Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic: Credit Bridgeman Art Library
Among the finds at a book sale last fall, my husband discovered a 1955 paperback on the sinking of the RMS Titanic by Walter Lord entitled A Night to Remember. It remains one of the most authoritative accounts of the tragedy and inspired a movie in 1958 by the same name, which you can view online.  It's worth the watch.

Today marks the 106th anniversary of the ship's sinking, but its story never seems to grow old. If you've never read Thomas Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain," you might want to check it out. The poem's imagery of the iceberg forming in the ocean while shipbuilders are constructing what they believe to be an unsinkable ship is striking. The sinking of the Titanic was the perfect subject for the fatalistic Hardy.

What struck me the most about Walter Lord's account of the sinking is how the ship was a perfect microcosm of the class system that existed at that time. More than 1500 passengers died while there were only 710 survivors. The class of the passenger in fact determined their survival: the death rate of steerage passengers was much higher than those in first class quarters. It  was women and children first in the lifeboats, but many of those in third class--locked below in the ship--never had the option of boarding one. Seventeen per cent of first class children were lost as opposed to 66 per cent of third class children. Three per cent of first class passenger women were lost as opposed to 54 per cent in third class quarters. Many of the lifeboats departed the vessel only half full.

 The class distinction persisted even in death. When Canadian rescue ships started on their mission to recover bodies, they discovered they didn't have sufficient embalming supplies. (Under regulation, bodies were required to be embalmed before being returned to port.) They preserved the bodies of the obviously well-to-do passengers for burial in Halifax, while abandoning the others to their watery grave.

The scope of the tragedy was compounded by many factors: there were not enough lifeboats for the passengers onboard; the myth of the unsinkability of the ship led many to believe that they were in no real danger;  numerous ice warnings were not given enough credence by the radio operator, who was busy sending out  messages from the millionaires aboard to families and friends, crowing about their presence on the Titanic's maiden voyage; and the practice of the time to have radio operators available only on a part-time basis meant that the SS Californian, only a few miles away, did not receive the Titanic's distress messages. (The ship's crew also watched, but ignored rockets from the Titanic because they weren't the usual colour of flares denoting distress.)

In retrospect, there seemed to be an inevitability about the ship's tragic end. In fact, there was a novella published by Morgan Robertson in 1898 in which many of the details of the later sinking of the Titanic were foreshadowed.

Is there truly such a thing as fate?

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