Sir Samuel Cunard

Cunard and Mrs. C.E. Putnam in 1859

The Cunard Steamship Company has been receiving a severe reproof from the London Economist for its concessions to what are termed, in England, American prejudices against traveling and domicilating with people of color. It seems that a colored woman, Mrs. Putnam, with her party, had engaged places on board the Cunard packet for England.

Before embarking, however, she received the following notice:

British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Office
90 State Street, Boston
October 27, 1859

To: Mrs. C.E. Putnam and party, Salem:

For your information we desire to inform you that a separate table will be provided for yourself and party on board the Europa, hence to Liverpool, where everything will be furnished you that first cabin passengers are entitled to; the person who applied for your tickets did not state the fact that the party were colored, otherwise we should have informed you.

Should this interfere with your expectations, please apply at this office, and we will refund the passage money.

–E.C. & J.G. BATES.

Mrs. Putnam protested, but could not delay her journey, and the separation from the other passengers was enforced. On her arrival in England some of her friends took up the matter, and laid the case before Sir Samuel Cunard.

His reply was as follows:

Bush Hill House, Edmonton
June 29, 1860

Samuel Cunard

Samuel Cunard

To: The Rev. E. Chapman, Bristol:

‘Sir:–I have received your letters of the 8th and 28th inst.

‘I do not see that any advantage would result from discussing the subject matter of those .letters, therefore I must decline entering into any correspondence on the subject.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


The Economist’s Opinion

Which is equivalent, the Economist thinks, to expressing his approval of the course taken by the Company’s agents. The Economist then proceeds:

Now we must express our deep regret that the mere desire to secure the favor of a lucrative class of customers should be allowed to override so completely every spark of public spirit in a British company. We know it will be said that it is the business of a merchant to suit his customers, especially those customers who bring him most gain, and that in this case especially the American companies would distance the British in the competition, if the prejudices of the American passengers were not respected. Of course it is a sound principle that, in all indifferent matters, the convenience of the consumers should be consulted. But this Only applies to the arrangements for anticipating his personal wishes; if once we are to allow that any customer, because his custom is valuable, may from private motives dictate the terms on which another is to be treated, all the fundamental justice of sound commerce is gone.

The Economist

The Economist

It may be said that the tastes of the majority, even if unreasonable, are more or less consulted by every commercial body–that no conveyance company will permit smoking except under similar restrictions of isolation–and that what a contiguous pipe is to a delicate lady, a person of color is to a fastidious American.

When thus put, it is impossible to ignore the ultimate political question, whether or not the prejudice be well or ill-grounded, a piece of narrow and disgraceful bigotry, or one founded in reality. It may be very disagreeable to some narrow-minded Englishmen to travel with Frenchmen–to some Roman Catholics to travel with Protestant heretics –to some Mohammedans to travel with Christians.

In such cases there is no temptation to consult private feeling–it would not pay. And yet there is at least as much, in some cases more, ground for these prejudices than for that which the Cunard Company respect.

Is English commerce to surrender all hold of the manly political axioms of the English nation, simply to win more American customers? It so, we may venture to predict that it will eventually lose far more than by the sacrifice of principle it will temporarily gain. If, boldly disregarding these ignoble prejudices of caste, the Cunard Company devoted itself to improving those accommodations which it could throw open to all equally on equal terms, it would soon ride down opposition, and gain respect for the thorough justice of its commercial conduct. But if it is to win its way by deferring to principles which British feeling vehemently rejects, it will either; lose, in the contempt that it inspires on this side of the Atlantic more than it gains by succeed on the other– or if it succeed it will succeed only by first corrupting the morale of English commerce, and tainting, through its agency, the political morality of the English nation.

Discussion in the House of Lords

The following debate took place in the English House of Lords, July 17th, touching this subject:

Lord Brougham

Lord Brougham

Lord Brougham reminded their lordships that a fortnight or three weeks ago he called attention to the course taken on a recent occasion in the Cunard line, which had received a large subsidy from the Government for the conveyance of mails. He stated at that time that to his great astonishment he found that a gentlewoman who it could never be discovered was a person of color, but who was said to be a descendant of an African stock, tho’ a free citizen of the United States, had been refused the accommodation of a first-class passage in one of the Cunard ships, and had been told that she must go into the second rank in another part of the vessel. He could hardly suppose such a case possible in an English ship, but the information had since been confirmed, and a letter from Sir S. Cunard upon the subject had been published. He wished to know from his noble friend whether it was the intention of the Government to take any steps in the matter.

Earl Granville was not surprised that the noble Lord had put the question, but at the same time, it was not possible for the Government to interfere.

RMS Europa

RMS Europa

Lord Brougham said-that some time ago, in a similar case, an action was brought against the captain, and damages would have been recovered against him if the action had not been compromised. He thought, in the relation that Sir S. Cunard stood to the Government, that some interference should take place to prevent such things occurring in future.’


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: Douglass’ Monthly
Date: September, 1860
Title: The Cunard Steamship Company and Colored Passengers
Location: Rochester, New York

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