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The history of the steamship Savannah is typically presented in seven words: “the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.” But in Steam Coffin, John Laurence Busch expands those seven words into a 612-page narrative that devotes just one chapter out of twenty five to the transatlantic crossing. The somewhat discursive narrative is based on wide-ranging research and has something for everyone: for buffs interested in a specific steamship; for serious maritime historians interested in the early years of steam on the water; and for business [End Page 204] historians interested in American entrepreneurial activities in the early nineteenth century.
Although “business history” is not explicitly addressed, that subject is strewn throughout the narrative and forms an important part of the context for the story of SS Savannah. The history of shipping and the business of ships were central to early American economic history. In that sense, Steam Coffin rightly sees everything through the lens of the mercantile and shipping activities of the people and ships Busch explores. Throughout the book, Busch provides a broad overview of the economic and political climate of the time. In particular, the drama of SS Savannah highlights the importance of land, cotton, wheat, corn, rice, and tobacco—and therefore trade and transportation—in the economy of the young republic. Transportation—national roads (turnpikes), canals, and particularly steamboats—was key to all of the economic developments. To understand the economy of the United States during the administration of James Monroe, the book implicitly argues, one must understand the economic challenges of SS Savannah, and to understand the financial constraints under which Savannah operated, one must understand the national economy, 1818–1822.
It was during these early decades of the century that a new form of maritime enterprise was being created. One of the book’s numerous mini histories summarizes the invention of Robert Fulton’s North River Steam Boat, brought into existence thanks to a special kind of partnership: Robert Fulton’s creativity and inventiveness and Robert Livingston’s wealth. The personal relationship in business enterprise was critical to Fulton as indeed it was to the backers of Savannah.
Busch tells a story of imagination and technology, but also of economics and the control that economic conditions have over human choices. Financing Savannah required investors who hoped to recoup their investments by, first, sending their new steamship across the Atlantic and back and then by establishing a regular transatlantic steamship service. A successful round-trip transatlantic crossing would disprove the fears that this new invention was a “steam coffin” (hence the book’s title). Enhanced advertising that emphasized “the elegant ship” Savannah could, investors hoped, result substantial profits.
But, as Busch illustrates throughout the story, the options available to those investors, and therefore Savannah, were severely limited by the Panic of 1819 and the depression that saddled the nation for the next two years—essentially the lifetime of the steamship. As a result, the story of Savannah is less that of a transatlantic voyage (the conventional story), and more the story of a man on a sales mission, because Moses Rogers, captain of the ship, was going from port to port trying to sell Savannah. Understandably, then, Busch extends the story from Liverpool (the conventional end) on to Stockholm and [End Page 205] St. Petersburg, where Rogers hoped that Tsar Alexander I would want to buy the ship.
That attempt failed, and Captain Rogers headed his vessel back to the United States—this time under sail except for demonstrations of steam power on departure and arrival. But with domestic economic conditions even worse than before, individual investors were desperate to liquidate their holdings in order to pay their own creditors. And so Captain Rogers turned to the next variation on the plan: to try to sell the ship to the U.S. government for use either as a warship or a revenue cutter. Busch offers a fascinating and detailed description of the process of...