The sinking of the Titanic

Judging from some TV critics’ columns this weekend (at the start of the third or fourth week of profligate coverage), it’s now okay to say the observation of the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic has turned into a ghoulish spectacle that has more to do with a movie than the actual victims. For me the centenary comes in the middle of writing Worse than Titanic, a book about the worst maritime disasters in history. The Titanic only features in the title.

In terms of loss of life alone, the sinking of the Titanic doesn’t even figure as one of the fifty worst maritime disasters of the last three hundred years. Even putting aside a cold comparison of death tolls, some of the circumstances in which the other vessels sank – and some of the experiences of those who died on or survived them – were horrific almost to the point of being unimaginable. They make disaster movies look sanitised, and that includes even the more accurate versions of the Titanic story.

The Titanic wasn’t hopelessly overcrowded with over 10,000 people, unlike the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Titanic didn’t lose all power and wasn’t plunged into total darkness when she began to sink, making escape impossible for anybody below decks, unlike Le Joola. The Titanic wasn’t consumed by a swiftly spreading inferno, unlike the Dona Paz. Those fleeing the Titanic weren’t shot at, unlike those fleeing the Thielbek and Cap Arcona. The Titanic didn’t capsize before she went down, unlike the Lancastria. And the Titanic took almost three hours to sink, unlike most of the ships in the book.

It’s a popular misconception that the Titanic disaster had a great impact on maritime safety. The first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 1914 was a direct response to the disaster, and there have been several others since, in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974. Since 1929 the emphasis has been on fire prevention, because fire was responsible for half of all peacetime casualties at sea. But only a few years ago there were still cruise ships in active service that only adhered to the 1948 convention. And most of the disasters in the book have happened since the first convention.

The Titanic disaster continues to hold sway over the public imagination, being the archetypal maritime disaster, possibly because it’s become a symbol of a dying age, the point at which our belief in our invincibility thanks to technology was soon to be extinguished on the battlefields of Europe. Many of the films made about the Titanic use the decks of the ship to represent a microcosm of a society riven by class. Poor emigrants seeking a better life in America were aboard the same ship as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, some of the richest, most notable men in the Western world.

It’s hard to imagine Le Joola, the most recent disaster featured in my book, making so few headlines in the West had there been a few British aristocrats or rich American industrialists on board. Yet 2,000 died when Le Joola capsized off the Senegal in 2002, and the disaster is, only a decade later, unknown even to those who consider the loss of the Titanic a great tragedy. The Titanic has been remembered, commemorated and celebrated for a century now. My book is about the people who sailed on other ships that met with disaster, whether they lived or died, but who have been almost completely forgotten.