Maritime Disasters

The movie, Titanic, was a big money-maker for Hollywood. Its plot was an unlikely melodrama between a seemingly rich girl and a poor boy. The Titanic itself was simply the backdrop to their romance. The movie grossed over $600 million dollars, placing it at number two on the all time box office lists. Here’s another list.

The sinking of the Titanic was number three in the all time list of non-military maritime disasters. At number one, with a death toll reckoned to be 4,375 people was the Philippine’s ferry MV Doña Paz.Originally it ferried passengers in Japanese waters, when its passenger capacity was 608 people.  The MV Doña Paz sank after a collision with the oil tanker MT Vector. It took eight hours before the Philippine authorities learned of the accident, because the Doña Paz had no radio. And eight more before any rescue attempt. The owners, Sulpicio Lines, claimed that 1,499 people were aboard. Later inquiries alleged that a further 2000 were not on the ship’s manifest. This was reinforced by the recovery of 21 bodies, and only one was to be found on the official manifest.

The Doña Paz was insured for a million dollars. The owners offered an indemnity for those on the official manifest of $472 each. The Vector was later revealed to be operating without a licence, with no properly qualified master, and without a lookout. The victims’ families pursued claims against both companies, but both were cleared of financial liability.

At number two is the Senegalese government-owned ferry MV Le Joola which sank off of the coast of The Gambia in September 2002. At least 1,863 people died on a ship built to carry a maximum of 580. It also had a long history of being poorly maintained. The Le Joola was built only to navigate in coastal waters but was sailing beyond its coastal limit when high winds and rough seas struck – the probable cause of the ferry’s capsizing. It’s believed that many people would have survived the sinking, but official rescue teams didn’t arrive until the following morning. 

Once again compensation was offered to the victims’ families.  In contrast to the owners of The Doña Paz, the Senegalese government decided that a human life was worth around $22,000. Several officials were dismissed including officers of the Senegal Armed Forces who it was deemed failed to respond quickly enough to the sinking. No criminal charges were ever brought against anyone for the gross overcrowding and poor maintenance of the MV Le Joola.

There’s not much in these two disasters to spark the mind of the Hollywood capitalist. What about calling it Murder on the High Seas: astory of profit, greed and inhumanity? But there’s no glamour in a movie about thousands of piss poor people drowning on vastly overcrowded, hulking ferries. That’s simply a reality of life under capitalism.


For those who’ve come across the seas

‘For those who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share’. These words come from the Australian national anthem. But a rider needs to be added – unless the state has decided that you’re an illegal immigrant.

In August 2001 the Australian state, headed by the Howard administration, refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to enter Australian waters. The Tampa had rescued 438 Afghan refugees from a distressed fishing boat. The boat was only designed for a crew of 27, and lacked any form of safety equipment. When the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, attempted to enter Australian waters he was threatened with prosecution as a people smuggler by the Australian state. The refugees were eventually transported by naval ship to the Island of Nauru to newly built detention camps. Consequentially, a new policy that sought to prevent illegal immigration by sea was to be enacted.  Polls taken by Australian Television suggested that 90% of the anthem singing population supported Howard. Two months later

Two months later a suspected illegal entry vessel, SIEV X, entered Australian waters without permission. Over 400 asylum seekers were on board this nameless, ramshackle Indonesian fishing vessel.  On 19 October it sank in international waters; 353 human beings drowned. One of the claims the Howard administration made for its new policy was that, through the efficiency and dedicated work of the Royal Australian Navy, it would prevent people smuggling.  The Royal Australian Navy had been issued with stringent orders to monitor and intercept all SIEVs.

Three non-Australian vessels went to the aid of the SIEV X over a period of two days. There must have been considerable radio activity during this period between the rescue ships. But the Australian State claims that it was unaware of the sinking until three days after the event when the 45 survivors, including an eight-year-old boy who lost 21 members of his family, disembarked in Jakarta. 

A 2002 Australian Senate Select Committee investigation concluded that: ‘While no government department was found to be to blame for the tragedy, the Committee was surprised that there had been no internal investigations into any systemic problems which could have allowed the Australian government to prevent it from occurring’.

In 2006 the Australian Education Minister, Julie Bishop, attacked a PhD student’s study on the drowning of SIEVX’s human cargo, which was due to be taught in Australian high schools. Ms Bishop said the study “promoted a political agenda”. On the same day the government decided that a permanent memorial to the 353 drowned was not appropriate.

So for some, ‘who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share’.  But those without the permission of the state might find that they’re sharing a watery grave with 353 people who simply wanted a better life. The Australian national anthem, like all national anthems, is designed for the consumption of the gullible and docile wage slave and is a paradigm of the hypocrisy and bullshit that is intrinsic to capitalism.

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