“We have struck iceberg…we require immediate attention”, was the telegraph message from Jack Phillips, the radio operator of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, on April 14, 1912, at 10:25 pm Eastern Time (ET), when she was hit by drifting icebergs from Newfoundland, Canada. RMS Carpathia received Titanic’s distress signals at 10:40 pm ET. By 12:27 am ET, the signal ended abruptly. The ‘Queen of the Ocean’ sank into her final resting place in the abyss of the North Atlantic at 2:20 am Titanic time. The sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic shook the world!
The Titanic Saga
White Star Line, the British Shipping Company from Liverpool and owner of the RMS Titanic, was known for its luxury, elegance and innovation that transported passengers (travellers, immigrants and common people) and cargo through luxurious marine vessels from the UK to the US. This company was renowned for heralding innovative and technologically advanced marine liners of the twentieth century. Built at Belfast, Titanic was White Star Line’s greatest creation for being the largest and fastest ship in the world and the largest moving object of the contemporary period, by virtue of her length (8821/2 feet), breadth (92 feet 6 inches), height (104 feet) and tonnage (46,328 tons).
She was known to be a ‘work of art’ as steel replaced wood and thick steel pins, known as rivets, were introduced as indispensable ingredients for the shipbuilding industry. Over three million rivets were used to make this incredibly sized steam ship super resilient. In addition, her sixteen water-tight compartments would prevent flooding and were presumed to keep the possibility of submerging the vessel at bay. With this ground-breaking design, experts envisioned that shipwreck would go into oblivion, and steel would ensure the unsinkability of marine vessels.
Titanic was known not only for her extraordinary dimension, but she was also the first of her class to embark on trans-Atlantic crossings of passengers between the UK and the US at her time. Her opulent décor, palatial grandeur and hand-carved oak-mahogany interiors depicted her as a mark of lavishness similar to luxurious hotels. When this magnificent vessel sailed for her maiden voyage from Southampton on April 10, 1912, with an aim to reach her destination, New York City, by April 17, she was equipped with luxurious private cabins, swimming pool, smoking room, ball room, gymnasium, ladies reading rooms and covered promenade for First Class passengers. The sixteen-feet wide and sixty feet long ornate and hard-carved grand wooden staircase with elegant balustrade and the glass dome atop the middle of the hall (copied from the Palace of Versailles), was meant to glorify Titanic as the world’s largest and finest steamship. The spacious dining room with a capacity of accommodating 600 guests at a time, was the largest floating dining hall at that time, where food was consumed on exquisitely crafted silver crockery and cutlery sets.
There were estimated 2,224 passengers on board, including guests from First, Second and Third Classes, and 891 crew. Several prominent socialites along with millionaires, industrialists, painter, sculptor, lawyer, Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrews and White Star Line’s managing director, J.B. Ismay reserved First Class cabins to celebrate the occasion of Titanic’s maiden voyage. Though packed with 20 lifeboats with the capacity of accommodating 65 passengers in each of them, more than 1500 lives including 679 crew and Captain Edward J Smith perished in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. The maiden voyage of Titanic remained unfulfilled.
Titanic's Connection with Canada
Titanic shares a close affinity with Canada, especially with the two provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. She was only 400 nautical miles away from the south-east corner of Newfoundland and 700 nautical miles from Halifax, Nova Scotia. RMS Carpathia, the transatlantic vessel of the Cunard Line, founded by Halifax resident Samuel Cunard, and a staunch competitor of the White Star Line, arrived at the destination two hours after the Titanic sank. Carpathia was able to rescue approx. 700 survivors (most of them were women and children) and sailed them to New York City three days after the disaster.
Titanic was equipped with the latest and modern technologies of the period and one of them was the wireless transmission through which she transmitted her distress signal. This technology has sealed her profound connection with Canada. This high-end technology was invented by the wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first trans-Atlantic signal from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in 1901 that crossed the Atlantic and reached Poldhu, England, ten years prior to Titanic’s sinking. This advanced mechanism proved invaluable for Titanic to transmit the distress signal when she struck an iceberg.
Both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were pretty close from the disaster site. Newfoundland’s Cape Race Lighthouse was the first recipient of Titanic’s distress message and helped disseminate the tragic news to other lighthouses and ports. Halifax, on the other hand, being the closest major port from the disaster area and being ice-free, became the automatic choice for salvaging the Titanic victims. Thus, trains carrying relatives of Titanic victims departed from New York for performing last rites in Halifax. In consequence, the White Star Line commissioned four Canadian vessels to be chartered for rescue and recovery operations at the disaster site.
The first vessel to be dispatched from Halifax was the Cable Steamer Mackay-Bennett, loaded with coffins, embalming supplies and canvas bags, that set out to retrieve dead bodies from the greatest marine disaster. Due to the rapid shortage of embalming supplies initially, it was decided to preserve only the bodies identified as First Class passengers. While the bodies of the crew, Second and Third Class passengers were wrapped in canvas bags and buried at sea after being documented and their last rites performed by Rev. Canon Hind. However, with the arrival of embalming materials after a few days, preservation of bodies resumed. Mackay-Bennett was able to recover 306 bodies, of which, 116 bodies were buried at sea, while the rest 190 bodies were brought to Halifax. Mackay-Bennett was supported by two Halifax-based cable ships, Minia and CGS Montmagny and St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador-based passenger and cargo steam vessel, SS Algerine, for further recovery of dead bodies.
The four vessels were successful in recovering 328 victims, but could bring only 209 bodies back to Halifax, as the rest were buried at sea. While undertaking recovery operations, maintaining class distinctions of the deceased was a major priority. Bodies from First Class were brought in coffins, while the rest, including the crew, were draped in mortuary bags and brought to the Halifax port. Of the 209 bodies, 59 were claimed by relatives, the remaining 150 bodies received religious services from the Churches and the Synagogue and were interred at three cemeteries in the city. The Fairview Lawn Cemetery housed the majority of them with 121 victims, Mount Olivet Cemetery became the resting place for 19 bodies, while 10 Jewish victims were laid to rest at the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, located within the Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
The White Star Line paid for most of the granite gravestones, whereas some of the family members and organizations chose to commission larger headstones for their loved ones. The numbers marked on each of the gravestones were the numbers assigned to the bodies after recovery. A striking feature was that most of the victims were male, due to Titanic’s protocol of ‘women and children first’ during lifeboat evacuation that left the male companions onboard. After thorough research and DNA testing, the victims were identified in recent years.
One of the unfortunate victims, an unknown child’s grave, marked as ‘Body number 4’, was interred at the Fairview Lawn, and is one of the most visited sites at the cemetery. Almost a hundred years after the disaster, in 2010, scientific study conducted by researchers and scientists, confirmed the unnamed victim as the 19 months old Sydney L. Goodwin of England. They also found that the unnamed pair of leather shoes at the Titanic Exhibit of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, also belonged to him. Later, RMS Oceanic and sealing vessel Algerine retrieved some of the bodies that were drifted away by strong winds and ocean currents. The body of steward James McGrady was the ‘Body Number 330’ and the last body recovered and he was laid to rest at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
Legacy of Titanic
Titanic served as a milestone in so many ways. It was the first gigantic and spacious passenger vessel that was meant for providing the trans-Atlantic passage for travellers, mails and cargo along the North Atlantic waters. Her awe-inspiring mechanisms and luxurious decorative grandeurs stood apart from the world-class hospitality business and opulent hotels. The marine vessel will be remembered in history for transporting a number of European immigrants who wanted to make the US their dream destination, and East European Jews, who were fleeing the Russian ‘pogrom’, along with the leisure travellers. Many of them were among the 1500 victims.
Soon after the disaster, several inquiry commissions, scientific and investigative teams were engaged to unravel the mystery behind the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ vessel. It was revealed that Captain Smith was warned against the presence of icebergs in the area, which he might have ignored or overlooked. Likewise, the British steamship SS Californian was in the close vicinity, but was unable to come to its rescue, or failed to react to the distress call, according to critics. This great disaster prompted marine vessels to upgrade and improve the existing marine safety mechanisms both for the ships as well as the passengers in later years.
In subsequent years, the disaster site became one of the significantly visited areas by scientists, professional divers, explorers, treasure hunters, filmmakers and under-ocean tourists, who recovered thousands of debris and artifacts for their conservation and public display in the museums around the world. However, it was not until 1985 that the full story of the great marine disaster came to the forefront, thanks to the series of underwater expeditions led by Jean-Louis Michel and Robert Ballard. They revealed that the vessel split in two halves before resting at 13,000 feet or 3.9 kms below sea level. The site is now protected and recognized under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which prohibits plundering, exploitation, dispersion and sale of the Titanic wreck.
The history of the Atlantic Ocean is replete with thousands of shipwrecks, however, no other wreckages have gathered so much attention than this majestic White Star Liner. Titanic is remembered even today through books, publications, and films. She was further immortalised by the Canadian filmmaker, James Cameron’s epic movie, ‘Titanic’ in 1997. He undertook several dives to study and capture the actual footage for providing the realistic effects in his momentous film.
The Titanic relics have been on display in museums across the globe. In Canada, Nova Scotia Archives and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (MMA), Canada’s oldest and largest maritime museum, in Halifax, have meticulously researched, archived, restored and documented Titanic records, artifacts and commemorative objects. The Museum houses the largest collections of evidence, documents, remnants, woodwreck and Titanic debris in the world, that are on display in its permanent section dedicated to the vessel. This section attracts thousands of visitors worldwide, where they can catch a glimpse of this historic vessel. Besides, many of the ‘flotsam’ items from the Titanic wreckage, that were collected and kept in their families by the mariners during recovery operations, are now for public display at the Titanic Exhibit section of the Museum. This article would not have been possible if we had not visited this amazing museum several times to understand the greatest catastrophe in marine history and discern her exhibits.
Several memorials, monuments, plaques, statutes, parks and gardens were dedicated to the victims of this infamous disaster around the world, like New York City and Washington, D.C. in the US, Halifax in Canada, Belfast in Ireland, and Liverpool, Southampton and London in Great Britain. The Maritime Ship Modellers Guild erected a 9-foot long miniature model of Titanic, at the Griffin’s Pond in Halifax Public Gardens in 1995. This model upholds the tradition of displaying Titanic’s miniature replica in the Victorian gardens (gardens dedicated to Queen Victoria) worldwide.
Nearly 110 years after her disappearance into the Atlantic, Titanic, the ‘Queen of the Ocean’ is still remembered in several ways. Societies and organizations such as Titanic Museum Belfast, Titanic Historical Society, Nova Scotia Archive, Titanic Society of the Atlantic Canada, and Titanic International Society zealously preserve her history and events through their constant patronage, publication and organizing annual conventions, involving marine historians, scientists, and engineers, journalists, James Cameron projects on marine investigation, and stories from the families of Titanic passengers.
This article is dedicated to my loving father, who left us for his heavenly abode in June 2021.
Images courtesy: Indranil Gupta