What do you think I am? Do you believe that I’m the sort that would have left that ship as long as there were any women and children on board? That’s the thing that hurts, and it hurts all the more because it is so false and baseless. I have searched my mind with deepest care, I have thought long over each single incident that I could recall of that wreck. I’m sure that nothing wrong was done; that I did nothing that I should not have done. My conscience is clear and I have not been a lenient judge of my own acts.
– J. Bruce Ismay, Director, White Star Line.
On a calm, freezing cold, moonless night, Titanic struck an iceberg and consequently, sank after reaching an extreme ice field on her Trans-Atlantic maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Many stories remain, claiming she was traveling at top speed. Captain Smith failed to heed many ice warnings while determined to reach New York ahead of time, failed to order his ship to slow down on her progression through the adherent danger in front of his ship.
It is not completely clear exactly how many warnings of icebergs Titanic had received. Some authors and writers have put that number as six, many, four or five. It is, however factual that Titanic had received at least three warnings from other steamers, following the southern tract of the North Atlantic on the 14 April 1912. It is debatable if Captain Smith was fully aware of the danger in front of him. But would he have slowed the ship down even if he did fully realise the importance of the warnings?
The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of dramatic changes. The North Atlantic shipping routes saw one of those dramatic changes. Just fifty years previously, Paddle steamers made the crossing from Europe to America in six weeks. A journey which Christopher Columbus took ninety days to complete. Now in 1912, fast, luxurious steamers were sailing that distance in just four days. Many Trans-Atlantic passengers got quite grumpy with some angry scenes onboard, if they were delayed and their time of arrival was later than expected.
Advertising for the Trans-Atlantic shipping lines were stating: “Leave New York on Wednesday, dine in London the following Monday.” The traveling public, were expecting that in greater numbers. The North Atlantic shipping lanes were becoming the North Atlantic express lanes as far as the public was concerned. The traveling public, were increasingly expecting to depart on time and reach their destination on time, in the shortest possible time.
Earlier in this book, you read about assumed literary works, predicting the Titanic disaster. Those predictions all have only one theme in common with Titanic – large ships, with only enough lifeboat capacity for half her company of passengers and crew. Titanic had enough lifeboats to satisfy the British Board Of Trade regulations. Unfortunately, the maritime regulations had not kept pace with reality and with the demands of Trans-Atlantic travel. No Trans-Atlantic passenger mail steamer of that time carried enough lifeboats for the ship’s full capacity of passengers and crew. Even shortly after Titanic collided with the iceberg, the main belief among the crew, officers and passengers was the vessel would remain afloat for at least one day, allowing all those onboard to be safely off-loaded onto rescue ships, using the lifeboats provided to ferry them between vessels.
The Captain of a vessel is directly, personally responsible for the safety of his ship. He is responsible for his crew’s actions. He is responsible for his passengers and the running of the ship. Many Captains had run the gauntlet of the North-Atlantic shipping lanes. The chances of any mail steamer striking an iceberg was, practically non existent, considering the very little space an iceberg presents in the vast area of the North Atlantic Ocean. Insurance companies put the risk of a vessel colliding with an iceberg as a one in a million chance. Captain Smith would have had no idea of the size of the ice field his ship was steadily approaching on the night of the 14 April 1912.
Many Captains had taken the gamble of running at top speed through fields of ice before. Captain Smith took that gamble, – as he had many times before – and lost, unaware that his chances were far less than one in a million, because of the sheer size of the ice danger. Although he had received some warnings of ice, it is very unlikely that Smith knew the size of that ice field and the numbers of bergs in his ships vicinity. He had no idea his ‘ordinary risk’ would be so extraordinary.
The story of Titanic continues to outrage many, especially the fact that Captain Smith did not slow his ship after he had received warnings of ice. Many other ships could travel much faster than Titanic was capable of. If they had struck an iceberg, the impact plus velocity would have ensured far greater damage than Titanic suffered. The timetable of these ships and their passengers’ expectations of arriving on time virtually ensured that they had to go at full speed at all times.
Was Captain Smith to blame for the loss of Titanic? It must be remembered that custom is dictated by demand. The traveling public, were demanding faster, more luxurious travel. The faster, more luxurious vessels were gaining supremacy in the North-Atlantic, over the slower ships of the lines. It’s fair to say that the unconscious judgement of any Captain could be swayed toward the illusion of safety, while taking risks that the other smaller, slower ships would not be capable of.
The American press enjoyed criticizing the White Star Line, in particular, J. Bruce Ismay for regulations that dated back from 1894, in their effort to find a scapegoat for the Titanic sinking. The British Board Of Trade, were ruthless at ensuring British Ships adhered to their regulations. Titanic, prior to departure from Southampton had undergone stringent inspections from Board Of Trade inspectors, to an extent that some Officers had regarded them as, becoming a nuisance. It has to be remembered that, the British built mail steamers, operating the North-Atlantic shipping lanes carried large numbers of Americans. It is governments that should ensure their citizens are safe, especially while at sea. That is why they are in office, that is why they are paid, America allowed the British vessels entry into their ports. The American maritime regulations dictated that vessels the size of Titanic should carry twice as many lifeboats as the British vessels. Yet, American authorities allowed British vessels, in defiance of their own laws and carrying large numbers of Americans, entry into their ports.
Lifeboats could be provided at very low cost. Titanic’s owner, The Mercantile Marine Company, owned by J P Morgan had instructed Ismay and Titanic’s builder, Harland and Wolff to spare no cost at building the largest, most luxurious vessels afloat. It does not stand to reason that Harland and Wolff or White Star Line would skimp on cost in the provision of life saving equipment for Titanic and Olympic. The Mercantile Marine Company was an American company, yet, they agreed with the British Board Of Trade regulations, dictating the allowed number of lifeboats for Titanic. In all fairness, America should also bear the blame for the loss of Titanic with a great number of deaths, especially the large number of American victims, their own maritime regulations were designed to protect.
The insight of Carpathia’s Captain, Arthur Rostron, clearly displays his knowledge of how simple rumours can turn into what is regarded by many to be “an accurate ‘ account. A rumour is a story that is passed around verbally, containing mostly conjecture, based mostly on truths and half-truths. And, some aspects that have simply been interpreted by another, then verbally passed onto others, as truth.
From the time the survivors of the Titanic disaster were brought aboard Carpathia, Rostron did not wish wireless messages to be sent to the throngs of reporters demanding information of the sinking of the greatest liner at that time, through fear they would cause unnecessary concern for loved ones and the survivors themselves. Carpathia was being bombarded with wireless messages, but Rostron remained resolute – any messages sent from his ship would have to be authorised by him and him alone.
The waiting media did however manage to get some news from these messages.
Survivors were sending messages to shore stations, intended for relatives and loved ones, containing small snippets of information that were interpreted by the waiting media who managed to get the information – Information that was partial, to say the least. Then, interpreting and adapting that information to what they believed their readers wanted to hear. As a result, many different stories and versions of those stories were being circulated.
Today in the 21st Century, anyone following these stories from different news agencies, via internet would be very confused, to say the least. Back in 1912, however, newspaper accounts were followed by thousands, even millions of readers.
Following a great disaster, such as the Titanic disaster, readers liked to believe, what they are reading is the truth, and nothing but the truth. With all the different papers in 1912 reporting different stories and different variations of stories, is it any wonder the Titanic tragedy fell into legend?
A legend – deriving from the Latin word, legenda – is a story that has been passed down through time – regarded as historical. The story does contain aspects that are not verifiable. Not verifiable because, some aspects of the Titanic disaster includes aspects that are based solely on rumour, also passed down through time. Rumours that have their origins with the news reports from April 1912, and the accounts from the survivors themselves. Stories that are regarded as historical, but contain aspects of truths and untruths, that are solely based on the origins of rumours, are called myths.
A myth is a traditional story – legend – that always has a hero. Therefore, a story also, according to tradition, has to have a villain. The American newspaper tycoon, W Randolph Hearst created a villain contained in the Titanic story, in his yellow journalism style of reporting, commonly regarded in the 21st Century as Gutter Journalism. Hearst’s Villain? J Bruce Ismay. Simply resulting from an earlier disagreement between the two men, over two decades earlier in New York.
Hearst blamed the entire disaster and the problems during the aftermath, solely on Ismay, without a shred of evidence in support of his allegations against Ismay. Titanic stories today always portray Ismay as the coward, who deserted the sinking ship, leaving many men, women and children to die.
Similar aspects of the Titanic story, even now, claim Titanic was “unsinkable”. Obviously, Titanic was not unsinkable. Because, she sank after colliding side on with an iceberg. opening up five of her watertight compartments to the water, totally compromising her ‘practically unsinkability’. The legends and myths surrounding the Titanic story enter the realm of folklore.
Folklore comprises collections of popular stories, containing legend, myths and oral history – All the aspects contained in the Titanic story, passed on from generation to generation, through many books written on the subject and movies telling the story. But, unfortunately, also containing the legends and myths.
The 1958 movie adaptation of Walter Lord’s book, ‘A Night To Remember’ is an example of the tragedy of the sinking of Titanic, although, alas, it also has its content of the associated myths.
James Cameron’s 1997 movie “Titanic” is a classic example of all three aspects, containing the legend, myths and folklore. It has its villain and hero. And, as if as a bonus, it also contains the actual story of Titanic, all nicely wrapped up into a parcel of love and romance, with the backdrop of Cameron’s portrayal of Hell on Earth.
The story of Titanic and the events that sent her to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on 14 to 15 April 1912 has come a long way from its origins of truth and rumour. The day after the rescue ship, Carpathia berthed in New York, carrying the surviving passengers of the grand liner, the U. S. Senate inquiry began in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on the 19 April, 1912. On the first day of proceedings, Captain Arthur Rostron was questioned about Titanic, herself. Rostron repeatedly told Senator Alden Smith that he did not know anything about Titanic, because he had no experience with her. Senator Smith asked him another question regarding Titanic. Smith asked: “Have you any kind of knowledge at all regarding the force of the impact, which wrecked Titanic?”
Rostron simply replied; “I know nothing about it, sir. I have not asked any questions about this kind of business. I knew it was not my affair, and I had little desire to make any of the officers feel it any more than they did. Mind you sir, there is only this: I know nothing, but I have heard rumors of different passengers; some will say one thing and some another. I would, therefore, rather say nothing. I do not know anything. From the officers I know nothing. I could give you silly rumors of passengers, but I know they are not reliable, from my own experience; so, if you will excuse me, I would prefer to say nothing.”
The Titanic legend is a story based on truth. The story also includes its traditional aspects, it contains its heroes and villains. The lasting story does contain parts that are solely based on rumour. Parts that do not belong to such a sad and tragic event that claimed the lives of real people and the suffering of real survivors and those left behind by so much death and destruction that captivated a generation, so many years ago.
The story of Titanic deserves its place in history. It was a time of innocence. A time when overnight, the world awoke to realise the true impact of what can happen when man decides to take on the power of nature. Our world has changed since 1912. We now design ocean vessels that are substantially safer through lessons learnt from Titanic and technological advances since then.
I will end this book with one question: How do you extract the legends, myths and folklore from the story of Titanic? Surely, that’s up to the reader, listener or viewer of such stories to determine for themselves.