Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Robert E. Forrester, British Mail Steamers to South America, 1851-1965: A History of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and Royal Mail Lines. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. xiii + 248 pp. £70 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4724-1661-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Yrjö Kaukiainen, Department of History, University of Helsinki.

Royal Mail ships played a prominent role in the early history of steam shipping. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, in particular, the subventions paid by the British government were of vital importance for the success of the companies in question; gradually, however, the economic importance of mail contracts diminished and RMS vessels rather became just a special — albeit prestigious — category of passenger liners.

Forrester’s book is of special interest because it describes the history of a company which started in 1840 and lived until 1965 — a period which almost perfectly coincides with the rise and decline of what we could call traditional liner shipping. Thus the RMSP/Royal Mail Lines lived through most of the great revolutions which totally changed the outlook of international shipping in the course of a “long century.”

Overall, the book is a sound example of the British business history tradition. Its significant strength is the practical expertise of the author who — before moving to the publishing business and finally to maritime history studies — worked for two decades as a ship officer. Accordingly he can competently describe and discuss the technical and navigational aspects of his story. In this sense, Chapter 2 is particularly valuable for vividly describing the teething troubles of early steam shipping. In the 1830s and 1840s, there was no infrastructure to support power-driven vessels and the pioneering companies had to build it by themselves. This included coaling stations — which were particularly important in the period before compound engines started to decrease fuel consumption — as well as networks of foreign offices and agents, and sometimes even harbor development. I think this is something which every scholar working with cliometric analysis concerning the transition from sail to steam should read. However, to put things into a perspective, quite similar lack of infrastructure was faced by early container shipping.

The author presents a rather detailed picture of the development of the fleet as well as of passenger and freight volumes, which were particularly fast before First World War. This period of growth even included the beginning of refrigerated transportation of meat.  A good background for these developments is provided by overviews of relevant markets: imports and exports of South American countries, as well as the competition with other shipping lines. One of the author’s main arguments is that the mail steamers were important in instituting and maintaining the considerable British financial, commercial and industrial presence in Latin America.

As the book can be characterized as narrative rather than analytical it may not fully meet the expectations of scholars who are interested in a macro perspective. Its outline consists of strictly chronological chapters which makes it difficult for a reader to perceive an overall picture of different long-terms trends. For example the role of transoceanic postal services in information transmission — which is specifically referred to in the back-cover blurb — as well as their improvement, receives no systematic analysis. Regarding the continuous decline of postal subventions for the company’s economy this, however, cannot be regarded a fatal omission. Moreover, such aspects, at least as far as the period until 1875 is concerned, have already been quite sufficiently analyzed in a Finnish doctoral dissertation published in 2007.

The scope of the book is fairly Britain-centered, which can even be seen in the bibliography. Thus, comparisons with French, German or American mail lines (or other competing shipping) are quite infrequent. One more limitation is already indicated by the title of book: while the Royal Mail lines sailed both to the West Indies and South America, the former area has in practice been excluded. This obviously was a personal choice of the author — he served for ten years, until 1965, as a deck officer on the company’s South American ships. The limitation, however, involves practical problems. Since the company’s accounts did not differentiate between various destinations (which is not really surprising because a number of ships sailed both to the West Indies and South America) the specific economic returns of South American, or Brazil and Argentine traffic cannot be found in the relevant source material. In business history terms, a sounder alternative would have been to deal with the entire RMSP-company right from its beginning (as the subtitle of the book actually suggests).

It is clear that a book with a wide chronological scope is able to offer interesting data for further research. A good example of valuable information can be found in a quotation of freight rates to and from South America in the 1850s (p. 22) which fully confirms the surmise that shipping goods on early steamers was expensive. The description of the company’s economic decline, collapse and reorganization in the late 1920s presents a rather typical case of the difficulties faced by ocean shipping after the First World War. Even the final downturn and demise of the Royal Mail Lines in the 1960s is a good example of a general trend. When the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was instituted in 1964 it almost immediately became the organ of developing countries requiring more equal rules of the game (vis-a-vis the industrial world) for liner shipping. While the actual liner code was adopted only after twenty years, South American countries were very active in developing, with subventions, their own merchant navies already in the 1960s. This harmed not only British lines but even the South America lines of other West and North European countries. Finally, I would like to point out that the Fleet list published as an appendix, offers valuable data of technical development across 120 years.

Yrjö Kaukiainen, Professor Emeritus of European History, University of Helsinki, recently published “The Role of Shipping in the ‘Second Stage of Globalisation,’” International Journal of Maritime History (2014).

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