Titanic - 1912 - 2012: A Double Tragedy

My interest with the Titanic began in 1977 when I remember seeing a documentary on the idiot box commemorating the 65th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.  From there a mild curiosity has blown out into almost obsession as I’ve read, heard and viewed as much as I possibly can about the disaster.  When people ask why, I tell them they either get it or they don’t – but there are several reasons really.  The disaster changed the laws of the ocean, in the way ships respond to distress calls.  The disaster changed how ocean travel was undertaken and viewed, no longer was the emphasis on speed, size or luxury, the focus became more about safety as lifeboats with room for every person aboard being regulation as opposed to optional.  The legal and ethical arguments that raged at the time, and still do rage, the endless debate over who did what, who said what, who knew what and who profited from the sinking is nothing short of fascinating.  The conspiracies that abound – was it really the Titanic that sank, or was it her sister ship, the Olympic?  The division of class, as the rumours began to spread about the first class passengers being taken off the ship first, leaving third class passengers to supposedly die a horrid death, locked behind steel doors as their escape routes were closed off by general order.  The heroics of those left behind always amazes me – I know that I’d not be able to stand there, on a sinking ship, and wait for the inevitable.  My survival instincts would kick in and I’d be doing everything I could to save myself, but not at the expense of a child.  Indeed there’s much myth, legend and fact surrounding the brief life of the Titanic to be captivated with.

One thing I’m not captivated with is the second disaster that has taken the ship since the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard in 1985, and that disaster is a simple, and easily avoided one, grave robbing.  I can understand, appreciate and fully agree with, exploration of the wreck and the documentation and recording of artefacts as it only helps to provide a better understanding of what happened 100 years ago.  However that didn’t happen as most people who dived upon the wreck have only been too eager to bring up as much as they possibly can, but also to deface the wreck by physically removing parts of the ship, as opposed to merely bringing up loose items.  This includes parts of the boat such as the lookout nest, where the iceberg was spotted, which was torn from the mast at some point in the 1990s, but the damage doesn’t stop there.

When the boat went down, the forces of nature, being the sheer size of the ship, the fact that it split in two, the speed upon which it plunged to the bottom and the water pressure ensured a large debris field was scattered.  By all accounts this field was spread over two and a half kilometres and there it all remained, until salvage crews, sensing a fast dollar, started to bring it all up.  Ballard was keen to see the ship remain undisturbed, but thanks to one of his French colleagues, the exact co-ordinates were soon an open secret, with the result being a company, titled RMS Titanic Inc, claiming ownership rights to the wreck and its artefacts.  The company didn’t waste time and began to bring up as much as it could, both from the debris field and also from the actual ship, including a portion of the ships hull.  If, like me, you’ve followed this at length, you’d probably remember a much heralded live show, hosted by noted historian Telly ‘Kojak’ Savalas, which showed off items brought up from the boat, including a safe that was opened, live on TV, to reveal…nothing, thus providing James Cameron with one of the true funny moments for his movie.  This set-back hasn’t daunted anyone, with the RMS Titanic Inc cashing in on their ‘expeditions’ by creating no less than eight travelling side-shows, all with genuine Titanic exhibits, which travel the world and bring in lots of cash, of which none goes to the families of those who perished on the boat.  Part of the exhibits is the grave robbing aspect – personal items.  Clothing worn by people, who went down with the ship, personal items that should either have been left where they fell, or given back to descendants, are on display. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people – when someone profits from displaying items of the recently dead, then that’s just grave robbing.

Now, before you accuse me of hyperbole, allow me to put this into perspective.  In 1912, the same year the Titanic sank, Bram Stoker, the man who wrote Dracula passed away.  A year before, in 1911, Joseph Pulitzer and the author Howard Pyle, 1910 accounted for Thomas Crapper (the man who invented the flush toilet), composer Albert Fuchs, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Artie Shaw, Edward VII, Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy.  1909 saw Geronimo, Harthog and King Leopold II shuffle off the mortal coil.  Pat Garrett (who hunted down Billy The Kid), President Grover Cleveland and Russian composer Nikolai A Rimski-Korssakov all popped their clogs in 1908 – you get where I’m coming from here.  All of those people, and more, have been dead for at least the same length of time as those on the Titanic, all are famous, public figures and, with the exception of those who were famous before the ship sank, such as John Jacob Astor and Isador Strauss, and those who have gained fame as a result of the boat sinking, such as Captain E.J. Smith and the ships designer Thomas Andrews, are all better known than the hundreds who perished in the Atlantic on April 15, 1912.  Bearing that in mind, what do you think would happen if I started to dig up those graves, or the graves of Wallace Hartley and other Titanic victims who are buried in Newfoundland and other places? 

You can rest assured that I’d be arrested and locked up for defiling the dead, and rightly so.  But if I wanted to start a travelling exhibition showcasing the 1906 earthquake and resulting fire of San Francisco, and started to dig up artefacts from the graves of those who died as a direct result, the outcry would be enormous, not to mention the dubious legalities that would ensure.  So why can the RMS Titanic Inc travel the globe showing off personal items of the deceased from the ship?  Because of a legal loophole.

Supposedly the actual iceberg that sank the ship
I despise legal loopholes like this one.  The ship lies in international waters, and the main failing of Robert Ballard was that he didn’t claim the rights to the wreck.  Had he done that then the ship would have been protected, in his naivety he expressed a desire for the wreck to be left undisturbed.  So much for that wish.  As Ballard passed on his claim, it allowed the RMS Titanic to swoop in and begin the profiteering.  Their argument would be public interest and the cost of bringing this material to light, my counter argument would be as above – there’s just as much public interest in any major disaster, so let’s start digging deep and bringing it all to light, place it on display and damn anyone who complains, or lays a claim.  As it stands, if you’re a descendant of anyone on the Titanic, and saw an item that belonged to your ancestor, you have no claim on it – it’s not yours, it belongs to a company.  They profit, you never will.  As the wreck is now 100 years old it falls under the UNESCO's Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which means that it can no longer be looted, nor can items be sold or dispersed.  That protection comes a bit too late, as anything of great value that could be recovered, has been recovered.  There is an aspect to this that states that human remains must be treated with dignity, as we know there have been no human remains found at the wreck, due to time, but the remains of the humans, their clothing and personal items have been found, and we’ll never know to what level of dignity that they’ve been afforded, if any at all. 

Titanic body recovery
Added to this is the uncertainty of where the personal artefacts have been recovered from.  Recovery ships were dispatched from Newfoundland shortly after the disaster with the sole aim of finding bodies and bringing them back.  Some bodies were too damaged to bring back though, due to injuries that had occurred during the sinking.  Those bodies that were damaged beyond reasonable recognition, and remember, this was 1912, so identification of a body was pretty much limited to photo or visual recognition, fingerprints were out of the question and DNA was totally out of the question.  With that in mind the rescue personnel had to make an instant decision, to either bring the bodies back or not.  Those bodies that could be recognised, either via recognition (ie: faces not damaged) or by items of clothing, were put on ice to be returned.  Those bodies that didn’t stand a reasonable chance of recognition were bagged up and given a proper burial at sea.  Thus it stands to reason that a lot of those personal effects that people now see in displays were taken from bodies that were buried at sea, and afforded proper rites by the relevant priest.  To defile a burial at sea is akin to digging up a grave and cracking the coffin open.  I fail to see where the dignity is in that.  Certainly the hulking wreck of Titanic itself hasn’t been treated with much dignity, and the grave site, such as it is, has been looted beyond comprehension, all to satisfy casual curiosity of the general public.

And that is the second tragedy of the Titanic.  
An original index card detailing a body recovered from the Titanic.  There's no record to know if the body was brought back or buried at sea, but compare that description with the shoes above.


Al said…
Didn't read all of this, but I will. I don't have an obsessive interest in the Titanic tragedy, but I do have a passing interest.
And in the sinking of the Lusitania a few years later. Something about the inevitability of fate in determining the life or death of the passengers on those two ships makes it a fascinating subject. Thanks, Daniel.
Daniel Best said…
Thanks guys. I was a little apprehensive about writing my own view on the Titanic, mainly because so many people want those human artefacts on display.

But I've always felt a little disturbed by the fascination with the human artefacts that have been brought up and placed on display. What bothered me more was that, if you saw something on display that belonged to a family member of yours, you'd have no right to claim it. As a lot of people were relocating they took everything they owned with them, thus it might be the only item you'd ever be likely to own. Only it's now owned by a company, who are busily making money from it, and you get zero.

I have no idea why people find that to be fair, but if this causes even one person to think about it and perhaps question it, then I've done my job.
B Smith said…
How do you feel about the diggings at Pompeii, or indeed any archeological dig?
Daniel Best said…
Good question. I went and saw the Tutankhamen exhibition recently and found myself with the same kind of feelings - this was a grave that was emptied and I felt very odd looking at it. So, in that sense, yes, I do feel the same, when it comes to remains and personal items.

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