A Legacy of Civility and History: Cunard Line Announces 2019 World Voyage

For well over a century, the apex of civilized transportation was the ocean voyage. Long before the commercialization of the automobile and the advent of aircraft, the ocean liner was the pinnacle of technological achievement and epitomized the strength of the nations which brought them into existence. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing through both World Wars, a technological renaissance built of steel and driven by steam propelled virtually every echelon of society into an epoch of unprecedented development. The expansion of shipbuilding capabilities and the explosive demand for ever-larger merchant fleets saw transoceanic travel evolve from a perilous and unpredictable undertaking to an indispensable means of commerce, communication, and transportation. By the 1900s, the ocean liner had come of age, and competition amongst shipping companies of various nationalities to dominate the lucrative transatlantic passenger trade was the space race of the infant century. Capitalists, Kaisers, and prime ministers all became embroiled in the pursuit of maritime supremacy, vying with each other to build the largest, fastest, and most opulent liners. Mammoth vessels with esteemed names like Mauretania, Queen Mary, and Normandie provided the only viable link between the Old and New Worlds. Without them, the modern age of mass migration and globalization would never have happened. The legacy of the great ocean liners comprises more than the mere logistical advantages of their transport capabilities; it is a legacy of profound technological, political, and social change.

Today, that legacy is carried forward by the Cunard Line. Last week, the 177-year-old company unveiled the itinerary of its upcoming world voyage, a 107-night adventure comprising thirty ports on six continents. Cunard first pioneered the world voyage in 1922 with Laconia and since then, no other line has undertaken more circumnavigations of the globe. When Laconia became the first ship to offer the travelling public the opportunity to sail around the world, Cunard was already one of the oldest and most venerable names on the ocean, having first begun operating in 1840. Today, the world voyage is just one illustrious component of the company’s honorable heritage. In an age when passenger ships resemble floating resorts crammed with high-street gimmicks and tacky diversions, Cunard offers travelers the same product it has for nearly two centuries: a distinctly British ocean-going experience defined by the rich history and decadent glamour of a bygone age.

Laconia, the first liner to undertake a world voyage

When Samuel Cunard of Nova Scotia established the first regularly-scheduled transatlantic passenger service between Britain and America, the North Atlantic shipping lanes were the busiest and most dangerous in the world. The reputation and fortunes of a company depended upon the speed, durability, and punctuality of its fleet, and many an overzealous entrepreneur had his enterprise decimated by tragedy. Launched in 1840, Cunard’s first ship Britannia was neither the largest nor the fastest on the Atlantic. Fitted with paddlewheels and auxiliary sails, Britannia and her near identical fleet mates capitalized upon safety and reliability. Internally, her design was a far cry from the splendor of her twentieth-century successors, with plain timber furnishings in passenger quarters and even a resident cow for fresh milk. During a January gale in 1842, Charles Dickens infamously described his cabin as a “hearse with windows.” Nevertheless, the Cunard fleet quickly established a reputation for dutiful service, safe passage, and timely arrivals. By the end of the century, the booming immigrant traffic from Europe to North America quickly exceeded the berths available, and as industrialization spread throughout Europe, ships became larger, faster, and more comfortable. Faced with intensifying competition from German and British rivals (not the least of which was the White Star Line, infamous owners of the Titanic) Cunard responded with the largest, fastest, and most elegant ships — the first to be called “superliners.”

R.M.S Britannia, c. 1840

Launched in 1906, the Lusitania and Mauretania were the premier way to cross the Atlantic. At the time of their conception, transoceanic travel had evolved from a tedious, arduous endeavor to one which could be savored, and the wealthiest industrialists, statesmen, and entertainers delighted in the cache of sailing aboard the most lavish ships. The first-class accommodations aboard the near-identical Lusitania and Mauretania were the most luxurious at sea, and their revolutionary turbine engines enabled them to traverse the Atlantic at unprecedented speeds. Mauretania, the slightly faster of the two, was requisitioned by the British admiralty as a troop carrier during the First World War, of which her infamous sister Lusitania was a casualty. Following her return to commercial passenger service at the end of hostilities, Mauretania retained the distinction as the world’s fastest ship until 1929, at which point the Cunard fleet, rendered largely obsolete by the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, was in need of revitalization. By that point, over thirty-million immigrants had crossed the Atlantic from Europe to America, and Cunard was the perennial favorite of the travelling public.

R.M.S. Mauretania: near-identical sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania

By the late 1930s, a rebounding world economy and an emerging demographic of American tourists prompted Cunard to construct even larger vessels, Queen Mary of 1936 and Queen Elizabeth of 1939. At that time, the ocean liner had evolved from a strictly business venture into a potent symbol of national prestige. Shipping companies reeling from the Great Depression were forced to lobby for large government subsidies to rebuild their merchant fleets, thus giving rise to the “ship of state.” Of these behemoth liners, Cunard’s Queens were by far the most successful, even besting their French rival Normandie, widely considered the most beautiful ship ever built. Like their predecessors, the Queens’ immense size and speed made them especially valuable to the Admiralty at the outbreak of World War Two. Stripped of their lavish Art Deco furnishing and painted gray, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth transported over two-million Allied troops to the European Theater from 1939 to 1945, the largest ferrying operation in history. Winston Churchill famously credited the Cunard liners with shortening the war by as much as a year.

R.M.S. Queen Mary
R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth laden with Allied Soldiers

The advent of commercial air service in the 1960s spelled the end of the transatlantic passenger trade, and by the end of the millennium, the only ship still in service as a transatlantic ocean liner was Cunard’s much beloved Queen Elizabeth 2, referred to affectionately as “QE2.” In 1997, the runaway success of James Cameron’s Titanic reinvigorated public interest in the romance and refinement of oceanic travel. The following year, Carnival Corporation purchased the ailing Cunard Line with the intent of building a replacement for the aging QE2. Launched in 2004, the Queen Mary 2 is the last purpose-built transatlantic liner in existence. At 1,132 feet in length and with an internal volume of 150,000 gross register tons, she is also the largest. Built to a higher standard than holiday cruise ships, QM2 undertakes the same regularly scheduled transatlantic passenger service with which Sir Samuel Cunard himself would be familiar. Today, the Cunard fleet comprises three vessels: Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Victoria. Their elegant, instantly-recognizable profiles recall the clean lines of their predecessors and their interiors harken back to Art Deco heyday of the 1920s and 30s. The onboard experience is genteel and eschews the garish trappings of most modern cruise vessels. The Cunard clientele appreciate grandeur and tradition, savoring activities such as ballroom dancing, Shakespearean drama, afternoon tea served by white-gloved waiters, and enriching lectures by academics. With the latest world voyage scheduled for January 2019, the discerning traveler can be assured that the most venerable of maritime institutions, the same line which has been advancing civilization since 1840, will long endure.

Current Cunard fleet: Queen Victoria (left), Queen Mary 2 (center), and Queen Elizabeth (right)
Like what you read? Give John Corbett a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.