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Titanic, 100 Years Later: Why Titanic Continues to Fascinate Us

Richard D. Rabbett, a co-founder of the nonprofit SS United States Conservancy and a former board member of the Providence-based Steamship Historical Society of America, is one of a select few setting sail for the Titanic's final resting place to memorial

 

"The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." — French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859‐1941)

This month, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world at the time of her loss from striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912. I will be among a very lucky few who will be out in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 14‐15 over the actual site of the Titanic wreck, 100 years later, to commemorate the many people who so tragically lost their lives in the disaster.

Like so many others, I first learned of the Titanic tragedy as a child in grade school. As a teenager, my interest in the Titanic story was reawakened in 1985 when Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered the wreck off Newfoundland.

The discovery kicked off a worldwide re-emergence of interest and scholarship surrounding Titanic that was further whipped into a frenzy following the 1997 release of the blockbuster film "Titanic."

After years of reading about Titanic, I was overwhelmed by the volume of material that suddenly became available after the movie’s success. As a teenager my interest lay in the technology of the ship itself and her tragic loss. Eventually I became burned out on all things Titanic‐related and turned my interest of ships to other classic ocean liners, but my thoughts would always drift back to my boyhood love, Titanic.

Very recently, I was able to confirm a story told to me as a child by my paternal grandfather, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland to Connecticut in the late 19th century. When I was in high school, my grandfather had recollected for me a memory from 1912 (when he was a boy of just 6 years old) of his parents comforting nearby Irish neighbors on the loss of someone they’d known who had been lost on the Titanic. The story stuck with me for almost 30 years and through the power of Internet research and communication, I finally discovered the name of the Titanic passenger for whom my great‐grandparents had mourned.

Miss Jane Carr was a domestic servant from County Sligo in Ireland who had worked for several years in the town of Windsor Locks, CT, where my great‐grandparents (and later my grandparents) lived. She was returning to the United States in third class aboard Titanic and was lost in the disaster. Her body was never recovered. Further investigation revealed the name of the Irish family that had lived one street away from my great‐grandparents and had rented Jane Carr a small room. After nearly 30 years of pondering my grandfather’s story, I finally had the complete picture of what had transpired in April 1912 relative to my family and Titanic. Or so I thought.

Recent information provided to me by a cousin who has extensively documented our family’s history revealed an even bigger surprise — Jane Carr had served as a housekeeper for a well‐to-do man who lived nearby to my great‐grandparents, and this man’s daughter had eventually married my grandfather’s brother. I was shocked to discover this even-closer family connection to events of 1912, but it served to underscore my opinion as to why the world remains so deeply fascinated by the Titanic — because in the end it’s not a story about a ship and its demise, it’s a story about people. As a teenager, I considered my fascination with Titanic as a bit of an odd hobby, but as an adult researching my family, the significance of all the relationships I discovered and researched became clear.

Each of us spends a lifetime developing a personal narrative — one that is inextricably intertwined with the stories of everyone we meet — family, friends and acquaintances. We build our own narrative, or story, based upon countless interactions with others, particularly family. Ultimately even the distance of space and time becomes meaningless. I was very close to my grandfather and indeed fortunate to be able to hear a small piece of his personal narrative stretching all the way back to 1912, which provided me with a direct link to my own family of that era, as well as, eventually, to Jane Carr and the Titanic itself. Jane Carr was born 100 years and one day ahead of me on February 11, 1867. She died at age 45 on April 15, 1912. So it seems a bit surreal that I will also be 45 on April 15 when I am in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck to commemorate all those who died so tragically on the same spot, including Jane Carr.

It’s difficult when looking through the lens of historical hindsight to separate the myth from reality where Titanic is concerned. Titanic was the largest, most technologically advanced ship of its day and arguably one of the most luxurious. Like today, the notion of celebrity was a powerful commodity in 1912, both as PR for the White Star Line which owned and operated Titanic, and also for passengers who would travel on Titanic in other classes who could claim they had traveled in the company of some of the world’s richest and most famous people.

An ocean liner is somewhat like a wedding cake — the exterior is pretty and perfect (as we always like to imagine the lives of celebrities to be (or, in this case, Titanic’s rich and powerful first‐class passengers). But a cake’s fancy exterior belies its basic inner structure, which for the steamship lines was actually the bread and butter of their trade: transit for people emigrating to the New World. Of the 1,315 paying passengers aboard the “Ship of Dreams,” 708 (53%) were traveling in third class to make their way to new opportunities in America. Only 25% of this class of passengers survived. And while Titanic passengers are generally thought to be made up of largely Americans and British in first class with a third class full of Irish, the reality reveals an impressive melting pot of cultures: Australian, Austro‐Hungarian, Belgian, Bulgarian, Canadian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finn, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, South African, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian, Turkish and Uruguayan. All of our faces are represented in some way on Titanic.

Titanic is also a tragedy marked by many what‐ifs. What if there had been enough lifeboats for all, what if the lookouts had had binoculars, what if it hadn’t been a dark, moonless night, what if the ship had spotted the iceberg or turned sooner, what if the wireless (telegraphic) operator on a ship that was only some 10 miles away had heard Titanic’s electronic cries for help — would more lives have been saved? Disasters are the culmination of many factors and when we lose loved ones in any tragedy, as humans we struggle to answer both the causal “why?” — seeking the pertinent details of an accident that courts of inquiry and insurers generally require — and also the more troublesome metaphysical “WHY?” ... why are we here, what is the purpose of life and why are some lives cut so tragically short? Is it the working of Fate, the merciless act of an Almighty being or merely that someone was just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Titanic provides a broad study in situational what‐ifs and offers an examination of the frailty of the human condition. It is a fascinating set piece that offers a glimpse into the unknowns of the new industrialized 20th century, the struggle between the haves and have‐nots in society, ethnic and gender differences, the notion of empire in Britain, the emergence of America as a superpower, politics, religion, metaphysics, celebrity, journalism, the role of technology and even the hubris of an “unsinkable” ship.

But in particular the disaster is also a study of the rise of the corporation — the venerable White Star Line had been taken over by perhaps the biggest robber-baron of the 19th century — J.P. Morgan — in 1904. Like today’s Carnival Corporation, which owns most of the world’s cruise lines (including Costa Cruises, recently of Costa Concordia notoriety), J.P. Morgan’s American transportation combine, International Mercantile Marine Co., sought to gain control of the shipping lines of the era and snapped up the British White Star Line and infused it with enough capital to build the magnificent vessel RMS Titanic. Massive business trusts were more powerful in some cases than even governments in that period, and the Morgan shipping combine and other trusts were viewed with deep disdain and distrust by many in government, business and elsewhere. Similar to contemporary scandals such as the recent AIG or the Lehman Brothers collapses, the Titanic tragedy was also thought to be the quintessential example of corporate greed and disregard for the common man in 1912.

The Titanic sinking was also the first major international news story of the 20th century and the first major news story to play out virtually in real time thanks to the new technology of wireless telegraphy. Wireless telegraphy was the Internet of its era — a radical new technology originally run by technophiles (geeks we would call them today) that would ultimately have a huge impact on all facets of modern life, particularly in business, politics and news reporting.

The Titanic struck its iceberg at 10:40 p.m. East Coast time on Sunday, April 14, 1912, and sank at 1:20 a.m. on Monday, April 15. Overnight the airwaves crackled furiously with wireless messages — initially from Titanic — and then after her sinking to, from and among other vessels on the North Atlantic. As the terrible news reached New York, newspapers scrambled and the public awoke at the beginning of the work week (and the contemporary news cycle) to read a New York Times headline that accurately (and shockingly) reported that the new liner Titanic had struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sunk overnight with great loss of life. The news roiled Wall Street and the world, particularly high society in New York and London, as well as the working-class cities of Southampton and Liverpool, where the majority of Titanic’s crew were based. The tragedy continued to play out in real time through wireless telegraphy as Cunard’s Carpathia transported Titanic’s survivors from the wreck site to New York City, eventually arriving on April 18. The sensationalist reporting of the period is equivalent to today’s media frenzy surrounding contemporary tragedies like 9/11, the death of Whitney Houston or the killing of Trayvon Martin.

While a number of individuals have been vilified over the years as a result of investigations into the Titanic disaster, I would suggest that there was no malicious intent on the part of the shipbuilders, the shipping line, the captain or crew of Titanic, or even other ship masters in the vicinity of Titanic on that fateful night in 1912. In any tragedy, for legal (and moral) reasons, someone must be blamed so that some sort of restitution can be made and closure attained. In the end, it was less fate, or hubris, that sank the Titanic than a series of too many missteps and bad decisions over time which cost more than 1,500 souls their lives on a bitterly cold April morning a mere 400 miles off the Canadian coast. Think Challenger disaster or Bhopal.

So why do we still seem to be so fascinated by the Titanic?

I think it goes back to personal narrative — all storytelling involves context which touches on various cultural, religious or historical traditions. Tradition is the usually the foundation upon which people order and build their lives. Understanding tradition is made easier when it has context and significance for us in the present. Indeed, Titanic continues to fascinate us because of the infinite number of both historical and contemporary perspectives from which the event may be examined that offer great relevance for each of us to almost any aspect of our daily lives. Context is critical — if we can’t relate to something personally, we often have a hard time accepting it or interpreting it. A perfect example of that involves vision — when we see black and white historical photographs, the subject matter seems so dated, so far away. But with (modern) color photography, historical events take on more relevance because we see things in color in our everyday lives.

Similarly, the Titanic story continues to resonate because the many facets making up the tragedy touch on so many themes in everyday life, the same themes our ancestors were struggling with in 1912.

On an ocean liner or a cruise ship, passengers representing all walks of life travel together in a finite space putting their faith in technology and human judgment to deliver them safely to their destination. While the Titanic and her passengers are long gone, they will never be forgotten, nor should they be. Thanks to changes stemming directly from the Titanic disaster, all ships today carry lifeboats for all. So how then can we explain the loss of life in a modern disaster like the recent Costa Concordia wreck? At some point in the future, historians will no doubt look back to that tragic incident from earlier this year and perhaps better understand what went so terribly wrong. Like us looking back to Titanic, they will also ponder the frailty of the human condition that led to a series of fateful decisions that ultimately culminated in disaster.

From 10:40 p.m. on April 14 to 3 a.m. on April 15 you will find me physically at coordinates 41°43'57"N, 49°56'49"W, but I suspect I may actually be lost somewhere in 1912, relatively speaking, honoring Miss Jane Carr, my family and all of those from Titanic who met eternity well before their time. Their collective experiences and narratives continue to inspire us and provide us with the clarity of vision and strength of conviction to successfully navigate our own personal journeys.

Richard D. Rabbett (MET’10) is Associate Director for Faculty Services & Operations at Boston University's Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. Aside from Titanic, his interest in ships lies with the classic ocean liners, most notably the SS United States, America’s spectacular postwar entry into the international merchant shipping realm. In 1998, he joined early efforts to preserve America’s greatest merchant marine achievement, the SS United States, and in 2004, co‐founded and served on the Board of the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit that ultimately succeeded in purchasing the SS United States outright in 2010. The ship sits today in Philadelphia as efforts continue toward her preservation. From 2008‐2010, he served on the Board of the Steamship Historical Society of America (based in Providence), the largest nonprofit in the United States dedicated to preserving the legacy of powered vessels. He has lectured around the country and on cruise ships on the great ocean liners of the past.

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