The water was deep, cold, and icy. The breeze was slight, but hardly comforting as it swirled around the heads of the 706 passengers in the 20 open lifeboats. There was nothing about but the frigid elements and the faint, fading pleas for help from the 1,516 people dying in the water. Only some two hours before everyone, captain, crew, passengers alike, were safe, warm, looking forward to an uneventful crossing to New York City. Until 11:40 p.m. Until the iceberg was sighted; Until the orders were given. Too late. The collision. The foundering. Now, it was 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912 in the middle of the North Atlantic. The passengers — the very rich, the poor, and the very poor — were the sole survivors of the RMS Titanic. The night would live on in mind and in memory. And, one hundred years later this ancient tragedy still beckons.
These facts and more are presented by Practitioner-in-Residence Steven J. Spignesi in his special interest course on the Titanic. His course, which is part of the many elective offerings at UNH, is an English literature investigation with a focus on the historical event. By examining the tragedy of the sinking of the doomed liner, his students gain a greater understanding of the deep dividing line between the Gilded Age (c. 1870s-1900s) and the Modern Era (post 1901) in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. Through this comprehensive study, his students also learn to appreciate the duty of their generation to preserve the relics of the past for future generations.
Spignesi, who is the author of the recently released Titanic for Dummies (Wiley: February 2012) as well as The Complete Titanic: From the Ship’s Earliest Blueprints to the Epic Film (Birch Lane Press: November 1998), explains the reason why the Titanic — some one hundred years after its sinking — continues to charm and to fascinate so many from the professional historian to the everyday person to the UNH student. The other factors contributing to the tragedy (speed, negligence, nature, timing, design) fade into insignificance for him. For him, the key is the maiden voyage. He states, “If the Titanic had not sunk on its maiden voyage, but had sunk on its fifth or sixth voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, it would be just another disaster. But the fact that it was the ship’s first voyage, in an era where people were convinced that mankind’s endeavors could only get bigger, bolder, and more opulent, that took society’s sense of itself down a notch.” Thus, the disaster was, in his words, “A cold awakening and a dire prediction of the future.”
Indeed, focusing on the loss of life, the Titanic is not the worse naval disaster in modern history. More than 1,500 people died, but that ranks it only at fifth. Some 1,024 lives were lost in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914. Some 1,198 lives were lost when the Lusitania was struck by a German submarine torpedo in 1915 and sank off the coast of Ireland. Both these ocean liners traveled the waters during the same era of the Titanic. Yet, few but the descendents of those who died remember these tragedies and, frankly, the loss of life has been relegated to the dusty pages of history. Even the sister ships of the Titanic, the RMS Olympic and the RMS Britannic, have been forgotten. But, the Titanic, the iconic TITANIC, lives on.
There is no end to the fascination. Countless pages have been written; many films (including James Cameron’s two billion dollar blockbuster); numerous documentaries; board games; computer games; and — most recently — a 3D virtual and interactive tour of the ship by Barron’s Explore Titanic. Plus, for approximately $60,000 per person, tours of the wreck can be arranged, and at this one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking, reenactments of the voyage are offered as pleasure cruises. Replicas of artifacts (buttons, cards, letters, jewelry, china, mementos) can be purchased. Bits of coal from the ship’s massive boilers brought up from the ocean’s bottom can be churned into personal fancies. And, some 5,000 historically authenticated relics from the wreckage of the liner (including a large section of the ship’s hull) were recently made available for purchase.
In the past, some historians, laypersons, and Titanic buffs have objected to the removal of any items from the wreck site, claiming that it is a place where people died and where their remains rest and that tampering with it (even for historical purposes or scientific preservation) is the equivalent of desecrating a grave. Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the founder of the Titanic wreckage site in the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, has consistently maintained that the Titanic should not be disturbed. Ballard, who is currently serving as scientist emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has gone on-record as stating that he views the site as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster. Indeed, during his second visit to the Titanic wreckage in 1986, his team placed a commemorative plaque requesting that the site be left undisturbed as a memorial to the dead. In a recent (April 4, 2012) interview for USAToday, Ballard argued against further artifact removal. Instead, he proposed a virtual museum on the site using the modern technology of camera-equipped underwater robots and stationary cameras. In this way, he contends that visitors to the wreckage in vessels above could see live scenes of the site below.
Professor Spignesi, however, disagrees with Ballard’s position. While respecting Ballard’s conscientious concerns, Spignesi argues that the current generation has a duty to future generations to preserve the Titanic for them. He cites the fact that the ship rests under nearly two and a half miles of oceanic water, in pitch-darkness, in a muddy slope of the North Atlantic with debris sprawled over some 1,000 acres. If not protected through salvage operations, he argues, nature via time and ocean sea life will finish much of the destruction that the iceberg started. “The Titanic is encased in iron-eating bacteria,” he states, “In another one hundred years, it will be nothing but a stain on the ocean floor. We have an obligation to education and to history to provide knowledge. We cannot allow the Titanic to become nothing more than a stain. How could we justify such inaction to future generations? That we had the knowledge, the ability, but we did nothing to save the ship. That would be an added tragedy, yet another disaster.”
Professor Spignesi emphatically rejects Ballard’s vision of a virtual museum through the use of photography. While expressing concern about the commercial exploitation of the Titanic, he states that pictures cannot accurately convey the depth of the tragedy and would serve little, if any, preservation purposes. He also believes that the protection of the courts (which oversees the actions of the RMS Titanic Inc., the company which currently owns the ship, its artifacts, the debris field, and the salvage site) ensures that the Titanic wreck will be treated with respect.
Moreover, Spignesi also rejects Ballard’s view of the site as a graveyard. He asserts (perhaps wrongly) that since most of the passengers died in the water and since their bodies were recovered and buried at Halifax, the site cannot be hallowed ground. He is angered by unclear writing which erroneously reports that a Titanic photograph shows evidence of human remains. Further, he supports additional removal of artifacts from the inside of the liner — which has thus far been forbidden by the courts — hoping to find crew journals, ship documents, and the like.
In the next one hundred years, history will be the one true arbiter. Was the Titanic, indisputably the greatest luxury liner to travel the seas, treated with the dignity of a grand old dame or was she ravaged, cheapened, subjected to ill-use and disrespect? As this generation marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the disaster, only history can judge. Regardless, the tragedy and the ship and the people who sailed on her will live on. The Titanic, she always beckons.Tweet