Reporter 418, 6 April 1998

Triumph from tragedy - sinking the Titanic myths

Just days after the film Titanic swept all before it at the Oscars, Communication Arts lecturer Dr Richard Howells crossed the Atlantic to tell the Americans they had got it all wrong.

But victorious film director James Cameron was by no means the first to mythologise the 1912 sinking of the supposedly ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Dr Howells told a British Studies conference in California that the process of making a triumph out of tragedy began just days after the ship sank on its maiden voyage.

Dr Howells has studied how the disaster was represented in British popular culture. He examined the numerous commemorative postcards, music hall songs, memorials, hastily published booklets, and other outlets which ensured the Titanic’s place within the public consciousness.

“I was very surprised by what I found,” he admits.

These popular representations of the Titanic ignored the fact that it had been a completely avoidable disaster.

As Dr Howells points out, the ship’s sea trials had been inadequate, many of the crew only joined the ship in the last few hours before the voyage, and there were lifeboats for only a third of the passengers. On top of that, five ice warnings were ignored, the binoculars were missing from the ‘crow’s nest’, and haphazard organisation resulted in many lifeboats sailing half empty.

Then there was the uncomfortable fact that a passenger’s chances of survival were directly related to his or her social class. Of those in first class, some 62 per cent survived, compared with 41 per cent in second class and just 25 per cent in steerage. In total, of 2,227 people on board, just 705 lived to tell the tale.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if the Titanic had sunk today?” asks Dr Howells. “Can you imagine the outcry, the investigation, the blame and the litigation on a positively cosmic scale? In the British popular culture of 1912-1914, however, there is hardly a breath of this. It dwells not on culpability for a completely avoidable disaster, but rather celebrates the glory and heroism of everyone concerned.”

The theme of self-sacrifice dominated the popular celebration of the event. Phrases such as “women and children first” and “Be British” entered the vocabulary of the day, and images of manliness and heroism heavily outweighed those of tragedy.

A souvenir booklet called simply Be British reported the alleged words of Captain Smith as he went down with his ship: “‘Be British’ was what we would have expected and wanted him to say. He belonged to the race of the old British sea-dogs. he believed with all his heart and soul in the British Empire.”

A 78rpm record of the same title recorded how the “men behaved like men should do” in assisting women and children to take to the lifeboats. The inadequate number of lifeboats was not celebrated in song.

Dr Howells’ paper on the Titanic, presented to the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies at Long Beach, concluded that British popular culture succeeded in making a triumph out of a tragedy.

“Within days of the sinking,” he told delegates, “a myth had been made that would be handed down from generation to generation. I think we would ‘be British’ very differently now.”

* Richard Howells’ book The Myth Of The Titanic is due to be published next year.

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