In June of 1912, Joseph Conrad wrote “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic” for the English Review. While best known as a novelist, his comments reflect his years as a ship’s officer in both sail and steam. He finds little to like in the events of that night in April, one hundred years ago today, or the events which followed. A few of Conrad’s thoughts on the media, icebergs, the design of unsinkable ships, biscuit tins and the romanticizing of needless death.
On the Media:
He was offended by what we would all the media circus following the sinking. ”It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that the late _S.S. Titanic_ had a “good press.” ….. the white spaces and the big lettering of the headlines have an incongruously festive air to my eyes, a disagreeable effect of a feverish exploitation of a sensational God-send.”
He is not impressed by the hearings in the US Senate either. Nor does he have much good to say about the English Board of Trade, which he describes as “having made the regulations for 10,000 ton ships, put its dear old bald head under its wing for ten years, took it out only to shelve an important report, and with a dreary murmur, ”Unsinkable,” put it back again, in the hope of not being disturbed for another ten years…”
On Experts and Icebergs:
Conrad was appalled by the expert who originated the claim heard to this day that if the Titanic had hit the iceberg bow on that the ship would not have sunk. Conrad does point out that the only example that the “expert” uses to justify the claim is of a much smaller ship traveling at a slower speed. Beyond that Conrad understands the practical absurdity of the assertion.
He is an expert, of course… With ludicrous earnestness he assured the Commission of his intense belief that had only the _Titanic_ struck end-on she would have come into port all right. And in the whole tone of his insistent statement, there was suggested the regret that the officer in charge (who is dead now, and mercifully outside the comic scope of this inquiry) was so ill-advised as to try to pass clear of the ice. .. You will see yet that in deference to the demands of “progress” the theory of the new seamanship will become established: “Whatever you see in front of you–ram it fair. . .” The new seamanship! Looks simple, doesn’t it? But it will be a very exact art indeed. The proper handling of an unsinkable ship, you see, will demand that she should be made to hit the iceberg very accurately with her nose, because should you perchance scrape the bluff of the bow instead, she may, without ceasing to be as unsinkable as before, find her way to the bottom.
The “watertight” bulkheads of the Titanic stopped well short of the main deck allowing water from one flooded compartment to spill over the top and flood the adjacent compartment.
It is by some sort of calculation involving weights and levels that the technicians responsible for the _Titanic_ persuaded themselves that a ship _not divided_ by water-tight compartments could be “unsinkable.” Because, you know, she was not divided. You and I, and our little boys, when we want to divide, say, a box, take care to procure a piece of wood which will reach from the bottom to the lid. We know that if it does not reach all the way up, the box will not be divided into two compartments. It will be only partly divided. The _Titanic_ was only partly divided. She was just sufficiently divided to drown some poor devils like rats in a trap.
So, once more: continuous bulkheads–a clear way of escape to the deck out of each water-tight compartment. Nothing less. And if specialists, the precious specialists of the sort that builds “unsinkable ships,” tell you that it cannot be done, don’t you believe them. It can be done, and they are quite clever enough to do it too. The objections they will raise, however disguised in the solemn mystery of technical phrases, will not be technical, but commercial.
The Titanic carried over 3,300 people and yet only had lifeboat capacity for 1,178. Nevertheless the ship had more lifeboat capacity than was legally required by the Board of Trade Rules which had not been changed since 1894. Conrad was not impressed.
If you can’t carry or handle so many boats, then don’t cram quite so many people on board. It is as simple as that–this problem of right feeling and right conduct, the real nature of which seems beyond the comprehension of ticket-providers. Don’t sell so many tickets, my virtuous dignitary. After all, men and women (unless considered from a purely commercial point of view) are not exactly the cattle of the Western-ocean trade, that used some twenty years ago to be thrown overboard on an emergency and left to swim round and round before they sank. If you can’t get more boats, then sell less tickets. Don’t drown so many people on the finest, calmest night that was ever known in the North Atlantic–even if you have provided them with a little music to get drowned by. Sell less tickets!That’s the solution of the problem, your Mercantile Highness.
There must be boats enough for the passengers and crew, whether you increase the number of boats or limit the number of passengers, irrespective of the size of the ship. All these boats should have a motor-engine in them.
Many commented on the great size of the Titanic. Conrad understood that steel plate could not be made thicker indefinitely and that a small ship could be stronger than a large one. He points out, facetiously but accurately, that “you can’t make a 50,000 ton ship as strong as a Huntley and Palmer biscuit-tin.”
For my part I could much sooner believe in an unsinkable ship of 3,000 tons than in one of 40,000 tons. It is one of those things that stand to reason. You can’t increase the thickness of scantling and plates
The Titanic was a tank eight hundred feet long, fitted as an hotel, with corridors, bed-rooms, halls, and so on (not a very mysterious arrangement truly), and for the hazards of her existence I should think about as strong as a Huntley and Palmer biscuit-tin. I make this comparison because Huntley and Palmer biscuit-tins, being almost a national institution, are probably known to all my readers. Well, about that strong, and perhaps not quite so strong. Just look at the side of such a tin, and then think of a 50,000 ton ship, and try to imagine what the thickness of her plates should be to approach anywhere the relative solidity of that biscuit-tin.
You can’t make a 50,000 ton ship as strong as a Huntley and Palmer biscuit-tin.
Conrad did not approve of obscuring needless death by romanticizing it, calling those who died “heros,” instead of merely victims.
I am not a sentimentalist; therefore it is not a great consolation to me to see all these people breveted as “Heroes” by the penny and halfpenny Press. It is no consolation at all. In extremity, in the worst extremity, the majority of people, even of common people, will behave decently. It’s a fact of which only the journalists don’t seem aware. Hence their enthusiasm, I suppose. But I, who am not a sentimentalist, think it would have been finer if the band of the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing–whatever tune they were playing, the poor devils. I would rather they had been saved to support their families than to see their families supported by the magnificent generosity of the subscribers. There is nothing more heroic in being drowned very much against your will, than in dying of colic caused by the imperfect salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer.
And that’s the truth. The unsentimental truth stripped of the romantic garment the Press has wrapped around this most unnecessary disaster.