The Titanic was a British passenger ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton in the United Kingdom to New York City. Over 1,500 lives were lost in the disaster, which is considered as one of the biggest disasters in modern maritime history.
Later, several films were made based on this incident. Let us learn more about the tragedy that befell the Royal Mail Ship Titanic (RMS Titanic), a ship that had all the luxury and modern amenities available at the time.
In the early 1900s, transatlantic-passenger-crossing business was highly profitable and competitive, with ship lines vying to transport wealthy travellers and immigrants. Two of the main ship lines were the White Star Line and Cunard Line. There was strong competition between them.
By 1907, in a move to boost its market share, Cunard decided to launch RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania (both these ships went on to receive the Blue Riband appellation for the fastest Atlantic crossing).
White Star Line also made some moves so that it did not fall behind in the competition. Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, met Lord William James Pirrie, who was the chairman of Harland and Wolff, a British shipbuilding company. As an answer to RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, they decided to build three large ships – Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic – which had all luxury amenities and unparalleled safety features.
Construction of the Olympic began in March 1909 and that of the Titanic began three months later. These huge ships were largely designed for the Harland and Wolff Company by British shipbuilder Thomas Andrews. Unlike her sister ships, the Titanic had a first-class dining salon, four elevators, and a swimming pool. The Titanic’s second-class facilities were on par with other ships’ first-class facilities.
The ship was known as the ‘Millionaire Special’ because many rich and distinguished people were onboard during the first voyage.
When completed, the Titanic was about 882.5 feet (269 metres) long and 92.5 feet wide. Though the Titanic was registered as a British ship, its ownership rights rested with American financier John Pierrepont Morgan and a trust that was formed by him (International Navigation Company, which later became the International Mercantile Marine Company). About 1.5 million pounds was spent on its construction at the time.
First and last voyage
Captain Edward John Smith came on board the Titanic on April 10, 1912, to command the ship’s maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. The journey began shortly after noon.
The ship was known as the ‘Millionaire Special’ because many rich and distinguished people were onboard during the first voyage. American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, British journalist William Thomas Stead, Macy’s department store co-owner Isidor Straus’s and wife Ida Straus, White Star Line Chairman Joseph Bruce Ismay, and Titanic’s designer Andrews were some of them.
According to History.com, The journey started fom Southahampton, and later the Titanic called at Cherbourg Harbour in France where she took on more passengers. Her next port of call was Queenstown in Ireland where she took on some more passengers. By the time the Titanic departed westwards across the Atlantic, she was carrying 892 crew members and 1,320 passengers.
On the evening of April 14, the Titanic approached an area known to have icebergs.
Despite receiving six messages from other ships warning them of sea ice, the Titanic continued to travel at 22 knots through the ice-heavy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Some believe that the colossal ship was travelling at such a high speed to beat the RMS Olympic’s maiden voyage time. However, according to Science Daily, in a 2004 thesis paper, engineer Robert Essenhigh said that a possible reason for the ship to travel so fast was to control a fire in one of the ship’s coal bunkers.
Four days into its maiden voyage, the Titanic hit an iceberg near Newfoundland, Canada. The ship’s starboard side scraped along the iceberg and at least five of its watertight compartments towards the bow ruptured. The water from these compartments spilt over into each succeeding compartment, causing the ship to sink in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.
Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were the radio operators on this trip. It was they who informed the crew about the iceberg. Both were employees of the Marconi Company. Most of their job involved relaying passengers’ messages.
On the evening of April 14, the Titanic approached an area known to have icebergs. Captain Smith slightly altered the course to head farther south. However, he maintained the speed of the ship at 22 knots. The iceberg warning was reported by the steamer Mesaba at 9.40 p.m., but the message was never relayed to the Titanic’s bridge.
Around 10.55 p.m., the operator from a liner called Californian sent a message that the ship had halted as it was surrounded by icebergs. According to Britannica, Phillips, who was handling passenger messages, scolded the Californian operator for interrupting him.
The voyage continued, and since the sea was unusually calm, the crew of the ship could not detect the danger posed by the iceberg. Unfortunately, their binoculars were missing that day. At about 11.40 p.m., around 400 nautical miles off Newfoundland, Canada, an iceberg was sighted. The ship tried to change course by putting the engines into reverse mode, but the starboard side of the ship collided with the iceberg, causing seawater to seep into each compartment.
Most of the passengers were asleep at this time and many felt a vibration which was a sign of danger. At 12.05 a.m., attempts to launch lifeboats began, but it was not until 12.40 a.m. that the first lifeboat was lowered into the sea. The last lifeboat was lowered at 2.05 a.m., and 15 minutes later, the Titanic sank completely.
On the captain’s direction, Phillips sent distress signals. The signals reached the Carpathia, at about 12.20 a.m. when it was 58 nautical miles from the Titanic. Being a slower ship, the Carpathia could reach there only over an hour after the Titanic sank. According to Britannica, The Californian was much nearer to the Titanic, but the radio operator was off duty and could not be reached at the time of the disaster. Even though it was late, the Carpathia managed to pick up all the survivors on the lifeboats.
The exact number of people killed in the disaster is still unclear because of misspellings, failure to identify nicknames, musicians, and other contract staff as crew members, staff, or passengers. Therefore, it was estimated to be about 2,200 passengers and crew, though it is inaccurate. Of these, about 1,500 are believed to have died. Later, a US inquiry into the sinking reported that 1,517 people had died, of which 700 were crew members. Only 174 of the 710 passengers on board survived. Most of the survivors were women and children.
There have been many studies on the Titanic, one of the greatest maritime disasters of modern history. Several films and documentaries have come out about this tragedy, over the years. The most popular among them is the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the leading roles.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the reasons for the Titanic disaster?
How do you think the Titanic disaster influenced the safety protocols in ships?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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