With the success of the Russia (1867), Cunard ordered a new fleet of iron express liners for the New York mail route. Abyssinia was the fourth of the five liners required for a weekly service. Abyssinia and her sister, Algeria were the first Cunard express steamers built to carry steerage passengers, a concept that was proved viable four years earlier by the Inman Line. As completed in 1870, Abyssinia carried 200 first class passengers and 1050 steerage. She had a service speed of 12.5 knots and was a full knot slower than Russia.
Cunard placed Abyssinia on the Liverpool - Queenstown - New York service. All of the Cunarders on this route were rendered out of date by White Star Line's revolutionary Oceanic of 1871. For example, Abyssinia burned 90 tons of coal per day as compared to 58 tons for the Oceanic. While other rivals quickly installed compound machinery to their fleets, and modified passenger quarters to match White Star, Cunard did not.
In 1879 the privately-held Cunard Line was reorganised as a public stock corporation to raise the capital needed to rebuild the fleet. As such, In 1880, Cunard sold Abyssinia to the Guion Line.
Abyssinia retained her Cunard name during her service with Guion. On 18 December 1891, while off the coast of Newfoundland a fire broke out in her cargo hold which quickly overpowered her crew's firefighting efforts. Captain G.S. Murray ordered the ship to be abandoned. Lookouts onboard the eastbound Norddeutscher Lloyd liner Spree spotted the smoke from Abyssinia and removed all passengers and crew by 4:15 pm. Abyssinia sank shortly after. The Spree made port with the survivors in Southampton on 21 December.