Monday, June 01, 2009

Titanic opportunities

The last survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, died May 31, ending the world’s last living link with that long-ago tragedy that’s captured people’s imaginations for 97 years.

For some reason, this reminded me of something I’d forgotten about. It also made be think about how much the tragedy was used over the years to support one view or another.

When I was a kid, we were told that the ship carried a plaque declaring, “Not even God can sink this ship.” That was a total fabrication, based on an alleged incident in which a deckhand supposedly told a nervous boarding passenger, “God himself could not sink this ship.” Although even this account is doubted by many scholars, that doubt didn’t stop religious people from repeating it as a cautionary tale about the “sin of pride”, or about the folly of challenging their god.

Similarly, and less blatantly religious, some said that the ship was claimed to be “unsinkable”, and here the truth is murkier. But to the extent that anyone did think that, they were apparently only reflecting the common opinions of the time.

Where the use of the Titanic disaster as object lesson is closest to truth is probably in the suggestion that money—or, if you prefer, greed—led to the great loss of life. A double hull from the water line to the keel, which had been used in ship design for decades, wasn’t used, and neither were water-tight compartments and bulkheads, all of which may have saved Titanic. They were omitted to make the ship more open and less expensive to build.

Similarly, the number of lifeboats was the minimum required by regulation, again because this was the cheapest option. This is where the alleged assumption of unsinkability meets the charge of greed, and none of us can know for sure what was really behind it.

However, we do know that out of 2,223 people on board that ship, only 706 survived: 68.2% died. More startling to me is the class bias: 75.5% of third class passengers died, 58.3% of second class passengers died, but only 39.5% of first class passengers died (76.2% of the crew died, too). These totals probably say a lot about those times.

The Titanic disaster has captured people’s imagination ever since it happened. That’s not likely to change, even with the death of the last survivor. Sadly, I doubt that the use of the disaster to prove some point will end, either. Some things, some human behaviours, don’t change.

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