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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, July 19, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: The Titanic

"Wherever you see anything about the Titanic which doesn't include Jack and Rose, it's accurate. And it's there because it's part of the greater drama."

It is difficult, even after the film, to understand how incredibly devastating the sinking of the Titanic was when it happened. The best analogy I can imagine is the shock and disbelief felt by people when they learned about 9/11: the incredible horror and improbability of it all. It wasn't so much that the ship was said to be unsinkable, but it was the terror of where it sank and how many died.

When the Titanic sunk, over 1500 people died in icy arctic waters. Only 706 survived, barely. Among the deaths were the world's richest man (John Jacob Astor IV, co founder of the Waldorf Astoria hotel), Benjamin Guggenheim (the guy who the museum is named after), Isador and Ida Straus (founders of Macy's Department Store), and Charles M Hays (founder of Canada's Grand Trunk Railroad). Their sudden and unexpected death to the icy depths was shocking to the world.

Among the people who were going to but did not ride the Titanic were Ambassador to France Robert Bacon, Alfred Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, and Milton Hershey. It could have wiped out the better part of American industrial leaders in one night, but as it was plenty of damage was done.

The film Titanic by director James Cameron showed a class struggle between the heroic lower decks workers and the snobbish, selfish wealthy. When the ship crashed the first mate is shown violently preventing poor people from getting to safety. According to various movies and common knowledge, the ship had no binoculars to look for trouble, there weren't enough lifeboats, and nobody was ready for trouble because the ship was declared unsinkable by its creators. They got into trouble because the ship was racing for a trans-Atlantic record, according to some, to win the "Blue Riband" prize. Some even claim that the mummy of Amun-Ra aboard the Titanic caused its doom as part of the curse.

What really went on with the Titanic? Did Cameron really get it right? Not really.

It isn't that Cameron didn't get a lot of the basic history right as a skeleton. And the identity of many passengers, the clothing they wore and so on were historically dead on (as usual in modern cinema). He did have some errors, such as paintings by Picasso and Monet that were not on the ship, but for the most part the decor and so on was dead on. But there were a host of errors, deliberate falsehoods, and even cruelly insulting injustices in not just Cameron's movie but previous efforts.

And I'm not talking about cinematic flaws like someone's voice echoing off an empty ocean and the lighting being inappropriate for the light sources depicted. That's just part of dramatic moviemaking. No there are serious, insulting flaws.

First off, not very many people thought the Titanic was actually unsinkable. They thought it was an amazing engineering achievement, the largest manmade structure in the history of the world. They thought it had a lot of good safety features. They thought it was astounding. But unsinkable? White Star Line never claimed any such thing. This bit comes from a special edition of The Shipbuilder magazine in which the ship was described as "practically unsinkable" due to its double hull design.

There were binoculars on board the ship, but not very many. The thing is, they probably wouldn't have helped much. Binoculars have a very limited range of vision, work poorly at night (they let in even less light than your eyeballs), and you have to know pretty much where to look to find anything at distance.

There were the ordinary number of lifeboats on the ship, and the number was not changed for later vessels. Even if there had been enough lifeboats for everyone on the ship to get onto, there wasn't actually time to get enough people in the lifeboats to save them. The ship went down that fast, and it takes that long to get them loaded up.

Sadly, many of the lifeboats were half full: panic and fear will do that to people. There's no record of anyone being reprimanded for doing so, and as you can see below, it probably was done on purpose due to stubborn passengers and confusion of orders. Unfortunately, there was no plan for an orderly evacuation, no public address system, and no lifeboat drill.

It is also true that only one lifeboat went back to find survivors, although of the 20, 9 were so filled they couldn't get anyone more anyway. Although Mythbusters strongly demonstrated that the fear of being sucked down with a ship is probably unfounded, everyone figured it would happen so they got as far from the Titanic as possible. And no one still knows how valid that fear is for a ship of that size. As for who got on the boats? Well that depends.
Amazingly that depended on what side of the ship you were on! First officer William Murdoch and second officer Charles Lightoller had different interpretations of the Captain's orders to load the women and children into the lifeboats. If you were a male passenger the most important factor which determined whether or not you survived was whether you chose to turn left or right when you got up to the boat deck!

For most of the evening Murdoch loaded the boats on the starboard side of the ship. He interpreted the order as "Women and children first", along with the necessary crew to man the boat. After that he filled the remaining spaces with any available male passengers. On the port side Lightoller interpreted the Captain's order as load only the women and children into the lifeboats (plus the male crew).

Based on the best information available Murdoch saved much more people than Lightoller (376 vs. 250). Lightoller saved more women and children than Murdoch (205 vs. 165). On Lightoller's side there was a far higher number of crewmembers (124 vs. 43). While the numbers are very uncertain they do show the different approaches taken by the officers.

Lightoller's policy of women and children only contributed to many unnecessary deaths. There were many families who refused to be separated and Lightoller let many boats go with empty seats rather than fill those seats with male passengers to the very end.

Lightoller's final boats to leave Titanic had many empty seats. Women and children no problem. Husbands of pregnant women - could escort their wives in but then were asked to leave. Young boys - okay but no more boys. With his restrictions on who was allowed in a lifeboat only 34 of the 65 seats on lifeboat 4 were filled even though it was one of the final boats! Many of society's richest men watched their wives and children depart in a lifeboat which had room for all of them - and more.
The ship did have, and followed out, a policy of women and children first. Unlike the recent capsized cruise ship in which the crew and captain left first and abandoned the passengers.

Speaking of the crew, especially Cameron's movie was often inaccurate, even to the point of slander. Captain Smith was specifically warned about and was concerned with the danger of icebergs, particularly on the course taken. He personally was lowered several times to inspect damage to see if it could be repaired. On the other hand he made some very poor decisions such as not issuing a general evacuation, and not altering speed when ice was reported ahead. He was, however, in control the whole time unlike Cameron's version. He did go down with the ship. In fact, the crew suffered the largest number of dead by far - 692, well over 2/3rds of their numbers.

Bruce Ismay, builder of the Titanic, took JP Morgan's cabin when the owner of the cruise line's company canceled at the last moment. He wasn't the villain that he's usually depicted as and that myth apparently can be traced back to a feud between him and William Randolph Hearst, who never let a grudge go unpublicized. According to the inquiry at the time, Ismay helped people into lifeboats, and there is no evidence he urged the captain to go faster (and even if he had, he had no power to influence the captain with). He did eventually jump into a lifeboat to survive, and is said to have been so filled with shame that he retired from White Star and was never the same.

The Cameron movie depicts the steerage class passengers as being gated off by sneering, elitist but they were gated due to regulations (fears of communicable diseases on board a closed environment for days at a time). There was no evidence or testimony, even by the lawyer representing the steerage, that the third class was held back by anyone.

Paint MeThat isn't to say there was no class conflict, but it was more in attitude than behavior. In a disaster, people tend to forget that kind of thing, in the fear and heat of the moment. According to historical reports, the women especially were convinced that it had to be lower class people crying and shouting in the water, because no one of breeding would scream like that. Lowe, portrayed more heroically in the Cameron movie, forced a child out of the lifeboat at gunpoint because he said the boy wasn't young enough. He refused to row back for survivors until the noise "from the drowning people quieted down." Lady Duff-Gordon described the sound a drowning man as " monotonous, dull and hopeless."

But there's nothing that demonstrates the kind of evil, deliberate drowning of the poor to save the rich. The only thing somewhat like that in the real events is that the third class passengers had a much more difficult route to get to their assigned lifeboats because of their location, which probably meant a lot died unable to find their way. Only 178 of the 708 third class passengers survived.

And the ship wasn't in any race. Titanic wasn't built for speed, the Lusitania was its closest competitor, and it was faster. Titanic was built for luxury, and it was quite lush. There is a Blue Riband prize for the fastest transatlantic crossing, but the Titanic wasn't interested in that; they knew they had no shot.

Then there are other details like the ship actually splitting into three sections, how it didn't have a 300-foot gash in the side, how while the band did play "Nearer My God to Thee," they did at the beginning of the evacuation and nobody knows what they were playing when they died. Cal couldn't have booked JP Morgan's personal cabin because Morgan canceled at the last moment. Nobody was allowed access to the stem and stern of the ship because they were crew-only (no "king of the world" moment. There was no interaction between the various classes of the ship until the sinking, so no Rose and Jack romance.

The truth is, movie makers and story tellers have been taking massive liberties with the story of the Titanic for years, and few more than Cameron, who had a class warfare statement to make and couldn't be bothered with facts. Speaking of liberties, he even got the Statue of Liberty wrong: when the Titanic sunk, the statue was still brown and not green.

Oh, and Amun-Ra wasn't aboard the ship. That rumor started because of a spiritualist named William T Stead who told the dinner party about the mummy (in the British Museum at the time). Spiritualism was big then, and given much more credence and trust among the wealthy and trendy.

The movie Titanic was visually impressive and the set designs, costuming, and such were brilliant as usual. But it was pretty much bunk when it came to history, and after the massive accolades the movie got its kind of gone down hill in peoples' esteem over time:



*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

3 Comments:

Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

For another particularly bad example, check out Cracked's June 10th article mentioning William Murdoch, film vs. real life.

8:44 PM, July 24, 2012  
Anonymous Disillusionist said...

It's also important to note that the single most important variable determining if you lived or died was sex. Men in first class had the highest survival percentage - 32.6%. Second class men fared the worst - only a little over 8% survived. The survival rate for both women and children in third class was higher than that of first class men.

The Titanic actually had enough lifeboats that all of the female and child passengers could have been loaded into them, with room left for over 500 men.

I've often wondered why the Captain didn't order the crew to just start cobbling rafts together from some of the nearly endless quantity of wood which was shortly to be dragged 2 miles below the surface. The rafts would only have needed to float for a couple of hours - the Carpathia, under the command of Capt. John Rostron (one of the real heroes of the event, who saved every single one of the survivors) was racing north like hell to reach the Titanic's position.

10:07 PM, July 24, 2012  
Anonymous Disillusionist said...

What I was attempting to type was that 1st class had the highest survival percentage among men. Both women and children in 3rd class had higher survival rates than 1st class men.

10:09 PM, July 24, 2012  

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