A The History of the KIRSTEN shipping business

1. The beginnings in Hamburg / JOHN FONTENAY

John Fontenay was born in 1769 in Philadelphia, North America. By the turn of the 18th/19th century he had become an active shipbroker in Hamburg, Germany.

He married the widow Anna Catharina KIRSTEN, nee Ballheimer, who brought with her four children from her first marriage.

2. Heinrich Friedrich KIRSTEN

In 1827, John Fontenay´s stepson Heinrich Friedrich KIRSTEN took over the shipbroker firm of Fontenay & Hesleden. After Fontenay´s death in 1835 he changed the name of the company to H. F. KIRSTEN.

B The foundation of the shipowner company – Adolph KIRSTEN and his times


After the death of H.F. KIRSTEN on 3.10.1866, Adolph KIRSTEN (1839-1915), his third son, succeeded to the business and founded the shipping agency, A. KIRSTEN, on the same day.

4. The shipowning company

In 1878, Adolph KIRSTEN established his own steamship company under his company’s name and invited his brother Robert KIRSTEN to become a partner.

In the following years, all the ships bore 27 names (some names were repeatedly given) of female characters in the 35 plays of William Shakespeare, such as

Desdemona    Daughter of the Senator Brabantio in „Othello”
Cleopatra        Queen of Egypt in „Antony and Cleopatra”
Ophelia –        Daughter of Polonius in „Hamlet“
Jessica            Shylock´s daughter in the „The Merchant of Venice“
Viola                Young noble lady in „Twelfth Night”
Portia              Wife of Brutus in „Julius Caesar“
Nerissa           Portia´s playmate in „The Merchant of Venice“
Cordelia          Daughter of „King Lear“

1880                Hamburg-London-Line was established

1886                Hamburg-Pacific-Steamship Line was established, with services

1887                The Hamburg-Calcutta-Line was established

Until 1914 the company developed from a small steamship agency into a well known and respected shipowning and shipbroking company.

5. The First World War, 1914-1918

At the outbreak of the First World War the fleet consisted of 23 ships of Hamburg-London-Line and 6 ships of the Hamburg-Rotterdam-Line, totalling 45.150 tons deadweight (tdw). All of the ships then and  later were cargo ships trading in the regular lines operated by A. KIRSTEN or transporting odd cargoes. While the early ships were steamships with large funnels the later ones were powered by diesel motors.

During the four years of the war some ships where confiscated by the Navy. They were employed as hospital vessels, buoy layers, coal transporters and supply vessels.

Over the course of the war, due to losses and reparations to allied forces after the war, the fleet shrunk from 29 to 8 ships.

C Between the World Wars 1 & 2

6. The new beginning

The Company restarted in 1919 with the 6 remaining ships to be renovated, and with vessels released from the navy, wrecks and re-purchases.

7. 100 Years of A. KIRSTEN

On the anniversary of the company in 1927, the modern steamer “ADOLPH KIRSTEN” (1750 tdw) was delivered by Lübecker Maschinenbau Gesellschaft. This shipyard delivered all new constructions for A. KIRSTEN until 1939.

The owners of A. KIRSTEN were successfull in leading their company through difficult times after the war and in regaining their old leading position among Hamburg´s private shipowning companies.

8. World War 2, 1939-1945

In September 1939 the company had 19 cargo ships of 35.670 tdw. Another was built in 1943 for a total of twenty, which was close to the number of ships owned before WW1.

But during the war 13 were sunk, and the remaining 7 ships were confiscated by England, Russia, Norway and the Netherlands.

After the end of the war, the entire fleet of A. KIRSTEN had been wiped out.

D The time after World War 2

9. After 1945

Ships were returned, salvaged and purchased. In 1951 four new constructions, among them “DESDEMONA” and “CLEOPATRA” of 3150 tdw were ordered, and in 1952 four further vessels were ordered.

In the following years, further coastal lines between Germany and England were established, such as the Rhine-Sea-Line from Basel to London, the Rhine-Humber-Service from the Rhine to Hull.

10. The Hamburg-Chicago Line

The motor vessels “DESDEMONA” and “CLEOPATRA” were constructed for a new transatlantic service of A. KIRSTEN, the HAMBURG-CHICAGO-LINE, which had actually been planned before World War 2.


This vessel was delivered by H.C. Stülcken Werft in Hamburg on April 25, 1952 with a length of 79m and a draught of 4,27m. It was designed to fit exactly into the locks of the US-Canadian waterways.

In 1962 the DESDEMONA was sold to Cormoran S.A. de Navegación, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

E The End of the shipowning company A. KIRSTEN

In October 1975 the co-owners  Holger KIRSTEN (*1937) and Alexander Thost (*1935-1999), great grandsons of the founder Adolph KIRSTEN, declared the company bankrupt. Strong competition and structural changes in the international shipping trade were the reasons for this.

* * *

From 1955 until 1963 the great grandson Harald A. KIRSTEN (*1925) was Junior Partner in the company.

This was written down by Harald Kirsten in 2003 after a long phone conversation between Hamburg and Buenos Aires, with Captain German Prillwitz

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