Sunday, May 31, 2015

As the Titanic Goes Down

Previously in The Sinking of the Titanic. And now William Inglis.

Time: April 15, 1912
Place: Atlantic Ocean, 41.46 N., 50.14 W

The Voyage of the Titanic
GNU image from Wikipedia.
The Virginian and the Parisian, which arrived at the scene of the disaster a few hours later, could find no sign of any living person afloat, though they cruised for a long time among the wreckage before standing away on their courses. The Carpathia at first was headed for Halifax, but upon learning by wireless that that harbor was ice-bound, Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the Board of Directors of the White Star Line, suggested that the ship head for New York. This was done. The Carpathia, with nine hundred passengers of her own and the seven hundred survivors, reached New York in safety.

The sad international tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic touched men's souls more deeply than any other disaster in many years. To English-speaking races in particular the horror of the occasion pressed close home; for here was the best of British ships bearing many of the most prominent of America's people. To these seasoned voyagers, crossing the Atlantic had become a mere pleasant trifle, seeming no more dangerous than an afternoon's shopping in town. Then suddenly there was thrust upon all of them that ancient, awful knowledge that "in the midst of life we are in death."

Both American passengers and English crew lived up to the best traditions of their race. There was no panic, no fighting for places in the boats on the doomed ship. On the contrary, people refused to believe in the imminence of danger. The idea that the ship was unsinkable had been so borne in on them that even when summoned upon deck and ordered to put on life-belts, many of them refused. In the first boats gotten away from the ship, there were not many people. Some refused to climb down through the deep blackness into the tiny craft. They thought the tumult all an empty scare that would soon pass.

When the steady, ominous settling of the huge ship's bulk broke through this shallow confidence, there was a solemn change. Grand and tender scenes there were on those sinking decks; of husbands and wives parting with the utterance of a hope, turned suddenly to terror, that they would soon meet again; of other wives who refused to leave their husbands and deliberately stayed to share their fate. Few of the more noted passengers were among those saved. Bruce Ismay, director of the steamship line, was one. The captain went down with his ship, as did most of his officers, though some of the latter saved themselves by clinging to the wreckage which rose after the vessel's plunge. While she was sinking her band still played "Nearer, my God, to thee," and other earnest hymns. Death did not find the old Saxon stock cringing from him with hysteria and frenzy. Sudden as was his coming, wholly unexpected as was his hideous visage, he was met with the calm courage which is the best tradition of the race.

And what have been the consequences of this overwhelming tragedy? An investigation was immediately begun in America by the United States Government. Another, slower, dignified and ponderous, was afterward undertaken by the British Government. Both of them in the end attributed the disaster to practically the same cause, the speed mania which has overtaken the nations, the heedlessness of man's over-confidence which takes risks so many times successfully that it grows to forget that risks exist.

The Titanic's captain wanted to make a record on her maiden voyage. His directors wanted him to make a record. That would mean increased advertisement and increased traffic for their line. So in the face of danger, knowing there were icebergs all around him, the captain rushed his ship blindly ahead. The chance of his actually hitting an iceberg was scarce one in a hundred. So he took the chance. The probability that if he did strike an iceberg it could do irreparable damage to his stout ship, was scarce one in a hundred. So he took that chance also. He gambled with Death, as a thousand speed-driven captains had gambled before. This time it was Death's turn to win.

A gamble even more reprehensible was that of the steamship companies, who had grown so sure their ships would not sink that they no longer provided sufficient means of escape from them. Why load a vessel down with useless life-boats, which only hung the year in and year out, blocking up space? Every foot of that space was valuable. It might make room for an extra passenger, or provide an extra amusement to draw traffic. What voyager ever counted life-boats, or worked out the awful calculation, so obvious now, that there was only rescue space provided for one-third of the number of souls aboard? Was not the ship "unsinkable" after all?

The Titanic is gone. Our sorrow for her is becoming but a memory. Our ships carry lifeboats sufficient now; they are compelled to by law. And our sea captains run on safer lines; that, too, the law has made compulsory. But it will be long before man's overweening self-confidence rises from the shock which has been given to his belief in his mechanical ability. Nature is not conquered yet. Ocean has still a strength beyond ours. Ships are not unsinkable; and Death will still take his toll of bold men's lives in the future as he has done in the past. We know that cowardice costs more than courage, but it is not so tragically costly as blind foolhardiness.

This ends our series of passages on The Sinking of the Titanic by William Inglis. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.

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