Correspondance between the American shipbuilder William H Webb and Count Cavour

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    Aldo Antonicelli

      In the early months of 1861, the well-known American shipbuilder William H. Webb of New York contracted with the Italian Government the construction of two large ironclads, the Re d’Italia and the Re di Portogallo.
      All of the authors who have written about this topic say that Webb was first contacted by Count Cavour, the then Prime Minister of the newly established Italian kingdom, who invited him to came to Turin (then the capital city of the kingdom), just a few months before the statesman’s death in July 1861.
      Unfortunately, no author gives any evidence of correspondence between Cavour and Webb.
      My research into the published correspondence of Count Cavour has given no results: the name Webb does not appears in any letter written or received by him.
      Maybe same light on this topic may be shed by the Webb’s biography written by Edwin L. Dunbaugh and William D. Thomas, “William H. Webb: Shipbuilder”; unfortunately this now out-of-print book is very expensive (124£).
      I wonder if any member owns or has an easy access to it and could check if any reference to this episode is given.
      Thanks. Aldo Antonicelli


        Good evening Aldo, I’m sorry I don’t have the book you are looking for but William Webb is also connected with the estabilishment of the Muggiano shipyard on the Liguria coast. Fincantieri, the nowadays owner of the shipyard, has an historical archive there and maybe you can contact it for more details.
        In searching for information about the two ships you mentioned I have found this link:
        It lists both the “Re d’Italia” and the “Re Don Luigi di Portogallo” as launched in 1863, two years after Count Cavour’s death in 1861. Maybe contractual corrispondence has been followed by Cavour political heirs instead that by himself.
        Hope this help,

        Aldo Antonicelli

          Good evening, Alessandra
          Thank you very much for your answer. At last, I have found the book I have been looking for at a reasonable price and I have bought it. It contains some reference to the early contacts between count Cavour and Webb, even if somewhat confused and not entirely correct, but it was useful al the same. It seem that Webb visited briefly Turin on August 1859, but it is doubtful that he may then have contacted Cavour, because in July the count had resigned from his position of First Minister and had retired in his country home.
          My researches had shown that the fact that Webb had been connected with the establishment of the Muggiano shipyard may not be correct. That count Cavour asked Webb to establish a shipyard near Spezia was for the first time stated by the Italian author Augusto de Vecchi (known also with is pen-name of Jack la Bolina) in an article published by the magazine Emporium. Other naval historians had repeated it but there is no evidence whatsoever that Cavour could have made any offer of this kind to Webb. Certainly his successor did not.
          The contacts between Cavour’s successor and Webb which led to the signing of the contract for the two ironclad are documented in the minutes of some Parliamentary sessions of the Kingdom of Italy.


            Good evening Aldo,
            thanks a lot for your kind reply and for sharing your knowledge about Webb in Italy. It is quite interesting that there are no documented relation with the Muggiano shipyard foundation as frequently stated.
            Good luck for further discoveries!

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