In 1898 a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with rich and complacent people and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything and, in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared that year, published by the firm of M.F. Mansfield.
Fourteen years later a British shipping company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkably like the one in Robertson’s novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson’s was 70,000 tons. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24-5 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But then, this didn’t seem to matter because both were labelled ‘unsinkable’.
On 10 April 1912 the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of “The Rubáiyát” of Omar Khayyám and a list of passengers collectively worth 250 million dollars. On her way over she too struck an iceberg and went down on a cold April night.
Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship Titanic. This is the story of her last night.
Everyone has seen the movie. And picking up the book, I wasn’t sure it would capture the essence of the event…the feelings and surrounding atmosphere, but it did. Sometimes, a book can fall flat in those areas… especially one that is written, not as fiction, but a true story account. This is not the case hear. Sometimes I could literally feel as if I was experiencing the whole night with the people who were there. And it undoubtedly shed some light over how the human memory works when it comes to traumatic events… no memory is like another, so therefore it is even more astounding that Walter Lord managed to capture a coherent story.
There is this romantized sheet over this era, of honorary behaviour coupled with this naïve idea of a ship being ‘unsinkable’. And that is one of the most dangerous things to assume, that something is completely safe. Because it never is. And as soon as you start believing that nothing can go wrong, it usually does. Sure it was a lot of panic among many of the people, and due to class restrictions, some were treated unfair by today’s standard, but I felt genuinly proud and impressed by the first class men who, as Walter Lord puts it, carry off these little gestures of chivalry. And these were real men. Not knights in shining armour glamourized through centuries of retelling.
- Until now the Titanic had been a picnic.
- Then came that thud…the grinding, tearing sound…the telegraphs ringing wildly…the watertight doors crashing down.
- Over fifty-nine years old, he was retiring after this trip. Might even have done it sooner, but he traditionally took the White Star ships on their maiden voyages. Only six years before, when he brought over the brand-new Adriatic, he remarked: ‘I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.’ Now he stood on the bridge of a liner twice as big – twice as safe – and the builder told him it couldn’t float.
- Everybody said so. When Mrs Albert Caldwell was watching the deck hands carry up luggage at Southampton, she had asked one of them, ‘Is this ship really non-sinkable?’ ‘Yes, lady,’ he answered. ‘God Himself could not sink this ship.’
- This was the era when gentlemen formally offered their services to ‘unprotected ladies’ at the start of an Atlantic voyage. Tonight the courtesy came in handy.
- The night was a magnificent confirmation of ‘women and children first’, yet somehow the loss rate was higher for third-class children than first-class men.
- These men on the Titanic had a touch – there was something about Ben Guggenheim changing to evening dress…about Howard Case flicking his cigarette as he waved to Mrs Graham…or even about Colonel Gracie panting along the decks, gallantly if ineffectually searching for Mrs Candee. Today nobody could carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night.