Call it arrogance or the boundless confidence of Victorian engineering. What now stands as a warning to future generations against the menace welcomed though unfettered self-belief, is that incredible assertion a century ago that convinced an entire society in the unsinkability of a ship – in fact the very ship that was lost to an iceberg midway into its maiden voyage.
To mark the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I have written an article for Ships Monthly which will be published in their April edition celebrating the history of this iconic liner and marking the centennial since her famous demise. But, speaking of magazines, a century ago the ‘unsinkable Titanic’ left British shores to embark on a voyage which the Titanic was seemingly ordained never to complete, and declared unsinkable in a passage from a special edition of a respected Edwardian journal, The Shipbuilder, the label would follow Titanic to infamy and beyond and perpetuate the legend behind this famous disaster.
One thing that will always amaze, if a little perturbed me, is the merchandise of Titanic coal. Yes, coal. That controversial supply that was such a scarcity in April 1912 it was purloined from the bunkers of owners IMMs lesser ships to fuel the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage.
I can imagine anyone in Edwardian Britain would boggle at the notion of coal finding a use as anything other than its combustible purpose. But today we hold a little more respect for the black stuff and rather than toss it onto the fireplace to warm us we now sculpt and mould it into works of art like watches and paperweights and so forth. Although nowadays we even revere it, especially if heaved up from the seabed having once been bunkered in the holds of RMS Titanic.
Powerful pioneers of Victorian engineering shaped modern existence, giving the machinery and means to mass migration and to create the most powerful nation on earth. We are all of us familiar with and indebted to Victorian achievement. Great social reform, empire of trade, the rise of the steam engine, urbanisation, mechanisation, sanitation, medication – the Victorians did it all. Nothing was insurmountable.
Typing ‘titanic‘ into Google will return well over 20 millions results. With this snapshot alone it is easy to see that she was always far more than a mere shipping incident.
Having done my fair share of travelling in my time, and more often or not wherever I visit – Orlando, London, Belfast, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sydney, etc. – I am not long standing by a hotel check-in desk until my eyes are drawn to those banks of leaflets and flyers that all tourists love. One will catch my attention particularly: a photograph of the Titanic, either in her prime, or of her decaying wreck. Her outline of four yellow and black-topped funnels are as recognisable to us all, as any of the best corporate logos. But this is no logo. It is the haunting profile of a ship that had not only piqued my own interest over two decades previous, but follows me everywhere I travel and to my continued surprise learn there is yet another Titanic artefact exhibition in town.
There are two sides to Titanic that I find the most fascinating – the historical and the legacy. Yet the deeper one delves into Titanic’s story the void that forms between the mindset of 1912 and our judgement of that logic today, viewed and continually reviewed from the ever widening security of passing years. The dilution of the original mindset grows ever more apparent. With a centenary passed since her loss our knowledge of the Titanic disaster is destined to be lost by a new historical reality which we falsely believed we already know.