Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An error of Titanic proportions?

Some interesting new evidence has recently surfaced, if you'll pardon the term, about the sinking of RMS Titanic; possibly the most famous shipping disaster of all time. The traditional story has always been that, when the iceberg was spotted, there was insufficient time to effect a course change and that the collision was unavoidable. However, that may not be the whole truth.

Lady Louise Patton, novelist and granddaughter of the Titanic's second officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (played memorably by Kenneth More in the film A night to remember) has recently revealed a long-held family secret; that the accident may have been due to simple pilot error. Lightoller had nothing to gain by concocting this version of events; he was an honest God-fearing Christian Scientist and the fact that he only ever confided in his wife seems to confirm its veracity.

I will quote here from an excellent article by Ian Jack, published in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday 25th September:

'Although [Lightholler's story] hinges on a simple mistake, the maritime mechanics behind the mistake can be hard to grasp without visual aids, such as a model yacht with a moveable tiller-rudder combination. I sat with one last night. You push the tiller right, the rudder swings left, and if the boat were in a pond it would obey the rudder and veer left too. Sailing ships steered on this principle. The command "hard a-starboard" meant the wheel had to be turned to the left and not, as the instruction would suggest, to the right. Steamships, on the other hand, steered like cars. You moved the wheel to the right and the ship took the same direction.

Not all steamships followed these rules, however. On the north Atlantic, liners persisted with "tiller rules", meaning that the helmsman moved the wheel in the opposite direction to the command. The practice was abolished in 1928, but in 1912 it was thought to be safer because so many seamen (Lightoller, for instance) had trained in sail.

By Lightoller's account, First Officer Murdoch spotted the iceberg when it was two miles away – it was an exceptionally clear night, after all – and surprised his helmsman with a barked order to change course. Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, a steam man, momentarily forget the counter-intuitive nature of tiller rules and sent the ship towards the berg. By the time the course was corrected, valuable minutes had been lost and the later cry, "Iceberg right ahead", came as no surprise to those on the bridge. Lightoller, resting in his cabin, wasn't among them but in the two hours and 40 minutes it took the ship to sink he learned what had happened from his three senior officers, including Murdoch.

Neither they nor the young sixth officer, James Moody, who was also on the bridge at the time, survived. The living witnesses were confined to the wretched Hitchins and the two lookouts. To save whatever was left of the White Star Line's reputation, and to spare it from bankruptcy, a story was confected as the survivors, including the line's desperate chairman, Bruce Ismay, sailed to New York on board the Carpathia. The iceberg hadn't been seen because the night was too calm; no white waves broke around its base. Lightoller, a loyal company man, went along with this foreshortened version of history, in which the iceberg loomed out of the night with only 37 seconds' warning.' (Here's the link if you want to read the whole article).

Interesting, eh? But let's not leave it there ... the Titanic is surrounded by a wealth of myth and fable. For a start, there's the story of unlucky Dannie Buckley from Ballydesmond, County Cork. Like many young Irishmen, Buckley saw the chance of a new life in America and therefore travelled steerage class on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. He was one of the pitifully few survivors who made it to the United States alive and physically unhurt although what his mental state was like is not recorded. He then joined the US Army … and was killed on the very last day of World War I aged just 28.

There is also an urban myth surrounding the mummy of the priestess Amen Ra. It was said that she could put a curse upon anyone who looked at her on display in the British Museum. Some museum visitors were so concerned about this that they would often leave roses and other offerings on the sarcophagus to placate her. Sadly, it’s all rather pointless as the mummy of Amen Ra isn’t there. It’s just the box.

According to the legend, the so-called ‘unlucky mummy’ went down with the ship on the Titanic. And quite a number of websites cite this as fact, along with a substantial list of the victims of the terrible curse. Sadly, like all the best stories, it’s untrue.

The story quotes the following ‘facts’:

  • The mummy was bought in the late 1890s by four rich young Englishmen. One of the men, for no apparent reason, walked out into the desert and was never seen again. The second was accidentally shot by a servant and had to have his arm amputated. The third man was bankrupted. And the fourth guy suffered a severe illness, lost his job and was reduced to selling matches in the street.

  • Upon reaching the UK, it was bought by a London businessman. Three of his family were injured in a road accident and his house burned down, so he donated it to the British Museum. As the coffin was being unloaded, the truck jumped into reverse and trapped a passer-by. Then as the casket was being lifted upstairs by two workmen, one fell and broke his leg. The other died unaccountably two days later.

  • Once the coffin was installed, staffed claimed to hear frantic hammering and sobbing from the coffin. Other exhibits in the room were also often hurled about at night. One watchman died on duty. One cleaner’s child apparently died of measles after the cleaner dusted the coffin. After that, cleaners refused to go near the coffin. A photo-journalist took a picture of the mummy case and when he developed it, the painting on the coffin was of a horrifying, human face. The photographer was said to have gone home then, locked his bedroom door and shot himself.

  • Soon afterwards, the museum sold the mummy to a private collector. After continual misfortune (and deaths), the owner banished it to the attic.

  • A well-known authority on the occult, Madame Helena Blavatsky, visited the museum. Upon entry, she was seized with a shivering fit and searched the house for the source of an evil influence of incredible intensity; She finally came to the attic and found the mummy case. She was asked to exorcise the evil spirit but said that she could not as evil remains evil forever.

  • Eventually, an American archaeologist bought the mummy and arranged for its removal to New York. In Apr 1912, the new owner escorted its treasure aboard a sparkling, new White Star liner about to make its maiden voyage to New York …

It's a nice story. But it's glaringly inconsistent with the facts. As reported on the Snopes Urban Myth site:

  • The famous Madame Blavatsky died in 1891 ... before Amen Ra was even found.
  • No archaeological materials that could possibly be a mummy were listed on the cargo manifest of the Titanic. And, anyway, we’ve found the Titanic now. And there’s no mummy there.
  • All of the various deaths and disasters are either (a) true but unrelated, (b) coincidental, or (c) complete bollocks.
  • And most damning of all ... the story was invented by writer William Stead – a mystic – and Douglas Murray – an Egyptologist. Stead, not the mummy, went down with the Titanic.

And as for the story that the ship's hull number spelled out the phrase 'No Pope' in reverse ... it's a load of arse gravy. The myth states that spooked Catholic shipwrights warned that the ship was doomed. However, the Titanic never bore any such number (its official Board of Trade designation was 131,428 and her yard number was 401) and the workers at Harland and Wolff's shipyard were predominantly Protestant.

Lastly, I'll leave you with the curious coincidence of the HMS Titan. Here’s the story:

'In 1898, Morgan Robertson had his book The Wreck of the Titan published. The story revolves around the maiden voyage of a massive 46,000 ton ocean liner called The Titan. The ship was believed to be unsinkable by its designer and builders. Then, on the voyage from England to New York in April, it collides with an iceberg and sinks. Many passengers are killed as there are too few lifeboats. Sound familiar? There do seem to be some extraordinary coincidences with the story of the Titanic. On April the 15th 1912, the supposedly unsinkable 45,000 ton liner hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage from England to New York and sank. Half the passengers were drowned because there weren’t enough lifeboats. And, spookily (although I’d love to know the source for this), there was a copy of The Wreck of the Titan in the ship’s library.'

It would be so easy to read some kind of eerie premonition into this. And many, many books, websites and TV shows do just that. Following the release of The Da Vinci Code movie, every TV channel stuffed their schedules with programmes about the Holy Grail, The Knights Templar, Nostradamus and the Priory of Sion. There were newspaper articles and magazine articles and I was soon utterly fed up with it all. Most of the programmes had nothing new to say and simply recycled old ideas, many of which have since been shown to be complete rubbish. Among them was the 'mysterious’ Titan coincidence. But is it really that much of a coincidence?

Let me ask you; if you were setting out to write a thriller about a liner sinking, what liner would you choose? The biggest of course. Brand new. A cutting edge ocean liner with all the latest features. Maybe even unsinkable. And she'd have to be on her maiden voyage too, surely? On a maiden voyage, you can pack the ship with celebs and millionaires and even the designer too. Otherwise, where's the unexpected surprise? Where's the drama? There’d be no story if you wrote it about an average ocean liner of average size on an average voyage would there?

So, you have a huge ship – the biggest in the world. What would you call it? Majestic? Gigantic? There aren’t that many words for enormous that sound right as the name of a ship, are there? SS Humungous?

Now, we have a huge ship on its maiden voyage. How could we sink it? Our options are surprisingly limited. This was the turn of the century – before suicide bombers and Bermuda Triangle-type myths had started growing - so what would have been big and powerful enough to sink a liner? A tidal wave maybe? An explosion of some kind? Or what about an iceberg? Like the ones that were common hazards in the Atlantic at that time. Like the ones that sank the SS Pacific and the SS Persia on its maiden voyage in 1856.

It’s really not that much of a coincidence is it really? Even if Robertson had changed some of the details - if he’d called the ship The Gigantic instead – people would still say that the stories are eerily close. They’d just be saying ‘Ooh! Freaky! Gigantic means the same thing as Titanic!’ And it makes me ask the question … how many more features could we change and people would still think of it as a spooky coincidence? For example, what if the ‘Gigantic’ was 56,000 tons instead of 46,000? Or what if it sank in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic? Or was on its 13th voyage?

We can be very simplistic about weighting coincidence. It seems to be the case that if a coincidence seems twice as improbable, people assume that it’s twice as unlikely to happen. Of course, the very random nature of reality means that’s not true at all. Disaster can strike from any direction at any time.

All it might take is one guy steering the ship the wrong way.

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