 1830, the long-serving and successful SS Sir Charles Ogle for the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry Service. Cunard became president of the company in 1836 and arranged for steam power for their second ferry, Boxer in 1838.
Cunard led Halifax investors to combine with Quebec business in 1831 to build the pioneering ocean steamship Royal William to run between Quebec and Halifax.
Although Royal William ran into problems after losing a whole season due to Cholera quarantines, Cunard learned valuable lessons about steamship operation. He commissioned a coastal steamship named Pochohontas in 1832 for mail service to Prince Edward Island and later purchased a larger steamship Cape Breton to expand the service.
Cunard’s experience in steamship operation with observations of the growing railway network in England encouraged him to explore the creation of a Transatlantic fleet of steamships which would cross the ocean as regularly as trains crossed land.
He went to the United Kingdom seeking investors in 1837, where he set up a company with several other businessmen to bid for the rights to run a transatlantic mail service between the UK and North America. It was successful in its bid, the company later becoming Cunard Steamships Limited.
In 1840 the company’s first steamship, the Britannia, sailed from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia and on to Boston, Massachusetts, with Cunard and 63 other passengers on board, marking the beginning of regular passenger and cargo service. Establishing a long unblemished reputation for speed and safety, Cunard’s company made ocean liners a success in the face of many potential rivals who lost ships and fortunes.
Cunard’s ships proved successful, but their high costs saddled Cunard with heavy debts by 1842 and he had to flee to England from creditors in Halifax. However, by 1843, Cunard ships were earning enough to pay off his debts and begin issuing modest but growing dividends.
Cunard divided his time between Nova Scotia and England but increasingly left his Nova Scotian operations in the hands of his sons Edward and William as business drew him to spend more time in London.
Cunard made a special trip to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1850 when his brother Joseph Cunard’s timber and shipping businesses in New Brunswick collapsed in a bankruptcy that threw as many as 1000 people out of work.
Cunard took out loans and personally guaranteed all of his brother’s debts in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Boston. Joseph Cunard moved to Liverpool, England where Samuel helped him re-establish his shipping interests.
Despite challenges from competing companies and changes in technology, the prosperous company grew, eventually absorbed many others such as the Canadian Northern Steamships Limited, and eventually its principal competition, the White Star Line, owners of the ill-fated Titanic.
After that, Cunard dominated the Atlantic passenger trade with some of the world’s most famous liners such as the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth.
His name lives on today in the Cunard Line, now a prestigious branch of the Carnival Line cruise empire.
Cunard owned a number of companies in Canada. After his death and changes to the British mail contract, his partners in England dropped his Canadian service and it would be 50 years before his ships returned to Canada.
His coal company in Nova Scotia, which he bought to fuel his liners, remained the family’s major investment in Nova Scotia and continued into the 20th century as Cunard Fuels, later bought out by the Irving Family of New Brunswick.
In 1859 Cunard was made a baronet by Queen Victoria.
He was married to Susan, daughter of William Duffus (on 4 February 1815; she died 23 January 1828) by whom he had nine children.
He was succeeded in the business and in the baronetcy by his son Sir Edward Cunard, 2nd baronet. Sir Samuel was the grandfather-in-law of the society hostess Emerald, Lady Cunard (wife of the third baronet), and the great-grandfather of Nancy Cunard.
William Cunard, second son of Sir Samuel Cunard, married Laura Charlotte Haliburton, daughter of author and politician Thomas Chandler Haliburton. The couple had three sons and one daughter. William built the Halifax School for the Deaf.
Cunard throughout his personal life was not a religious man and was considered by many to be agnostic. His views on slavery in the 19th century were not known but his statements regarding Fredrick Douglass’s segregated passage arranged by a Cunard Agent in Liverpool on one of his ocean liners in 1845 strongly suggests he was against any form of racial prejudice. “No one can regret more than I do the unpleasant circumstances surrounding Mr. Douglass’s passage from Liverpool, but I can assure you that nothing of the kind will again take place on the steamships in which I am connected.”
His views on race reflected those of those Britons of the time who regarded mistreatment of the Negro as a moral wrong even though Negros were still considered to be socially and intellectually inferior to Caucasian people.
Sir Samuel Cunard died at Kensington in London on April 28, 1865. He is buried at Brompton Cemetery in London. He lies against the eastern wall.