EDITORIAL: Titanic after 100 years

The Editorial Desk in Manila/Philippine Daily Inquirer
Asia News Network

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Titanic is the flavour of the month. It remains an arresting story even after 100 years and even without James Cameron's blockbuster 1997 movie, which makes the memorial cruise that started last Sunday quite understandable.

Indeed, if certain people are willing to fall in line for a chance to pay an enormous sum for a swing through outer space, why not a lesser amount (5,995 pounds or US$9,500) to retrace the Titanic's one and only voyage from the time it set sail from Southampton in England on its way to New York until it reached that point in the vast Atlantic where it slammed into an iceberg and eventually sank four kilometres to the ocean floor?

The MS Balmoral is smaller and slower, but what makes the memorial cruise especially resonant is that its passengers include relatives of the approximately 700 survivors of the tragedy.

Think of the historic moments being imagined and relived; think of the thrill in savoring dinner to orchestra music (perhaps gems from that Edwardian era, say "Long Way to Tipperary" and "Moonlight Bay", or the occasional American rag) or of the frisson of unease in the embrace of moonless sky, calm sea and icy temperature (key elements of that night of April 14, 1912, when the luxury liner met its doom).

There were at least 2,200 passengers and crew in the Titanic, one of the "Olympic Class" ships built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and reported to be the biggest, fastest and most luxurious in its day. Here is how BBC narrates the sinking: At 11:40 p.m. the lookout sounded the alarm and phoned the bridge: "Iceberg right ahead!"

But the warning came too late. Less than 40 seconds later the Titanic struck the iceberg, tearing holes along the side of the hull. After inspection, the chief naval architect, Thomas Andrews, told Capt. Edward Smith that the ship was certain to sink. Five of the six watertight compartments at the front of the hull were swiftly flooding, and the ship was designed to stay afloat with only four compartments flooded.

At past 2 a.m. of April 15, the Titanic was lying on the ocean floor off the coast of Newfoundland. As many as 1,517 lost their lives.

Now the New York Times cites two new studies showing that "rare states of nature" played major roles in the world's most famous maritime disaster. The first, by researchers from Texas State University-San Marcos and Sky & Telescope magazine, says Earth's nearness to the sun and moon (not seen then in more than 1,000 years) produced record high tides that sent icebergs into the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

The second, by British historian Tim Maltin, says the icy waters created conditions for an unusual type of mirage that hid the icebergs from the Titanic's lookouts and also confused a passing ship, the Californian, and delayed crucial rescue efforts for hours.

But beyond these exciting developments, the story of the Titanic remains gripping because it pivots on class conflict even without Cameron's tale of aristocratic Rose (played by a plumpish Kate Winslet when she was still a universe away from "Revolutionary Road") and her declass? lover Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio frisky bordering on overwrought). The reel pair's union was of course not to be, with only Rose rescued and Jack perishing in the frigid ocean, the subtext of their bittersweet liaison being that never the upper deck and steerage shall meet.

The Titanic's actual passengers were listed as jewellers, stockbrokers, landowners and property developers (including John Jacob Astor and his wife), among others, in first class; and blacksmiths, gardeners, "general" and "farm" laborers, housekeepers, etc. in third class.

"Personal servants" of the first-class passengers were listed as adjuncts of their masters. Interestingly, the divide was not too stark in that there were second-class passengers composed of miners, merchants, musicians, engineers, civil servants and persons "of independent means," suggesting a budding middle class leaving a bastion of the old world and seeking better conditions in the young and brash United States.

That the mighty Titanic, which was touted to be unsinkable, gave up the ghost in its maiden voyage was a prelude to the end of empire. But it continues to be an object of fascination, providing lessons even a century after its destruction.