A consortium of four different interests has made a joint bid to bring some 5,500 individual items salvaged from the wreck and wreck site of RMS Titanic back to the liner’s birthplace in Belfast.
Titanic Belfast, together with the Titanic Foundation and National Maritime Museum, and also National Museums Northern Ireland, have collectively tendered a bid of some £14.5 million in an attempt to bring the entire collection back to Northern Ireland.
The bid has the backing of both Robert Ballard, the man who originally found the wreck of the Titanic back in 1985, and James Cameron, whose 1997 film Titanic did so much to revive interest in the lost liner. Cameron himself made no less than thirty-three dives to the wreck of the Titanic over a ten year period, and says that he feels a ‘deep responsibility’ towards preserving and curating the artefacts brought up from the wreck as a single, unified, collection.
The vast array of relics was salvaged from the sea bed between 1987 and 2004 by RMS Titanic Inc, the company that first secured salvage rights to the wreck itself, and the immediate area surrounding it. In all, some seven expeditions scooped up a massive range of items, from shoes and unopened champagne bottles, to a large section of the liner’s actual hull plating.
The return of the Titanic relics became possible because the company currently in possession of them- Premier Exhibitions- was obliged to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA back in June of 2016.
All of the concerned parties emphasise the importance of keeping the entire collection together as a single, unified entity, rather than allowing it to be sold off piecemeal to private collectors. And, with renowned heavyweights like Bob Ballard and James Cameron leading the charge, hopes are high that the enduring legacy of Titanic will be properly enshrined in the place of her birth.
None of this precludes the possible loan of certain parts of the collection to ports that have a real, living collection to the lost liner. Southampton, Liverpool, Cherbourg and Cobh come first to mind. And, while most would almost certainly go to Belfast’s award winning Titanic museum, there’s arguably a case for displaying some of them aboard the Nomadic, the preserved, Belfast based tender that served both the Olympic and the Titanic during her one and only call into France.
There’s an unassailable case for bringing this vast, potentially priceless collection back to Belfast. I, for one, back it one hundred per cent.
The image alone is powerful enough to generate appalled fascination, even after more than a century. The huge ocean liner, ablaze with light from bow to stern, racing across the calm, starlit ocean towards her chilling rendezvous near midnight. Her quartet of black and buff smokestacks standing like the ramparts of some castle, blotting out the very stars themselves in places. The strains of The Blue Danube floating out across the ocean, punctuated by the random popping of champagne corks and sudden, swelling bursts of laughter from on board.
These last, living images of RMS Titanic are only part of the reason that her story refuses to sink. She sails on in our minds’ eye to this day; a sort of 21st century Flying Dutchman, with interiors by Cesar Ritz. Fuelled by a mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, she charges heedlessly onward, sailing in search of an absolution that she can never, ever be gifted. Even now, humanity is still too deeply in her thrall to ever allow her to be truly at peace.
Her story is simply too fantastic and incredulous to take fully on board. The combined talents of Stephen King, Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry and Hans Christian Andersen could never have concocted a fable so stark and unbelievable as the actual truth of what happened aboard the Titanic on that freezing April night in mid-Atlantic. It remains without equal in it’s scale; a ghastly black comedy played out to an audience of cold, pitiless stars.
It almost seems as if there are two ships called Titanic. There is the real ship, the one that ripped her hull open on a capsized iceberg, and then succumbed to a fatal ingress of water, and then there is the Titanic of myth and legend; the ‘Floating Ritz’ that sails on to this day. Sometimes it is hard to know just where one ends, and the other truly begins.
Some of the myths are actually pretty easy to debunk. Far from being some unique, luxurious freak ship, Titanic was actually the second of a trio that were intended to be world beaters. Her almost identical sister ship- the Olympic- had already been in service for a full ten months. And, just thirteen months after her loss, Germany’s Hamburg America Line introduced the even larger Imperator. Had she survived her maiden voyage, Titanic would thus have been the world’s largest ship for little over a year.
No, it was not so much the ship herself alone that created the myth, though she was certainly spectacular enough. In first class at least, the Titanic was staffed- and ran- like the Ritz. The opulence was as full blown as could be; a true Hollywood movie set on the ocean, created years before the ‘talkies’ were even invented.
That luxurious glut, when coupled to her platinum chip, first class passenger list, accounts for a huge part of her legendary lore. Many of those first class passengers were household names the world over. Bankers and railroad owners. Famous socialites, writers and politicians. World renowned sports stars and sirens of the silent screen. And many of them would go to the bottom with the ship; unwitting bit part players in the most glittering and tragic curtain call in maritime history.
Everything about the Titanic was extreme, from her monumental dimensions right down to her mind blowing, spectacular demise. She became a stage upon which heroes were created, and where villains exited stage left to a conga line chorus of boos, hissing and catcalls. Even now, the lines between the two are as finely drawn as those original architect’s blueprints of the ship herself.
Of course, we have the ship’s band, sawing gamely away at dance music as their own, slim chances of survival receded further with each fading note. There’s Phillips and Bride in the wireless room, sending their increasingly desperate distress calls spluttering vainly through the ether. And the engineers, toiling manfully far below on the ominously sloping decks, trying to keep the lights and wireless operating for as long as humanly possible. There are so many more, and too many of them that will remain forever unsung, their selfless deeds cloaked in the darkness of the ship that carried them to their deaths.
And there are the villains, too. Step forward, J. Bruce Ismay, the fastidious control freak who was chairman of the White Star Line. He left the Titanic in one of the very last lifeboats while his officers, together with hundreds of other men, stood back, grim faced and ashen as they fought to keep their self control in the face of the obvious, encroaching catastrophe that would soon overwhelm them.
He’s an easy target, is Bruce Ismay; even more so, when you consider that it was he who vetoed the idea of scores of extra lifeboats for the Titanic in the first place. Whether those same, imaginary boats could even have been safely loaded, and then lowered into the water given the short amount of time the iceberg gifted to the Titanic, is strangely academical.
I mean, compare Ismay’s cartoon villain chicanery to the gallant Captain Edward Smith, who of course went down with his ship. The fact that Captain Smith was no more effective in evacuating Titanic than the hapless Francesco Schettino would be in the same position aboard the Costa Concordia almost exactly a century later- that gets overlooked. Because, of course, that’s the kind of thing that we expect from a hero. We expect them to die manfully, with a dash of tight lipped, stoic serenity where possible. We don’t want inconvenient facts getting in the way of that kind of posthumous, elevated effigy worship. If there are villains, then there must be heroes, too. It’s the same in any Greek tragedy.
And that, in a nutshell, is it. We all want answers to questions that can never be definitively resolved, because those with the ability to provide resolution mostly died with the ship, while those survivors with the ability to at least partly do so- certainly Bruce Ismay and, quite likely, Second Office Lightoller- stayed tight lipped until their eventual deaths.
In the case of Ismay, this reluctance to elaborate is at least understandable, but what was Lightoller’s play in all this? Again, in the absence of definitive information, we can but speculate.
Charles Lightoller was the senior surviving officer of the Titanic. He had been at the heart of everything that night. As well as being in charge of loading and lowering the port side lifeboats, he had also been on watch on the bridge just a few hours earlier, before handing the watch over to First Officer Bill Murdoch.
Lightoller- as well as Murdoch-toiled manfully to get those boats away that night. But Lightoller interpreted Captain Smith’s order of ‘women and children first’ as ‘women and children only’ whereas Murdoch, in charge of the starboard side boats, allowed men into the boats when no more women and children were in sight.
Thus, what happened on one side of the ship did not transpire on the other when the botched evacuation finally swung into full, frantic gear. Of the 705 survivors of the Titanic, a full seventy-five per cent left in boats lowered under Murdoch’s auspices.
Lightoller- as brave a man as ever there was on the ship that night- intended to stay with the White Star Line. He had hopes of eventually becoming a ship’s captain himself and, just prior to the disaster, he almost certainly would have done in the normal scheme of things. But, after the Titanic, nothing would ever be normal again.
At the subsequent inquiries into the disaster held in both Washington and London, Charles Lightoller played a tight batting game; adroitly side stepping questions when needed, and taking full advantage of the questioning attorneys’ relative ignorance of maritime affairs. With his professional future well and truly in the cross hairs, Lightoller fought manfully to absolve the White Star Line of any responsibility for the loss of the Titanic. And the heroic, totally credible Second Officer made for the kind of witness that no-one truly wanted to pressure, let alone contradict. In terms of defending his employers, Charles Lightoller played an absolute blinder.
Lightoller was also resolute in defending the posthumous memory of Captain Smith, whom he had almost idolized as a skipper. But his dedication to both causes served him ill.
For the White Star Line wanted to whitewash the Titanic from memory, and that meant a stealthy, utterly ruthless removal of anyone even remotely connected with her. Bruce Ismay was forced to resign as chairman within eighteen months and Lightoller, fine sailor that he was, never, ever got a command of his own. Indeed, none of her four senior, surviving officers ever did.
But that loss of lives undoubtedly haunted Lightoller. In May of 1940, when the British Army found itself with its back to the sea in the port of Dunkirk, Charles Lightoller was one of hundreds of retired seaman who answered his country’s call in its ‘darkest hour’.
He took is own launch, Sundowner, over the channel to the beach at Dunkirk. Despite frequent bombing and terrifying machine gun attacks, Lightoller and his makeshift crew worked like Trojans to rescue as many of the sodden, demoralised survivors of the BEF as possible. That his actions saved many lives is beyond doubt, as is the fact that he put himself in great peril by so doing.
Of course, Charles Lightoller would have simply dismissed such heroics as ‘doing his duty’ like hundreds of his fellow sailors did.
But you have to at least concede that his actions were probably influenced by a desire to try and make up for those lost in the botched evacuation of the Titanic, some twenty-eight years earlier. Survivor’s guilt is a proven syndrome of maritime catastrophes, and no-one was more acutely aware of all those empty places in the port side Titanic lifeboats than Charles Lightoller.
So. Titanic. Everyone’s a genius and, of course, hindsight is the greatest gift to humanity since radar. We’re all so, so certain that we know just what happened; just as certain as those officers on the bridge of the Titanic themselves were on that cold April night in mid Atlantic, all those years ago.
In the absence of certainty then, we have an enigma. An elegant, deathless enigma that continues to astound, appal and amaze all those who come aboard for the voyage.
It’s an endless voyage across an otherwise empty, mostly ethereal ocean of memories and mystery, aboard a ship of the dead that never truly learned how to sail, or even how to really die, for that matter.
Over the years, the much maligned and romanticised Captain Smith of the Titanic has posthumously come across as something of a casual, urbane chancer; a man whose breezy manner of doing things was the ultimate catalyst for the worst maritime disaster of the time. But was he really so blase about commanding the largest moving object on the face of the planet?
Smith was the senior captain of the White Star Line. As commodore, his £1200 a year salary was more than double that of his nearest rival. And no wonder; the socially adept and much admired Smith was considered the most popular skipper on the Atlantic, both by passengers and crew alike. He seems to have been one of those genuinely unique men that could forge bonds with people from across the world.
He was also famously in thrall to modern, twentieth century technology. In the summer of 1907, when he brought the then brand new, 24,000 ton Adriatic into Southampton to begin her maiden voyage, he said this to the assembled press;
“I cannot conceive of any vital accident that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that….”
But did subsequent events shake that complacent view? There is no record of how Smith reacted to the sinking of another White Star liner- the Republic- just two years after he made that fatuous pronouncement in Southampton. But it cannot have failed to have impacted on him.
It certainly impacted on the management at White Star, but not in a positive way; all of the passengers and crew of the slowly sinking Republic had been safely evacuated to other, nearby ships by the liner’s own lifeboats. And this fact prompted a seismic shift of perspective that would impact the Titanic and her captainjust as fatally as the iceberg itself.
Post Republic, the management chose to look on lifeboats in general as ferry boats that would simply convey passengers from a sinking ship to rescue vessels, summoned by the miraculous new wireless telegraphy. They completely disavowed the notion that those same lifeboats might have to serve as survival craft in themselves for everybody on board. This complacent, delusional self satisfaction was at least partly responsible for the fatal dearth of lifeboats on the Titanic on that fateful night in April, 1912.
As for Smith, his triumphant ascent to command of the stunning new Olympic in June of 1911 seemed inevitable. Now he stood on the bridge of a ship twice as large as the Adriatic; in fact, a ship that was bigger than anything else ever seen. And trouble was not long in following.
As the Olympic attempted to dock at her New York pier for the first time, the surge created by her propellers sucked in a harbour tug like a bobbing cork, before the whirling blades neatly severed it at the stern. All told, it took eighteen tugs a full hour to dock the new ‘marvel’ at the end of an otherwise triumphant maiden crossing. Did this incident send any alarm bells ringing in Smith’s ivory tower?
Just three months later, the Olympic began her stately progress down Southampton Water at the start of another crossing to New York. Proceeding on a parallel course on her starboard side was a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke.
Somehow, the suction from the giant Olympic sucked in the relatively small cruiser, swinging her to starboard and instigating a collision that left the reeling cruiser’s bow resembling so much sodden cardboard.
As for the Olympic, the impact tore an eighty foot hole in her starboard side, right aft. By God’s good grace there were no casualties, but it did mean the abortion of the voyage, and a trip to Belfast for repairs that took a full six weeks.
At the time of the accident, Olympic was under the command of Captain Smith, though the local harbour pilot, George Bowyer, was in charge of handling the ship at the time. All the same this incident was by far the most serious that Smith had ever been involved in over his thirty seven year career. If that did not give him food for thought, it certainly should have done. Or did the fact that the Olympic survived with no loss of life merely deepen his faith in this new, more technologically advanced breed of super liner?
Whatever, the Olympic accident did nothing to dent White Star’s faith in it’s star commodore. April 1912 found him in command of the newer, slightly larger Titanic. Her sixteen day, round trip maiden voyage to New York and back was expected to be Smith’s last hurrah. Once done, he could look forward to a long, honourable retirement.
It all went pear shaped at the start. As the Titanic edged gingerly downstream from the White Star dock, the suction from her propellers pulled the smaller New York away from her pier. Mooring ropes on the old American liner snapped like cotton, and her stern swung out like a battering ram. Only the frantic action of stopping the engines on Titanic, and the perceptive intervention of a local tug, prevented a serious and embarrassing collision between the two ships.
Up on the bridge of the slowly proceeding Titanic, the same duo of Smith and Bowyer must have seen these events unfold with scarce concealed horror. It had almost been the Olympic and the Hawke all over again. And it did seem to have an impact on Smith.
That evening, after taking on more passengers at Cherbourg, Smith took the Titanic through a series of lazy ‘S’ turns. He continued this process all the way through the English Channel, and right up to the entrance to his last port of call at Queenstown, in Southern Ireland on the following lunch time.
What provoked this? It seems that this third mishap with an Olympic class liner in enclosed waters prompted some deep, residual concern in Smith. All three near disasters had occurred within the space of ten months, and all in plain sight of the self same captain.
In all, the speed and handling trials of the Olympic had lasted a scant two days. For the Titanic, they took up a mere eight hours. This, for the two biggest moving objects on the face of the planet; two ships that were expected to navigate both huge oceans and shallow, crowded waterways alike. Perhaps the truth of that had finally come home to Smith and, in making his series of lazy, meandering turns en route to Ireland, he was attempting to get a better sense of the intricacies of steering his awesome new command.
However, that concern seemed only to apply to enclosed waters. Once clear of Ireland and with only the open ocean in front of him, Smith reverted to a cavalier, increasingly upped rate of speed. Ultimately, he was doing exactly what he had done- and got away with- for thirty eight years. But this time, it would go horribly wrong.
The long odds finally caught up with this most highly regarded of captains just four nights later, when the Titanic ran pell mell into a vast, eighty mile region of floating ice. The rest is history. If only Smith’s belated concerns about sailing in harbour waters had extended to a more cautious approach to charging head long through ice filled waters, then things might have played out very differently on that starlit Sunday evening of April 14th, 1912.
Soon after noon on Wednesday, April 10th 1912, the ropes that had shackled the awesome bulk of RMS Titanic to her Southampton berth for a week were shrugged off like so many sodden strands, her trio of giant propellers kicked up the mud and sand of the River Itchen and, under the careful husbandry of six local tugs, the biggest moving object on the face of the planet began to inch gingerly forward to the cheers of a large crowd, gathered on the quayside.
Not everyone was glad to see her go. A contingent of six firemen had signed on to the ship, only to linger ashore over a last pint at The Grapes, a famous local dockside pub. By the time that they showed up to report for duty, the Titanic was already clear of the quay and, with the gangways down, the duty officer on board wasn’t taking their lateness as an excuse. That sudden excess thirst almost certainly saved their lives, but no one knew that then.
Those men watched in sullen silence as 46,000 plus tons of ocean liner, eleven decks high and almost nine hundred feet long, began her stately procession downstream. A wan springtime sun glinted against her quartet of towering, black and buff smokestacks as schools of whooping, shrieking sea birds wheeled and dived in her churning wake. The great siren on board boomed out an exultant, triple chimed salute to her home port, and Titanic began to pick up speed, her escorting tugs resembling so many panting puppies trying to rein back an agitated dinosaur.
Though the departure was intended to be low key, it would be full of high drama. Standing downstream, the wake from the Titanic snapped mooring ropes on the nearby steamer New York like so many cotton strands. The old American liner came loose, her stern looming out into the river until it came within mere feet of the startled, briefly stalled Titanic. As the crowds on shore gasped and strained their necks to see what looked like an imminent collision, one of the tugs got a rope on the New York. She was dragged back to her berth like some reluctant steer. With a sigh of relief almost audible from across the water, the Titanic resumed her stately progress downstream.
On board, the passengers had viewed the incident with a mixture of everything from amusement to outright horror. The ensuing delay while the New York was corralled and returned to the quay had cost the Titanic almost a full hour. Even as his ship skirted the Isle of Wight and dropped down past Ryde, Captain Smith was well aware that he would be late arriving in Cherbourg to pick up his passengers embarking on the continent. It couldn’t be helped; they would simply have to cool their heels until the Titanic made her delayed grand entrance into Cherbourg’s historic harbour.
Those were some very well heeled feet waiting for him, too. Among them was a substantial batch of platinum chip American corporate royalty; Astors, Guggenheims, Strausses, plus a whole supporting cast of railroad owners, property magnates, movie stars and professional sportsmen. There were art collectors, newspaper editors, and the simply rich. It was quite an illustrious roster in all; many of them had been regular passengers on the Olympic since her debut the previous summer. That giant ship- the first of the three great sister ships-had proved to be a marvellous advertisement for the newer, even more opulent Titanic. Bookings for both ships were very healthy right throughout that 1912 season.
This must have been a source of pride to both Captain Smith and White Star Chairman, Bruce Ismay, as the Titanic romped steadily across the sunlit English Channel. The sun shone; smoke from the first three smokestacks (the fourth one was a dummy fitted for aesthetic harmony) trailed back behind the ship towards home. On the aft mast, the White Star Line’s pennant fluttered gamely in the afternoon breeze.
Already, passengers were beginning to explore and exult in the ship that they were travelling on. In first class, afternoon tea was being served in the Verandah Cafe. Passengers in deck chairs took soup and sandwiches on the long promenade decks, bundled up in warm steamer blankets wrapped round them by solicitous stewards. People began making dinner reservations for the extra tariff, a la carte restaurant.
In the indoor squash court, the steady ‘thwack’ of ball against wall assumed a tempo that would be silenced only by the sudden inrush of surging, icy seawater some five nights later. The first passengers plunged boldly into the waters of the indoor pool nearby. Even braver souls surrendered themselves to the ministrations of trained masseuses in the garish menagerie of the Turkish Baths.
Others, more cerebral, lost themselves in a brand new book from the library, or wrote last, hasty letters home that could be sent ashore from Cherbourg and, later, Queenstown in Southern Ireland.
Late that afternoon, the coast of France emerged from the haze; a shimmering, low lying sliver that seemed to have a mirage like quality. But before almost anyone knew it, the Titanic arched a graceful turn, and came looming into the slowly darkening bay of Cherbourg. The anchor rattled down with a deafening crash right forward, and the huge liner swung skittishly at rest.
It was a brief break; that hours’ delay had helped nobody, and Captain Smith was anxious to begin his triumphant procession to the west, and the gala fire boat reception that awaited his glittering new command in New York. Two tenders- the Nomadic and the Traffic- came chugging out of the harbour towards the Titanic, like a pair of nervous courtiers paying homage to a new queen.
Aboard Nomadic were the first class passengers, and the mountain of luggage that always accompanied such people. As the Nomadic bumbled out into the bay, her irate passengers gasped in amazement at their first glimpse of the grand, stately Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as the night took hold. They were ushered with apologies and assurances into the warm womb of the giant liner. A battalion of lift operators and bellboys stood ready at the adjacent trio of elevators to whisk these prized patrons off to their plush quarters, where the beds were freshly made and fresh flowers spilled out across almost every surface.
The second and third class passengers aboard the more plebian Traffic did not receive this kind of effusive, low key welcome. Instead, they and their much less substantial belongings were ushered through the steel shell doors of the hull, and into the belly of the brute. None the less, the same sense of barely disguised haste dominated the proceedings for all those embarking that evening.
As the two empty tenders backed away, the anchor was hauled up from the darkened briny. There was the clang and slamming of the shell doors along the liner’s hull. Once more, the great triple propellers- a full hundred tons of bronze in all- began to thresh up the waters around them.
The tender crews watched in awed silence as the floodlit Titanic swung through a graceful quarter circle, her quartet of great funnels standing like ramparts against the starlit sky. The deep, warm boom of the liner’s whistle echoed across the empty water like peals of slow, rolling thunder. And then, almost before they knew it, she had swept past them and disappeared beyond the horizon.
Disappeared, standing out for a noon arrival in Queenstown the following day, there to embark her last passengers. From there, it would be a stately romp across an agreeable, implausibly calm ocean for five days, before that first, glorious American landfall. Manhattan, and the promise of a freshly minted New York spring.
Several thousand miles to the west, a squat, glacial, salt water assassin waited patiently. Shrouded in darkness and black against the dark, still water, this potential killer- one of the truly deadly ‘great whites’ of the ocean- awaited it’s curtain call……
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