The true Titanic story
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