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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: May 2018

“The First (and Very Secret) International Steamship Cartel, 1850-1856”


The nineteenth-century internationalization of maritime industries is especially well demonstrated through the efforts of two leading steamship lines — one British, the other American — together with an Anglo- American banking firm of international eminence, to rationalize the competitive environment of mid-nineteenth century steam liner service on the major transatlantic shipping route for passengers and cargo. This effort to achieve stability, predictability, and profitability involved the creation of the first major international cartel in oceangoing steamship operations. A particularly distinctive and essential element of this cartel was the role of a transatlantic financial institution in both initiating and maintaining an arrangement that provided for the setting of minimum freight rates and sharing of revenues while serving to forestall direct competition from rival shipping firms on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

While this inter-firm shipping agreement was stipulated and enforced through a formal contractual arrangement, it was kept secret so successfully that both the agreement and its specific provisions were not known publicly until well over a century had elapsed. Consequently, historians of shipping conferences customarily date the initiation of such agreements among major steamship competitors at 1875, with the Calcutta Conference of steam liner companies trading between the United Kingdom and India. A slightly earlier attempt to create such a self-regulating association occurred in 1868 when several New York-based steamship lines formed the Transatlantic Shipping Conference; however, nothing of substance came from the efforts of these firms until 1902.

The first, and very secret, international steamship cartel had its origins in the late 1840s. At that time the British and North American Royal Steam Packet Company, known popularly as the Cunard Line in recognition of its promoter and largest single shareholder, Samuel Cunard, had operated successfully against both domestic and foreign competitors since beginning its transatlantic service in 1840. Now there was a new and dangerous challenge: the American-based New York and Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company, which was being formed by a highly successful operator of transatlantic sailing packets, Edward Knight Collins.

This “Collins Line,” as it was customarily identified, was a major financial undertaking for its time. To compete directly with the well established Cunard Line required a fleet of ocean-going steamships of sufficient number and quality to attract a major portion of the transatlantic passenger and cargo business conducted between New York and Liverpool.