The Titanic: Who Was To Blame?

Seven days after the Titanic settled at the bottom of the Atlantic the first of the enquiries charged with answering questions, exposing negligence and apportioning blame, got under way in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Central to the enquiry would be the questioning of Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, who had been on the Titanic throughout its first and last voyage. In the chair was William Alden Smith United States Senator for the state of Michigan, whose opposition to alcohol drove him to try to prove that the Titanic’s captain and other officers had been drinking when the ship hit the iceberg. Smith’s questioning was resented by the officers for its ignorant bluster; for example his asking Fifth Officer Lowe what an iceberg was made of (“Ice, I suppose, sir” was Lowe’s answer). And again when he asked Second Officer Lightoller about the possibility of some passengers taking refuge in Titanic’s watertight compartments to be rescued later.

But in spite of what has been called his ‘raucous scapegoating,’ Smith carried on, matching his persistent pressure against Ismay’s stonewalling. Smith was, after all, a politician who had to have regard for his votes and for the “Yellow Press” of the tycoon William Randolph Hearst who nursed a long-standing personal antipathy to Ismay. For his part, Ismay had influenced the design of the Titanic in its early stages, reducing the number of lifeboats, for example, partly because the “practically unsinkable” liner was safer than any lifeboat. And when on the day of the collision the Captain, Edward Smith, gave him a vital telegram warning of ice directly ahead Ismay simply put it in his pocket instead of passing it on to the ship’s officers.

But in the chaos after the collision Ismay stayed on board to help other passengers into the boats until there were no others left there and an officer more or less ordered him to jump in. He then sat in the boat’s stern apparently in a coma until he was taken aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, when he demanded, and was given, food and a stateroom apart from the other survivors. He spent the rest of the voyage under sedation. And what of other wealthy passengers? There was Lord Duff Gordon who took over a lifeboat with just his wife and her maid, and seven crewmen to row. While Lady Duff Gordon commiserated with her maid on the loss of her “beautiful nightdress” he was giving each of the crewmen five pounds, seemingly as a bribe to either row away from the drowning people or to keep silent about the entire incident.

The given history of the Titanic is concerned largely with scapegoats, from Captain Edward Smith to the seven crewmen in the boat with Duff Gordon and the assertively influential Bruce Ismay. But there is more to it than individual culpability which takes no account of the chaos and waste endemic to capitalism with its privilege and exploitation which we still have to live with. After all, only a couple of years after the Titanic the world launched another tragedy which cost the lives of millions of its people.

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