A Titanic tragedy: one hundred years on

Exactly 100 years ago on Sunday, an ‘unsinkable’ ship plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. As the world marks the centenary of the Titanic, why are we so fascinated with this doomed voyage?

On April 10th 1912, an ocean liner set sail from Southampton. Decked out with swimming pools, libraries and barber shops, and with over 2,000 on board, she was the world’s largest and most luxurious ship. The Titanic, the newspapers said, was unsinkable.

Four days into her voyage, the ship struck an iceberg. The starboard buckled, letting the sea spill in. Within two hours and forty minutes, the Titanic had sunk: rescuers found only debris, bodies and freezing survivors, scattering the inky Atlantic Ocean.

Of the Titanic’s 2,223 passengers, just 706 survived. Shockingly, the boat was only carrying enough lifeboats to save half its passengers. Quickly, a triumph of technology and progress became a symbol of human arrogance and folly.

One hundred years later, that symbol has refused to sink from popular imagination. The Titanic has inspired countless books, musicals and songs; even an epic postmodern poem. James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic is one of the most expensive and profitable movies of all time.

But why does this ‘unsinkable ship’ hold such a powerful sway? It is hardly the deadliest maritime disaster – that dubious label belongs to the 1987 Doña Paz collision, which killed a staggering 4,341 people. But while few know the name of that tragedy, Titanic conjures up hundreds of extraordinary images, ideas and stories.

On Sunday, the sinking’s centenary will remember Titanic’s heroes: men like Jack Phillips, who died sending desperate SOS calls as the ship filled with water. Thousands will be moved by the famous story of Wallace Hartley’s orchestra, which continued to play as the ship went under – going down, legend has it, with the hymn Nearer my God to Thee.

Less inspiring tales are equally powerful. As the ship sank, divisions of social class meant the difference between life and death. 60% of first class passengers survived, compared to just 25% of travellers in third. For many, this shameful difference makes the Titanic not just a single disaster, but a microcosm of injustice all over the world.

Anchored in reality?

This, many believe, is the reason for the Titanic’s enduring appeal. They say the disaster is interesting because it symbolises so much: from the injustice of social class to human bravery and the danger of arrogance. It is not the reality of the tragedy that fascinates people, but the metaphors and symbols within it.

Others argue that the terrible reality is exactly what makes the Titanic important. No-one could remain unmoved by the tales of bravery, survival and loss that emerged in the ship’s final hours. This raw humanity, they say, doesn’t need an extra message to capture our imagination.

You Decide

  1. What makes the Titanic interesting – individual stories, or the lessons we can learn from the disaster? Are the two connected?
  2. Why are some historical events more memorable than others?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a teenage survivor of the Titanic disaster. Write a diary entry describing the event, and how you survived.
  2. Design your own luxury ship. How can you make it more extravagant and comfortable than any other liner – without it becoming unsafe?

Some People Say...

“It is impossible to build an unsinkable ship.”

What do you think?

Q & A

A disaster like this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, right?
Don’t speak so soon. Since 1980, 16 ships have sunk – and this year at least 25 people died when the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast. With cruise ships getting bigger and more luxurious, high-profile sinkings like this cast doubt on the safety of the industry. Many have called for better regulation and higher standards – just as they did in 1912.
How else did the Titanic change society?
Because it touched so many social issues, the disaster was used as evidence to support many causes. Suffragettes, for example, adopted the slogan ‘votes for women, boats for men’, playing on the ‘women and children first’ rule and arguing that greater female power would mean safer, more responsible public services.

Word Watch

Unsinkable
One of the common myths surrounding the Titanic is that the ship’s operators, White Star Line, claimed she was unsinkable. This, however, was never actually the case: although newspapers suggested she might be practically unsinkable, those working on the ship only suggested she was an extraordinarily safe and well-made ship.
Microcosm
From the ancient Greek mikros, meaning small, and kosmos, meaning world, the word microcosm refers to a smaller system that reveals all the features of a larger one.
James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic
In Cameron’s interpretation of the Titanic disaster, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet played lovers from different social classes, who fell in love on the sinking ship. To research the hugely successful film, James Cameron actually explored the Titanic wreck, recreating the ship on screen using footage he had gathered there. He later went on to create 3-D epic Avatar, which beat Titanic’s record for the highest-grossing film in history.
SOS
When the Titanic sank in 1912, the Morse distress signal SOS was rarely used as an emergency signal – most wireless operators used an older code called CQD. After the iceberg struck, one wireless operator joked to Jack Phillips that it would be a good time to call SOS – as it might be his last chance to send it.

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