Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Sinking of RMS Titanic

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Just before midnight RMS Titanic of the White Star Line under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith - while on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City (via Cherbourg, France, and Cobh, Ireland) - struck an iceberg on a calm, moonlit night in the North Atlantic. She sank just after 2 AM on this day in 1912, having broken in two.

Each country appointed its own commission to look into the disaster, and there was almost as much trans-Atlantic sniping as there was trans-Atlantic shipping for many years to come as a result. The US claimed the death toll was 1,517, while the UK reported the official death toll as 1,490; either way you look at it, there had been 2,229 passengers and crew on board, making for only 700 or so survivors. Current laws then required the ship to carry only 16 lifeboats for a maximum of 3,547 passengers; Titanic carried 20, although only 18 were launched in the disaster, and most of them weren't full.

While the majority of the casualties were in steerage, many prominent people also died on that night, including the ship's builder Thomas Andrews, British journalist William Thomas Stead, the owner of Macy's department store Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, author Jacques Futrelle, as well as millionaire socialites Benjamin Guggenheim and John Jacob Astor IV. Among the survivors were Margaret 'The Unsinkable Molly' Brown, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his wife couturiere Lady Lucille Duff-Gordon, silent movie actress Dorothy Gibson, and the White Star Line's managing director J. Bruce Ismay.

The unprecedented disaster brought about changes not only to maritime law, but also public attitudes toward corporate and media hyperbole. The ship had been declared 'unsinkable', though not by the White Star Line itself; in addition to life boats, subsequent seagoing vessels were also equipped with life vests, and the disaster brought about the formation of the International Ice Patrol.

The wreck was discovered in 1985 by Robert Ballard, and it has since been extensively photographed by him. More than 6,000 relics from the Titanic have also been brought to the surface, although without his collusion; Ballard has repeatedly likened such activity as tantamount to grave robbery. In fact, the site of the wreck - 2 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland - has been so jeopardized by visitors and freeloaders alike that it may disappear altogether within the next 50 years.

The story of the Titanic disaster has been a popular subject for pop culture almost since it happened; Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember is most notable, but Morgan Robertson's 1898 novella Futility, was written a chilling 14 years before RMS Titanic's ill-fated voyage, and bears many eerie similarities to it. Lord's book was adapted into a movie, predictably called A Night to Remember (1958); the American version, entitled simply Titanic (1953) starred Barbara Stanwyck. And then there was the awesome spectacle and the shitty script of James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, which chillingly depicted the downside of technology while simultaneously offering Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet canoodling across class lines.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting for the release of a "BC Ferries" (sinking, crashing, burning,...) movie and also hoping that the uber-canadian diva will perfume such enterprise with her vocal range.

My heart will go on.

Or not.