The fourth ship in a series of five liners ordered for the transatlantic service; Abyssinia was one of the first Cunard express steamers built to carry steerage passengers. She was completed in 1870 and carried 200 first class passengers and 1050 steerage passengers. The ship had a service speed of 12.5 knots; which although faster than Cunard's first vessels, were slower than the liner Russia which she replaced on the transatlantic service.
Cunard operated Abyssinia on the Liverpool to New York service, with a call at Queenstown in Ireland. The ship's design was made obsolete when White Star Line introduced their liner Oceanic in 1871. Oceanic's interiors were far superior in design and style, attracting passengers from all classed. Furthermore, while Abyssinia burned over 90 tons of coal per day, Oceanic required a third less fuel, making her far more economical.
In 1888, following reorganisation of the company and the introduction of new tonnage, Cunard sold Abyssinia to the Guion Line in 1888.
On 18 December 1891 a fire erupted aboard as the ship was sailing off the coast of Newfoundland. With the fire overpowering the crew, the Captain ordered the ship to be abandoned. The passengers and crew were later rescued by the Norddeutscher Lloyd liner Spree. Abyssinia sank later that evening, with the Spree delivering the survivors safely to Southampton on 21 December.