Don’t you think that it’s rather odd to be making all this fuss about the centenary of the Titanic calamity? There’s no shortage of tragedies competing for our attention, so why this one?
First, a ship is a bounded space. You’re trapped. There’s no where to go. So it’s a concentrated space. A laboratory of human behaviour. You never know how you and yours are going to respond to the prospect of imminent death. Oaks of men fall to pieces. Slivers of girls stand tall. Assumptions collapse around you. It’s a good test of rational choice theory. What do you do? Help yourself or help others, or help yourself by working cooperatively with others? And there’s an undeniable ‘leader’; the captain has dictatorial powers. So it’s interesting.
Second, we’re not there! It happened to them, not to us. Whatever problems we might have, at least we’re not competing with hundreds of others trying to get from a sinking colossus of a ship into a lifeboat, the icy claw of the dark Atlantic beckoning. It is pleasurable for us to read about the suffering of others, especially so since it’s all long ago.
Third, this disaster has romance. ‘Women and children first’. Gallantry and chivalry, if not on horseback, at least at sea. And is this not the very essence of being a certain kind of male, an English one? The infamy heaped on the unfortunate Captain Francesco Schettino of the equally unfortunate Costa Concordia owes much to his failure to live up to this chivalrous standard set by the Titanic’s Captain E.C. Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The romance of the Titanic, however, is not quite what it seems.
‘Women and children first’ was coined in description of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead on February 26th, 1852. It was a troop ship, en route to the Cape Frontier war, between the Xhosa people and European settlers. They were reinforcements, called up by Sir Harry Smith. [His wife, Lady Smith, is the basis of many Ladysmiths in South Africa.]
The Birkenhead was wrecked at Danger Point, near Cape Town (as if the name of that landmark wasn’t trying to tell you something). Out of 638 on board, 445 perished. The ‘women and children’ in question were the wives (7) and offspring (13) of some of the officers on board. It is they who were allowed to go first to the lifeboats. This was not noble self-restraint; it was restraint of the troops at the point of their officers’ swords. It was our ‘women and children first’, you stay where you are.
One wonders how the women and children of the Xhosa people fared. Probably not a lot better than the women and children working in English factories at the time.
It is true that women and children faired well as the Titanic sank. 73% of women and only 21% of men survived. The overall survival rate was 32%. But there was also a class dimension: 62% of first class passengers survived; 42% of second; and only 25% of third class passengers (mostly British and Scandinavian emigrants) survived. It would be interesting to know the percentage of men and women in each of these categories who survived. There was a class dimension to ‘order’ too. It was the nautical aristocrats who were armed with pistols and it was those in ‘steerage’ who were shot as examples.
There was one other group that was armed—with the tools of their trade—the stokers. What stokers ‘stoked’ was the boilers, deep in the bowels of the ship. You’d think that they wouldn’t fair too well. But that’s not so.
The stokers rushed up from below and tried to beat a path through the steerage men and women and through the sailors and officers, to get into the boats. They had their iron bars and shovels, and they struck down all who stood in their way. Source
No ‘women and children first’ for them. From among the photographs of the survivors, I counted at least 8 stokers.
Not least of the story’s charms is no one did wrong, no one was to blame. It was just an unlucky accident. An iceberg did it. But even this may not be true. According to Louise Patten, granddaughter of Charles Lightoller, Second Officer on board the Titanic, the order to steer the ship away from the iceberg was misunderstood.
She said that at the time, different steering systems were used for steam ships and sailing ships and her grandfather maintained this caused confusion when an order was given to turn the ship to starboard.
Mrs Patten said: “Crucially, the two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another. So a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.
“The steersman panicked and the real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg, which has never come to light before, is because he turned the wheel the wrong way.” Source
Just to be clear, according to this account, the steersman turned the Titanic towards the iceberg, not away from it.
It sounds plausible. Any sailor who has moved from a dinghy to a sailboat knows it is an easy mistake to make. The steersman survived.
In an analysis of 18 maritime databases, Elinder and Erixson found that:
1. Crew members have the highest survival rates, followed by captains and male passengers; the lowest survival rates are for women and children.
2. Women fare worse, not better, in shipwrecks involving British ships.
‘We note that the Women and Children First (WCF) order is given more often on board British ships. However, even when controlling for if the WCF order is given, we find a larger survival disadvantage for women on British dominated ships’.
3. Only 7 of the 16 captains (in the study) went down with their ships.
4. It is the policy of the captain, rather than the moral sentiments of men, that determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks.
5. The WCF order was given in only 5 cases.
The sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many ways and … what happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behaviour in disasters.
It is these misconceptions we are celebrating and remembering.
Another name for this ‘celebrating and remembering’ is nostalgia. ‘Nostaligia’ comes from ‘nostos’ meaning ‘return home’ and ‘algia’ meaning ‘longing’.
We’re nostalgic for something real. We long for a sense of belonging, for a home in a quickly moving society of atomized post humans. Those huddled in steerage wanted to belong too, for a home. Most of them found it in death, at the bottom of the ocean. At least the experience was real.
Now the ‘real’ is gone. We live simulated lives, with simulated emotions. There is no home to go back to. Is it a coincidence that the man who directed the simulation of the disaster (James Camerion) is so involved in exploring and preserving its wreck? We want to preserve the original, the hard copy, as if to tether ourselves (anchor?) to the real.
Expect adventure vacations to the wreck, facilitated by the emotional labour of tour guides; experience a real disaster without any personal risk.
Today’s contrived scandal about the Titanic was the apparent inability of some (young) people to distinguish between the real disaster and the movie of the same. Those who ridicule such innocents miss the point: simulation is reality now.
For a sense of this, explore:
Titanic Real Time: https://twitter.com/#!/TitanicRealTime
Gravity is still real though. Ships can still sink. People cannot breathe water. We’re all going to die—some sooner, some later.
The overriding attraction of Twitter is its brevity. You’ve got no more than 140 characters in which to say something.
Imagine, you’re on board the Titanic, only this time you’ve got an electronic device in your hand. You’ve got time for only one last Tweet.
What’s it going to be? What are you going to say?
Elinder, Mikael and Oscar Erixson. Every Man For Himself: Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters. 2012