The true Ti­tanic story

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­

Why did the so-called “unsink­able” Ti­tanic sink on April 15, 1912? As with so many other ques­tions, the an­swer de­pends on who you ask.

Richard Corfield of the In­sti­tute of Physics sug­gests “the ship was en­snared by a per­fect storm of cir­cum­stances that con­spired her to her doom. Such a chain is fa­mil­iar to those who study dis­as­ters — it is called an ‘event cas­cade.’”

Sev­eral causes have been put for­ward. She was sunk by an ice­berg. Cli­mate caused more ice­bergs. Tides sent ice­bergs south­ward. The ship was go­ing too fast. Ice­berg warn­ings went un­heeded. The binoc­u­lars were locked up. The steers­man took a wrong turn. Re­verse thrust re­duced the ship’s ma­neu­ver­abil­ity. The iron riv­ets were too weak. There were too few lifeboats.

Paul J. John­son of the John­son Fam­ily Foun­da­tion pro­poses a more in­sid­i­ous rea­son, one he de­tails in his book, “The True Ti­tanic Story,” which was re­leased last year to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the mar­itime dis­as­ter.

He writes: “It was the awe­some power, am­bi­tion, and greed of J.P. Mor­gan … that set in mo­tion the chain of events that cul­mi­nated in the mon­strous and avoid­able Ti­tanic Tragedy. J.P. Mor­gan’s plan was to elim­i­nate steamship com­pe­ti­tion ... but in­stead, the plan ex­ter­mi­nated the Ti­tanic, and over 1,500 in­no­cent peo­ple.”

Grow­ing up in St. John’s, John­son lis­tened with rapt at­ten­tion to the “fas­ci­nat­ing adventures and ex­pe­ri­ences” of his grand­fa­ther, Capt. James Jol­liffe, a re­tired New­found­land mas­ter mariner.

“The most dra­matic and ter­ri­fy­ing of Cap­tain Jol­liffe’s tales,” John­son says, “were what he knew of the dread­ful tragedy of the Ti­tanic ... col­lid­ing with one of the mag­nif­i­cent ice­bergs which New­found­lan­ders see off­shore ev­ery spring.”

Half-a-cen­tury later, when he built the John­son GEO CEN­TRE on Sig­nal Hill in St. John’s, John­son re­searched the Ti­tanic story.

“The to­tal in­for­ma­tion ac­quired was prodi­gious,” he says. Care­fully ex­am­in­ing “the gen­er­ally ac­cepted facts,” he presents “a clear, co­her­ent, and com­plete his­tory of the Ti­tanic shock­ing man-made dis­as­ter.”

John­son builds his case by mar­shal­ing the known “facts, faults, and fail­ures” about the tragedy. He pro­vides a 60-item sum­mary, be­gin­ning with what he calls “un­der­ly­ing vi­cious, su­per-greedy am­bi­tion” and end­ing with the fi­nal out­come: “the ‘un­think­able’ had hap­pened, and the ‘unsink­able’ went to the bot­tom.”

He writes chill­ingly and pas­sion­ately about “ruth­less am­bi­tion, shame­less greed, ill-founded strat­egy, and non-stop neg­li­gence.” In the same breath, he ex­tols the mov­ing “ex­am­ples of ad­mirable hu­man de­cency, courage, and noble sac­ri­fice.”

The au­thor’s 72-page treat­ment is com­pre­hen­sive. Ap­pended to his work are a col­lec­tion of Ti­tanic rec­ol­lec­tions and me­mora­bilia. The well-il­lus­trated, full-colour doc­u­men­tary is de­signed to catch the reader’s eye and lend a sense of im­me­di­acy and his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy to the ac­count.

J.P. Mor­gan is de­picted as a man who “wanted the world,” but “gained noth­ing.” An illustration of the ves­sel’s deck chair is a clas­sic. The life ring and cork-and-can­vas life jacket give pause. A rel­a­tive size chart com­pares the Ti­tanic to the Eif­fel Tower and the Em­pire State Build­ing.

The lun­cheon menu lists such del­i­ca­cies as fil­lets of brill, chicken a la Mary­land and grilled mut­ton chops. The buf­fet in­cludes pot­ted shrimps, soused her­rings, brawn and corned ox tongue. Mu­nich Lager beer ful­fill the trav­el­ers’ thirst.

The front page of The New York Times shouts, “Ti­tanic sinks four hours af­ter hit­ting ice­berg; 866 res­cued by Carpathia, prob­a­bly 1250 per­ish.” The Evening Tele­gram blares in equally graphic head­lines: “The Ti­tanic Sunk. 1500 Per­sons Per­ish.”

John­son points out that, as dread­ful as the tragedy was, it was not en­tirely in vain. The “se­vere ‘class dis­tinc­tion’ in Ti­tanic’s loss of life served as a def­i­nite wake-up call to all those in­volved in the car­ry­ing of pas­sen­gers at sea.”

Five im­prove­ments were made in safety at sea:

• All ships must have suf­fi­cient lifeboats for all per­sons on­board.

• No pref­er­en­tial treat­ment for lifeboat ac­cess is per­mit­ted among classes of pas­sen­gers.

• Ev­ery pas­sen­ger ship is com­pelled to have its own 24-hour ra­dio ser­vice.

• The In­ter­na­tional Ice Pa­trol was es­tab­lished to mon­i­tor and warn of the pres­ence of ice.

• No pas­sen­ger ship is al­lowed to op­er­ate at high speed in ice-in­fested waters.

John­son’s self-de­scribed “com­plete and con­cise” work, which is en­cy­clo­pe­dic in scope, gal­lantly tack­les many of the im­pon­der­ables about the dis­as­ter. Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at


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