Titanic: Facts and Perceptions
When the Titanic sank, approximately 1,509 of its 2214 passengers perished. A majority of them died because the ship carried lifeboats for only half the people on board. By all accounts, most died either by drowning or of hypothermia, since the temperature of the water was -2° C (28° F), in which death occurs in about fifteen minutes. The survival rate for men was 19%, for women 72%, and for children, 50%. Most survivors were first class passengers, followed by second class, and finally third class. Six of the seven children in first class survived, and all of the children in second class survived, but only about 31 percent were saved in third class. (There is no definitive number for the people aboard the Titanic, nor for those who survived. These figures are taken from Henderson.)
What can we conclude from these statistics? Evidently the legendary rule of the sea—women and children first—prevailed in most cases. But why? Was it because people are naturally altruistic, even in time of disaster? Perhaps. But there was nothing altruistic about the White Star Line’s decision to provide lifeboats for only half its vessel’s passengers, or to declare in a promotional flyer for the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, that “as far as it is possible to do, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable,” when it certainly knew otherwise (Behe 2). Nor was there anything altruistic about allowing first class passengers relatively easy access to the lifeboats, while the majority of the passengers were mostly left to find their own way alone through the maze of passages that separated steerage from the boat deck (Lord 56).
If we turn to reports of individual behavior, we find stories of heroism and cowardice, of chivalry and stoicism, of meanness and stupidity. Walter Lord’s 1955 bestseller, A Night To Remember, provides a full range of such stories based on interviews with over sixty of the survivors. We read of a wave of men rushing one of the lifeboats, only to be beaten back by a seaman with a tiller. The seaman was abetted by Fifth Officer Lowe, who “pulled his gun and shouted, ‘If anyone else tries that, this is what he’ll get!’ He fired three times along the side of the ship as the boat dropped down to the sea.” We read of J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, becoming a chameleon of sorts to survive: at first panicked and imperious, then a willing member of the crew, and finally, a coward claiming a seat in one of the lifeboats. We read of Isidor Strauss, the co-owner of Macy’s Department Store, begging his wife Ida to “get into a lifeboat and be saved,” and of Ida refusing to be separated from her husband (Lord 74-75). We read of Captain Smith bravely remaining on the bridge as the ship goes down, and later holding a child in the water (Lord 82). And lastly, we read of the lifeboats, one, piloted by Lowe, attempting to rescue those in the water, but most others unwilling to make the attempt. “In boat after boat,” writes Lord, the story was the same: a timid suggestion, a stronger refusal, nothing done. Of 1,600 people who went down the Titanic, only 13 were picked up by the 18 boats that hovered nearby” (Lord 103. Lord’s figures are not entirely reliable, but the point he makes is not open to question.)
But even Lord suggests that we should take at least some of these stories with a grain of salt. Eyewitness accounts are often unreliable, and mostly self-serving. Indeed, Lord found that “about 70 percent more men and 45 percent fewer women went in the [life]boats than even the most conservative survivors estimated. Plus the fact that the boats pulled away with 25 percent fewer people than estimated” (Lord 151). Perhaps the Titanic disaster merely confirms that human behavior is nothing if not various, and that we have an overwhelming desire to see what we want to see in ourselves and in others when we are disposed to look. As Steven Biel points out in Down With the Old Canoe, “Americans understood the disaster according to concerns they already felt, hopes they already harbored, beliefs and ideas they already held and were struggling to preserve” (Biel 7). For example, the often-repeated stories involving first-cabin heroism traded on a set of chivalric fantasies that “allowed men to reconcile ‘feminine’ morality—kindness, tenderness, self-forgetfulness—with ‘masculine’ aggressiveness—bravery, physical strength, agency. The role of ruler and protector carried with it the duty of manly self-sacrifice.” Men who transgressed those categories and refused such obligations were branded in the popular press as perverts and cowards. When a steerage passenger named Daniel Buckley was believed to have claimed a seat in a lifeboat by dressing as a woman, he was said to have “set for men a new standard by which to measure infamy and shame’” (qtd. in Biel 27). Similarly, panic among the passengers was explained in terms of class, ethnic, and racial characteristics. Biel quotes an editorial from the Atlanta Constitution claiming that the disaster proved the supremacy of the white race and justified its imperialist policies: “’The Anglo-Saxon may yet boast that that his sons are fit to rule the earth so long as men choose death with the courage they must have displayed when the great liner crashed into the mountains of ice, and the aftermath brought its final test” (qtd. in Biel 48).