‘The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.” That was the judgment of Edward Stuart Talbot, the Anglican bishop of Winchester, in the sermon he preached the Sunday after the fabled Atlantic passenger liner Titanic took nearly 1,500 lives with her as she sank after striking an iceberg in mid-ocean on April 14, 1912. “When has such a mighty lesson against our confidence and trust in power, machinery, and money been shot through the nation?” Talbot could not have known it, but an entire cascade of mighty lessons was about to be visited on human presumption in spades, in the form of two World Wars (Talbot would lose a son at Ypres) and the genocidal sacrifice of millions on the altars of Fascism and Communism. A mid-ocean shipping accident that cost a five-hundredth of the lives Britain lost in the 1914–18 war should seem like small potatoes indeed.
And yet, the Titanic conjures up more vivid images in people’s minds today than Ypres, and images almost as vivid as those of the Holocaust. The ship has been memorialized in six major motion pictures (including the lavish Nazi propaganda film Titanic in 1943, the American Grand Hotel–style melodrama Titanic in 1953, the British docudrama A Night to Remember in 1958, and James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997) and two Broadway musicals. A small industry of Titanic researchers has itemized the ship down to the last rivet; there are seven current Titanic-artifact exhibitions on offer; and the number of books on the Titanic has topped 200, from Walter Lord’s 1955 bestseller A Night to Remember (the foundation for the British movie) to the more mundane 1,912 Facts About the Titanic (1994).
The Titanic has indeed become a monument; the part about warning and presumption, though, seems to have gone curiously astray. Actually, until the mid–19th century, it was presumptuous simply to attempt an Atlantic crossing. It took too long, and involved too many risks, especially on the stormy North Atlantic. However, the adaptation of steam power to oceangoing ships sliced the time and the risk of Atlantic crossings, and in 1840, the Canadian-born Samuel Cunard organized the British & North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company to operate four paddlewheel steamers on a shuttle from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston. Cunard’s flagship, the Britannia, was small — only 1,150 gross tons and 207 feet long, and carrying only 115 passengers — but her nine-knot engines got her to Boston in 14 days, 8 hours. From there, Cunard’s company went nowhere but up. When the Cunard Line launched the Campania in 1891, its ships had lengthened to over 600 feet, weighed over 18,000 tons, and could make the Atlantic crossing in five days and nine hours. More important, the Campania could carry 2,000 passengers, the bulk of them immigrants in steerage.
By then, Cunard had competition from 13 other steamship lines. Chief among them was the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, or, as it was better known from the device emblazoned on its red company pennant, the White Star Line.
White Star’s first entry in the North Atlantic carrying trade was the Oceanic in 1871 — 3,700 tons and 420 feet long, and built to carry a thousand immigrants. She was followed by Atlantic, Baltic, Republic, Adriatic, and Celtic, until in 1899 White Star launched a second Oceanic, whose 700-foot length and 17,000 tons made her the largest liner in the world. The Oceanic did not make White Star the automatic champion of the western ocean, though, because Cunard had an invisible thumb on the balances. In 1903, the British government, anxious to secure a source of auxiliary shipping in wartime, provided the struggling Cunard Line with a £2.6 million bailout and an annual subvention of £150,000; in return, Cunard would allow the Admiralty to test new naval technology in Cunard’s next generation of liners, and build them to Admiralty specifications for wartime conversion as commerce raiders. The bailout enabled Cunard to build two of the largest liners on the Atlantic, Mauretania and Lusitania, 787 feet long and 31,550 tons, capable of 26 knots, and able to assume the role of armed “merchant cruisers” at the first threat of war.
The White Star Line had a partner, too, though not a governmental one. J. Pierpont Morgan created the International Mercantile Marine trust in 1902, and in December of that year bought up White Star for £10 million. Morgan left the White Star organization in place, but, unlike the British government in its relationship with Cunard, he expected the shipping company to subsidize the larger organization, and not the other way around. Eager to please, White Star’s managing director, J. Bruce Ismay, proposed the construction of three enormous liners that would outshine the Cunarders in size and luxury — 882 and a half feet long, 46,000 tons, capacity for over 3,000 passengers and crew, an indoor tennis court and swimming pool, a Parisian cafe, suites with their own private 48-foot promenades, a barbershop, an infirmary, a gymnasium, a Turkish bath, and an eight-piece orchestra. And they would carry names appropriate to their gargantuan aspirations: the first, Olympic, to be launched in 1911, then Titanic in 1912, and finally a third, in 1914, to be named (according to rumor) Gigantic.
These ships were no longer the no-frills immigrant ferries of earlier decades. The White Star liners were still designed to carry a thousand steerage passengers, but they also now provided for 700 in first class and another 700 in second class; and unlike the old days, when the immigrants paid the bulk of costs by volume, the new White Star trio would draw 70 percent of their revenue from first-class ticketholders. Ismay would need every penny of that revenue, too, because he had borrowed heavily from Morgan’s trust to finance the huge ships. Goaded by Cunard’s Admiralty-funded competition, Ismay traded safety for luxury: The 15 watertight bulkheads that subdivided the hulls of his new ships would be raised no higher than their D decks, so as not to interfere with the free movement of their passengers, and the number of lifeboats would be scaled back to 20 in order not to clutter the open-air promenades on the boat deck. After all, 20 lifeboats still exceeded the “Life Saving Appliance Rules” adopted by the British Board of Trade in 1902 (which lumped all vessels over 10,000 tons into a single category that required only 16 lifeboats), and 16 subdivisions should have been able to contain the inflow of water from even the most serious ship-to-ship collision. White Star could still tout the new ships as safe — “unsinkable” was the word in the trade magazine Shipbuilder – as well as opulent. The lifeboats would be needed only for the rescue of other ships.
The Titanic’s hull was launched at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast on May 31, 1911, and spent a year there fitting out. She was a beautiful ship, with a swan-like stern, four tall, raked funnels, and unbroken, gently swooping lines that stood in contrast to the uneven, jumbled ugliness of the Cunard liners. But from the first, things went wrong. After taking on 293 first-class, 256 second-class, and 491 third-class passengers at Southampton on April 10, 1912, the Titanic swung into the Southampton estuary — and promptly sucked another liner, the New York, into her path. Only quick work by the Titanic’s accompanying tugboats averted a collision.
This should have been a warning about the difficulties of maneuvering the new behemoth; instead, it was misread as proof of superior shiphandling by the pilot and by the Titanic’s captain, Edward John Smith, the de facto admiral of the White Star fleet. And shiphandling was assumed to be all the guarantee the Titanic needed when, after last calls for passengers and mail at Cherbourg and Queenstown, she and her passengers and crew, now swollen to 2,200, turned and headed west.
Across the heaving ocean, the winter of 1911–12 had been so unseasonably warm that Greenland glaciers had calved a massive, bobbing jam of floating ice — flat slabs, miscellaneous chunks, and mountainous icebergs — three to eight miles in width and 55 miles long. This was not just a collection of overgrown refrigerator cubes. An iceberg is really a derelict island, so compacted into a rock-hard mass that demolishing even a medium-sized berg would require 1,900 tons of TNT. In the past, ships had collided — usually, two to six times a year — with ice off Newfoundland and the Grand Banks. But there had been no fatalities in the decade before the Titanic, and usually no damage more serious than buckled plates or broken stems on small freighters and schooners. There was no reason for a ship as fast and big as the Titanic to do more than take more careful notice of the horizon.
But this ice field was different. Starting on April 13, when she was already two days out, the Titanic logged at least seven warnings about the ice from other ships in the North Atlantic sea lanes. All were replied to with a polite thank-you, but no slacking of the Titanic’s pace. The last of these warnings arrived near 11 p.m. on April 14, from the small freighter Californian, which had been brought to a halt by the ice and actually had the Titanic within sight. It is unclear to this day how many of these messages were actually read on the bridge, but none of them seemed to worry E. J. Smith. The white-bearded and avuncular captain noted only that the flatness of the ocean and the moonless night might make spotting bergs difficult. “If it becomes at all doubtful let me know at once,” he told his officers, “I will be just inside.” The Titanic was still barreling along at 21 and a half knots as Smith strolled off to the chartroom, and then to his stateroom.
At 11:40, the lookouts in the Titanic’s crow’s-nest frantically rang the bridge telephone to warn First Officer William Murdoch that there was an iceberg “right ahead.” Murdoch ordered the Titanic’s helm hard-over to avoid a collision. But the Titanic shaved the berg along her starboard bow, shearing chunks of ice onto her foredeck, and, more seriously, scraping and bumping the berg below her waterline, popping and splitting steel plates for 300 feet, from her forepeak to the first of her boiler rooms, before Murdoch finally brought her to a bewildered halt.
Smith was on the bridge in a twinkling — for all the good it did. An inspection by the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews (who was along on the maiden voyage with Harland & Wolff’s “guarantee team” of workmen), showed that this was no ordinary nose-to-nose crash. Six of the watertight compartments had been opened to the sea, and 14 feet of water already sloshed in the bottom of the Titanic’s hull. Eventually, the weight of the water in all those compartments would drag the ship so far down by the bow that the incoming flood would slop into the seventh compartment, and then the eighth, and so on until the ship sank. After a few calculations, Andrews gave her an hour and a half — two hours at best — to live.
Actually, the Titanic did better than that. The ship’s engineers got the ballast and bilge pumps going, and although the pumps could expel only 1,700 tons of water an hour (the Titanic had already taken on 8,800 tons of water), they could buy enough time for lifeboats to be launched and rescue ships summoned, either by wireless radio or by the firing of distress rockets. Unhappily, the nearest ships, starting with the Mount Temple, were on the western side of the icefield, and they displayed something less than enthusiasm for the prospect of hurling themselves through the ice to the Titanic’s relief. To the southeast, the 13,000-ton Cunarder Carpathia was 58 miles away, and when her captain, Arthur Rostron, got the news of the collision, he unhesitatingly turned his ship about and pounded northward, dancing nervously through the outlying fringes of the icefield. The closest ship of all was the Californian, less than a dozen miles away, drifting quietly on the eastern edge of the ice. But her wireless operator was off duty, asleep, and her officers watched the Titanic’s distress rockets with moon-struck cluelessness, never bothering to call the Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, to the bridge or budging their ship an inch to assist.
Partly because Captain Smith was determined not to trigger a stampede for what he now realized was the fatally inadequate supply of lifeboats, and partly because the passengers themselves were so convinced of the Titanic’s unsinkability, there was not only no panic, but an almost stupefying calm. Gentlemen in evening dress chivalrously escorted their women to the lifeboats, then stood back to light a cigar, while the orchestra played ragtime. But the pumps could not keep the ravenous ocean at bay forever. The last distress rocket was fired at 1:50 a.m., and by that time, as the bow of the Titanic dipped below the water, crowds of now-desperate passengers — most of them emigrants from third class who had only now found their way up to the boat deck — had to be held back from the last boats at gunpoint by the remaining ship’s officers. At 2:10, the bulkheads deep within the ship began to give way under the intolerable strain. The hull snapped along the Titanic’s expansion joint behind the third funnel, and at 2:20, after the forepart sank away, the isolated stern with its pathetic swarm of doomed lives slowly twisted and descended, like the last reach of a drowning swimmer.
The Carpathia arrived to retrieve the lifeboats just after 4 a.m. Arthur Rostron, standing on the bridge-wing of his ship, his lips moving in silent prayer, was the hero of heroes that night. As the sun rose, he saw that “all around us were dozens and dozens of icebergs, some comparatively close, others far away on the horizon, towering up like cathedral spires.” It made him shudder, and he could “only think that some other Hand than mine was on that helm during the night.” In later years, there would be strenuous efforts to absolve the Californian of its guilt for doing nothing, most of them accompanied by the invention of “mystery ships” or recalculating times and distances with the abandon of M. Poirot. The Californian’s partisans rarely convince anyone. Their worst aspect is the way they distract attention from the energy, devotion, and singlemindedness of Arthur Rostron.
In all, Carpathia rescued 712 of the Titanic’s people; 1,496 others perished, either drowned with the ship or dead from hypothermia in the freezing water. The casualties included Captain Smith, First Officer Murdoch, 253 of the 325 crewmen in the boiler rooms, 403 of the 500 stewards, bakers, cooks, butchers, and storekeepers, all of the bellboys, all of the orchestra, 528 of the 709 in steerage, Thomas Andrews and all of the Harland & Wolff “guarantee group,” President Taft’s national security adviser, George and Harry Widener (the Widener Library at Harvard would be built in memory of Harry, a serious bibliophile), Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor. J. P. Morgan would have joined them if he had not canceled his passage at the last moment.
And yet, in spite of all those losses, the bishop of Winchester’s warnings against presumption never got much traction. The first impulse in both Britain and America was to hold up the disaster as evidence of Anglo-Saxon nobility, celebrating the heroes who had sacrificed themselves in obedience to the rule of “women and children first” (and quietly ignoring the greater likelihood that those cigar-lighting gentlemen were motivated instead by the bizarre confidence that, as one of them remarked, “no matter what we have struck,” the Titanic “is good for eight or ten hours”). The next impulse was to pillory the White Star Line for mismanagement, something that played into the hands of progressive politicians such as Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan, who conducted the U.S. Senate’s inquiry into the loss of the Titanic and who called for more of the regulation that had done so little to prevent the disaster in the first place.
But the most popular narrative to wrap itself around the Titanic has been that of class. The disaster has increasingly become a parable for the evils of callous upper-class wealth, saving its precious hide while honest and authentic immigrants are locked away in steerage to drown. (There is actually no evidence that anyone was “locked away” in third class, or that the sort of folding metal gates that appear so prominently as the immigrants’ prison bars in recent movie versions of the Titanic were even installed on the ship.) James Cameron, who joked that his bloated Titanic fell “just short of Marxist dogma,” pressed the class-warfare fable to the point of caricature.
Still, the bishop was right: Presumption was what killed the Titanic. Presumption that technology relieves us from prudence, presumption that intelligent regulation will eliminate fear and pain, presumption that we have achieved exemption from the dangers that plagued earlier generations, presumption that nature can be driven out with a well-intentioned pitchfork. Modern human society has, by taking thought, changed the patterns in which we organize, work, procreate, and communicate — but it has not changed them as much as we think. The sea hath spoken.
— Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and director of the Civil War Studies Program, at Gettysburg College. This article appears in the April 16, 2012, issue of National Review.