The Titanic Sank Into the Depths of Humankind

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It happened 99 years ago this month, but the event has lost none of its grip on the public imagination. In Belfast yesterday, they put out at City Hall a plan of the RMS Titanic, drawn for the Board of Trade inquiry into its sinking, at 2.20am on April 15, 1912, in mid-Atlantic with the deaths of 1,517 passengers and crew. Those statistics chill us still.

Belfast was the birthplace of the Titanic, the world’s largest, most luxurious liner. Twenty-two Belfast engineers and ship-hands went down with it, knowing that their “unsinkable” craft carried lifeboats for less than half the people on board. Worse hit was Southampton, which lost 549 men, apprentices and heads of family, who crewed the ship on its maiden voyage. Almost a century later, the port city still pauses to mourn.

These are comprehensible, local responses. Less fathomable is the universal appeal of the legend. Children of the 21st century who can name no other ship have heard of Titanic. An exhibition of artefacts from it is drawing vast crowds to the O2 in London. An Italian company is about to film a 12-part series on how it was built. And Hollywood has never let the legend slip. From the first speckled reality film of 1912, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson, through A Night to Remember (1958, with Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller) down to James Cameron’s clever cross-class pairing of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in 1997, the tragedy of a luxury liner that hit an iceberg has come to represent almost any issue you care to name.

Class? Around 40 per cent of those in first class drowned, against more than 75 per cent of third-class and crew. Some claim there was wealth discrimination as the lifeboats were loaded. Americans pointed the finger at the British toff system. The sad truth is that the ship tilted too fast for most in steerage to escape, and many who tried to reach the upper levels were blocked by barricades installed by the supposedly class-free US immigration authorities.

Race? There was not one black face among the 2,223 people on board. In a famous Leadbelly song that comes close to rejoicing at the lily-white disaster, Captain Edward J Smith dismisses a black applicant with the words “I ain’t haulin’ no coal.” Awareness of the Titanic was universal; not so, the grief.

Feminism? Entry to the lifeboats was “women and children first”. Even at the time, it sounded like an anachronism, the last cry of a long-dead age of chivalry. In Denver, the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote “Suffrage Dealt a Blow by Women of the Titanic”. If women wanted to be treated as equals they must, she argued, take their chances like men. Yet even a doctrinaire revolutionary like Goldman wondered at the nobility that inspired men to step aside and give their lives for others.

Nationalism? Captain Smith was heard shouting: “Be British, boys, be British!” What he meant, it’s assumed, is “form orderly queues”. There was little jostling on deck. A higher percentage of British men drowned than Americans.

Anti-capitalism? The Titanic was built as a blue chip in J P Morgan’s rapacious bid to monopolise transatlantic travel. Its owner, J Bruce Ismay, had merged his White Star line with Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company. Ismay has gone down in calumny for climbing into a lifeboat; his corporate strategy serves as a classic counter-argument for market regulation.

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