(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle’s weekly RGOD2 column reflects on his grandfather’s presence a century ago at the human devastation caused by the sinking of the Titanic. This trauma caused this young teenager to lose his faith and work for a more just world where the class issues of the disaster could be confronted and repaired.)
The weekend marks the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and my birth city of Belfast will be sharing in the Titanic fever that has hit the world. We have a “Titanic Quarter” and a big permanent exhibition on the spot where the ill-fated liner (the “fastest moving technological machine” of its day) was conceived and built by my ancestors.
I was born and grew up under the gantries of Harland and Wolff, where the lucrative business of building bigger and faster ways of crossing the oceans was in full swing. The Titanic was 50% bigger than anything ever seen before and was marketed as “unsinkable.” Its loss symbolically represented the end of an era of confidence, boldness and progress that would be overshadowed by the carnage of the First World War.
As my ancestors riveted “unsinkable” steel plates together in Belfast harbor, the same global confidence was exhibited by Czar Nicholas of Russia as the chief architect of the so called “Peace Palace” at The Hague! Within a year, both the Titanic and the Czar would be historical tragedies and a century later we cannot fully answer the question: “What really happened to them?”
Two narratives: Which one is true?
There are at least two competing narratives on the Titanic story.
The dominant narrative is colored by nostalgic romanticism through art and film. We all know this one. The other lesser narrative is about a loss of confidence in marketing and corporate progress and how these attempts to misrepresent reality can haunt us for generations.
The White Star Line, with support from the biggest industrial barons of their day, Harland and Wolff, were trying to win the battle for fast and luxurious travel across the Atlantic. We have the same battle going on today with 600-seat airliners from corporations jockeying for places in the lucrative travel business.
During the Titanic disaster inquiries in the USA and the before the British Board of Trade, the role of corporate greed and cutting corners to “make a buck” was largely downplayed, preferring to focus on issues like the lack of lifeboats and the design flaws in the ship that caused its bulkheads to fill up with seawater after it struck the iceberg. The crew had not worked together before the maiden voyage, was relatively inexperienced and ignored warnings of icebergs in the area.
The chairman of White Star, J Bruce Ismay, who survived the crossing and emerged from the disaster relatively unscathed, headed a company wanting to make record time for the crossing to New York from Southampton in England.
A recent program sponsored by the History Channel carried out some interesting research on the design of the joints that allowed the ship to move and adjust to rough weather and wave patterns, discovered that Harland and Wolff modified the original design of the Titanic in her sister ship Olympic. Thomas Andrews, the top designer of the ship, had concerns that the sheer size of the ship, minimizing steel usage to keep it lighter and the design of the joints could have made the Titanic unsafe for the arduous transatlantic crossings, but this is still speculation. Andrews perished with 1,400 others on a “Night to Remember.”
Differing narratives still persist about if the Titanic rose up like a huge leviathan before breaking in two (as the popular James Cameron film suggests) or if its angle remained low to the water as many of the 700 eyewitness survivors attested.
A family connection
The Titanic legend has a very special place in my family, not only because of its association with Belfast but my grandfather, James Malcomson, was allegedly a young teenage sailor on one of the four ships hired by White Star Line for the gruesome task of picking up dead bodies amid the wreckage of the great ship. When he later got married and had a family, he used to sing at the Alhambra Theatre with his eldest son “It was sad when that great ship went down” (a later version follows).
This folk song has a clear commentary about the privilege of the rich and how the poor on board suffered more and were not allowed into the scarce lifeboats. The class structure (early Occupy Wall Street movement meets Hurricane Katrina) was also vividly highlighted in the disaster and remembered in these working class songs. My grandfather claimed his life-long atheism and commitment to the principles of the labor movement was born when he went through this traumatic experience as a teenager.
“It is a weird scene, this gathering. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us, as the ship lays wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Reverent Canon Hind, for nearly an hour the words “For as must as it hath pleased - - ' we therefore commit his body to the deep” are repeated and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles. Splash, splash, splash.” - Frederick Hamilton’s diary
The crews were told to identify the bodies of the rich and famous first and they were embalmed and placed in the limited number of coffins on the ship.
Col. John Jacob Astor was the first out of the water, recognized by his blue serge suit. An embalmer was present and the bodies of the First Class passengers were placed in coffins while the others were identified. If the body was in poor condition it was placed in a canvas bag and reburied at sea with Anglican Canon Hind from Halifax Cathedral conducting their funeral.
The most famous ship in this convoy was the Mackay Bennett. It retrieved almost 400 bodies and laid them out on the decks while identification and the decision to bring them to land was determined.
An unnamed child
The crew had a near rebellion over one particular remains of a small child and rather than bury him at sea, agreed to pool their meager wages to pay for the child’s body to be buried in a coffin on land (see marker). It was a kind of class backlash and was reported all over the world as the stories of what really happened during the last hours of the luxury liner emerged.
Later, the child’s identity was confirmed and his grave was named. It was an act of generous humanity from the people who could least afford it. While the White Star Line escaped any legal or financial liability and its chairman J Bruce Ismay was not held responsible, something struck a chord in the marginalized to make a statement and to bring some redemptive humanity to this terrible situation.
An account of the work of these courageous workers can be read from a log kept by Frederick Hamilton, one of the cable engineers from the Mackay Bennett.
“The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join sympathetically in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hind, all combine to make a strange task stranger. Cold, wet, miserable and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy.”
The crew, returning to Halifax placed a marker on the child’s coffin “our Babe.” Some people had lost their relatives and loved ones while others, like my grandfather lost their faith. This tangible gift of generosity was their only hope. Years later, the child’s DNA was identified as that belonging to Sidney Goodwin.
Returning to places of wounded memory
As we reflect on more recent tragedies like the World Trade Center, it is important to remember the generational effects and consequences of natural and manmade disasters. These events and their ghosts never really leave us. How we “remember them rightly” should be our principle goal.
The Titanic story is still a mystery and it gives us a photograph of humanity at our best, at our most vulnerable and what happens when self-interest and class warfare overcomes our collective good. It destroyed my grandfather’s faith in any benevolent divine being.
How could a God allow such a thing to happen? This is a good question with no answer except I would respond with a belief that God was present in the suffering and help that was given to all involved, including my grandfather.
To respond to human suffering generously, without looking for some cosmic reward, is a beautiful thing. This is the Easter story – God suffers too. Symbolically, the Titanic story’s lesser narrative represented the destruction of the early 20th century’s faith in achieving peace and progress through science and technology. It has shaped me and my family for four generations. This weekend, we remember.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.