Loss of the Titanic

For over seventy years the Titanic has lain there, more than two miles down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. During a few days in April 1912 it was the greatest ship in the world—the unsinkable. And then, on its maiden voyage in a clear night and on a calm sea, the Titanic foundered and over 1500 people died.

This liner was the pride of the White Star Line—built like two ships in one, with an inner steel skin divided into compartments which could be scaled off by a switch on the bridge. The Titanic’s 46,000 tons were driven at over 22 knots by the steam power from 29 massive boilers, heated by coal fed to them by scores of sweating stokers. Well above the noisy drudgery of the engine rooms there was a riotous luxury for those who could afford it; “For the payment or £870 per voyage,” said one account, “the richest man on earth would not lack a single comfort that his wealth might buy”.

When the Titanic left Queenstown on its first, and only, voyage seventy years ago this month its passengers included capitalists whose ownership of wealth totalled over £120 million. There was J. J. Astor, the banker Washington Dodge, “smelter king” Benjamin Guggenheim; men like Charles Hays and J. B. Thayer, rich through the ownership of American railroads. They were attended by maids, valets, nurses and governesses, apart from hundreds of stewards and stewardesses. Many of these people were making the crossing for no more pressing reason than to take part in a glamorous, historic event—a celebration of their position and power as members of the ruling class. There were other passengers whose motives were rather different; the Third Class accommodation carried hundreds of emigrating workers, many of them Irish, who were hoping to find a more rewarding style of exploitation on the other side of the Atlantic. When the Titanic sank their plight, appropriate to their inferior station, was particularly desperate.

As it drew out of Queenstown the Titanic, with its size and power and exclusive luxury, represented the confidence of contemporary capitalism that no problems were beyond its power to solve. There had been no major war in Europe for 40 years, although it needed a conscious effort to blot out the signs which in 1912 were clearly showing that peace was not to last much longer. On all sides there were technological advances which could be comfortingly misconstrued as evidence of a human triumph over natural forces and social problems. The commander of the Titanic, Captain Smith, had contributed his own evidence: “I cannot imagine,” he had said six years before, “any condition which would cause a ship to founder . . . Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that”. This was supposed to be an orderly society in which everyone knew their place and happily kept to it. There could be no doubt that it worked; after all there was the Titanic to prove it . . .

Near midnight on April 14, three days out, the Titanic collided with an iceberg and by a process as inexorable as a mathematical equation filled up with water and sank. The iceberg, made of snow accumulated over 3,000 years, had broken loose about two years before the collision and had been drifting in the Labrador Current. It tore a massive hole beneath the water line in five of the Titanic’s compartments; as the sea poured in the vessel dipped bow first, which eventually sent the water over the top of each supposedly watertight bulkhead into the next compartment, which filled up and pushed the bow further down, and so on.

It took nearly three hours for the Titanic to sink, amid a deafening roar from its boilers, leaving some seven hundred terrified survivors in the boats or clinging to pieces of wreckage. By then it was clear that in one respect it was not a luxurious ship; there had been 2,201 people on board but there were lifeboats for only 1,178. Confidence had overruled caution—why have a lot of life-saving equipment on a ship which couldn’t be sunk?

A quick reaction to the disaster was a flood of nonsense about the behaviour of the crew and passengers, as if capitalism was seeking some consolation for this blow to its arrogance. A contemporary publication—The Deathless Story of the Titanic by Philip Gibbs—was sickeningly lyrical:

   All the great virtues of the soul were here displayed upon “that dim dark sea, so like unto death” —courage, self- forgetfulness, self-sacrifice, love, devotion to those highest ideals which are the guiding stars of life, beyond the common reach.

Reality was less noble. There were many brave acts that night but there was also some predictable panic. Some passengers tried to rush the boats, one officer fired his pistol to control a panic, another berated the Managing Director of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, for his disruptive influence while the seamen were trying to get a lifeboat away. One of the boats which had places for 40 people was launched with only 12; it was dominated by Sir Cosmos Duff Gordon, who prevented it returning to the scene to pick up more survivors.

Then there was the matter of the numbers saved from each class of passenger. Gibbs claimed: “Women and children first—the old law of the sea—was obeyed. The old tradition of chivalry was upheld, as splendidly as ever in the story of the sea”. The truth is that a greater proportion of men in the First (Mass (33 per cent) were saved than of male children in the Third Class (27 per cent). Only four First Class women passengers died out of a total of 144 but in the Third Class 89 out of a total of 165—or 54 per cent—were lost.

The official British report on the disaster denied that this was due to any discrimination, saying that it was “. . . due to various causes, among which the difference in the position of their quarters and the fact that many of the third-class passengers were foreigners, are perhaps the most important”. In fact the position of the accommodation was vital; the First Class was much nearer the boat deck and was sealed from the rest of the ship by barriers many of which were kept locked even as the Titanic was filling with water. Some were guarded by a seaman doing his duty to stop people having access to something they couldn’t afford, while fellow members of his class pleaded for their lives to be let through. And even if some steerage passengers did get through the barriers there was nothing and nobody to guide them through the maze of unfamiliar corridors and stairways up to the boats. Pathetically, many died because they went back for their luggage; its loss would have been a major catastrophe for them. The report’s conclusion that there had been no discrimination by class should be taken in the context that no Third Class passengers testified to the Inquiry. The press might have aired their story but they were not interested; when the survivors arrived at New York the attention was focused on the likes of Mrs. Astor. who was met by two limousines carrying two doctors and a trained nurse and of Mrs. Widener and Mrs. Hays, who each had a private train waiting for them. The ruling class survived, as they lived, in the best parasitic style.

Record time

There was a simple reason for the sinking of the Titanic but it docs not tell the whole story. The master’s sailing orders instructed him:

   You are to dismiss all idea of competitive passages with other vessels and to concentrate your attention upon a cautious, prudent, and ever-watchful system of navigation, which shall lose time or suffer any other temporary inconvenience rather than incur the slightest risk which can be avoided.

Smith’s response to this was to take his ship on a course which, he knew, lay through seas where there would be icebergs. He was specifically warned that icebergs lay ahead but he drove into the danger zone at too high a speed with inadequate lookout. If the iceberg had been seen sooner, or the ship had been travelling slower, there might well have been a different story.

Was this, then, an isolated case of experienced seamen (Smith was White Star’s senior captain and had 38 years of work for them behind him) suddenly taking leave of their senses? In reality, Smith’s sailing orders were little better than fantasy. Those were the days of fierce competition on the trans-Atlantic crossing; the mighty ocean liners were the Concordes of their time and they travelled amid a similar ballyhoo and displayed ostentation. On the Atlantic crossing it was common practice, whatever the orders said, to sacrifice safety for schedules because ships which did not arrive on time lost business for their companies. For the Titanic, on its maiden voyage, it was particularly important to make a crossing in record time; there were all those wealthy and influential members of the ruling class to impress.

For all those privileged people, to cross the Atlantic in the greatest of all ships was an affirmation of their superior position in society. (When the survivors got to New York in the Carpathia the Social Register could hardly face the disgrace of rich people travelling on such a low class vessel; it listed them as “Arrived Titan-Carpath. April 18. 1912”.) During the voyage the Titanic’s Marconigraph operators were buried in an avalanche of private messages and congratulatory telegrams, so that they refused the first ice warning because they were too busy; for the same reason, another warning lay unheeded beneath a paper weight. Another warning was, incredibly, given by Captain Smith to Bruce Ismay, who kept it for five hours, showing it to his friends as a reminder of his exalted position at the head of the company which owned this fabulous ship.

So it was not just a case, as the Inquiry had it, of a ship going too fast in dangerous conditions. For the excessive speed, and much of the circumstances in the tragedy of the Titanic, was a response to a festival of capitalist privilege. It was gruesomely appropriate, that it should turn out to be an exposure of a social system, which still lives seventy years on, as dominated and distorted by the reckless greed of the profit motive.