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SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE LOSS OF THE TITANIC--1912

This text forms part of `Notes on Life & Letters by Joseph Conrad (1921)`

It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that
the late S.S. Titanic had a "good press." It is perhaps because I
have no great practice of daily newspapers (I have never seen so
many of them together lying about my room) that the white spaces
and the big lettering of the headlines have an incongruously
festive air to my eyes, a disagreeable effect of a feverish
exploitation of a sensational God-send. And if ever a loss at sea
fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act
of God, this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness and severity;
and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-
confidence of mankind.

I say this with all the seriousness the occasion demands, though I
have neither the competence nor the wish to take a theological view
of this great misfortune, sending so many souls to their last
account. It is but a natural REFLECTION. Another one flowing also
from the phraseology of bills of lading (a bill of lading is a
shipping document limiting in certain of its clauses the liability
of the carrier) is that the "King's Enemies" of a more or less
overt sort are not altogether sorry that this fatal mishap should
strike the prestige of the greatest Merchant Service of the world.
I believe that not a thousand miles from these shores certain
public prints have betrayed in gothic letters their satisfaction--
to speak plainly--by rather ill-natured comments.

In what light one is to look at the action of the American Senate
is more difficult to say. From a certain point of view the sight
of the august senators of a great Power rushing to New York and
beginning to bully and badger the luckless "Yamsi"--on the very
quay-side so to speak--seems to furnish the Shakespearian touch of
the comic to the real tragedy of the fatuous drowning of all these
people who to the last moment put their trust in mere bigness, in
the reckless affirmations of commercial men and mere technicians
and in the irresponsible paragraphs of the newspapers booming these
ships! Yes, a grim touch of comedy. One asks oneself what these
men are after, with this very provincial display of authority. I
beg my friends in the United States pardon for calling these
zealous senators men. I don't wish to be disrespectful. They may
be of the stature of demi-gods for all I know, but at that great
distance from the shores of effete Europe and in the presence of so
many guileless dead, their size seems diminished from this side.
What are they after? What is there for them to find out? We know
what had happened. The ship scraped her side against a piece of
ice, and sank after floating for two hours and a half, taking a lot
of people down with her. What more can they find out from the
unfair badgering of the unhappy "Yamsi," or the ruffianly abuse of
the same.

"Yamsi," I should explain, is a mere code address, and I use it
here symbolically. I have seen commerce pretty close. I know what
it is worth, and I have no particular regard for commercial
magnates, but one must protest against these Bumble-like
proceedings. Is it indignation at the loss of so many lives which
is at work here? Well, the American railroads kill very many
people during one single year, I dare say. Then why don't these
dignitaries come down on the presidents of their own railroads, of
which one can't say whether they are mere means of transportation
or a sort of gambling game for the use of American plutocrats. Is
it only an ardent and, upon the whole, praiseworthy desire for
information? But the reports of the inquiry tell us that the
august senators, though raising a lot of questions testifying to
the complete innocence and even blankness of their minds, are
unable to understand what the second officer is saying to them. We
are so informed by the press from the other side. Even such a
simple expression as that one of the look-out men was stationed in
the "eyes of the ship" was too much for the senators of the land of
graphic expression. What it must have been in the more recondite
matters I won't even try to think, because I have no mind for
smiles just now. They were greatly exercised about the sound of
explosions heard when half the ship was under water already. Was
there one? Were there two? They seemed to be smelling a rat
there! Has not some charitable soul told them (what even
schoolboys who read sea stories know) that when a ship sinks from a
leak like this, a deck or two is always blown up; and that when a
steamship goes down by the head, the boilers may, and often do
break adrift with a sound which resembles the sound of an
explosion? And they may, indeed, explode, for all I know. In the
only case I have seen of a steamship sinking there was such a
sound, but I didn't dive down after her to investigate. She was
not of 45,000 tons and declared unsinkable, but the sight was
impressive enough. I shall never forget the muffled, mysterious
detonation, the sudden agitation of the sea round the slowly raised
stern, and to this day I have in my eye the propeller, seen
perfectly still in its frame against a clear evening sky.

But perhaps the second officer has explained to them by this time
this and a few other little facts. Though why an officer of the
British merchant service should answer the questions of any king,
emperor, autocrat, or senator of any foreign power (as to an event
in which a British ship alone was concerned, and which did not even
take place in the territorial waters of that power) passes my
understanding. The only authority he is bound to answer is the
Board of Trade. But with what face the Board of Trade, which,
having made the regulations for 10,000 ton ships, put its dear old
bald head under its wing for ten years, took it out only to shelve
an important report, and with a dreary murmur, "Unsinkable," put it
back again, in the hope of not being disturbed for another ten
years, with what face it will be putting questions to that man who
has done his duty, as to the facts of this disaster and as to his
professional conduct in it--well, I don't know! I have the
greatest respect for our established authorities. I am a
disciplined man, and I have a natural indulgence for the weaknesses
of human institutions; but I will own that at times I have
regretted their--how shall I say it?--their imponderability. A
Board of Trade--what is it? A Board of . . . I believe the Speaker
of the Irish Parliament is one of the members of it. A ghost.
Less than that; as yet a mere memory. An office with adequate and
no doubt comfortable furniture and a lot of perfectly irresponsible
gentlemen who exist packed in its equable atmosphere softly, as if
in a lot of cotton-wool, and with no care in the world; for there
can be no care without personal responsibility--such, for instance,
as the seamen have--those seamen from whose mouths this
irresponsible institution can take away the bread--as a
disciplinary measure. Yes--it's all that. And what more? The
name of a politician--a party man! Less than nothing; a mere void
without as much as a shadow of responsibility cast into it from
that light in which move the masses of men who work, who deal in
things and face the realities--not the words--of this life.

Years ago I remember overhearing two genuine shellbacks of the old
type commenting on a ship's officer, who, if not exactly
incompetent, did not commend himself to their severe judgment of
accomplished sailor-men. Said one, resuming and concluding the
discussion in a funnily judicial tone:

"The Board of Trade must have been drunk when they gave him his
certificate."

I confess that this notion of the Board of Trade as an entity
having a brain which could be overcome by the fumes of strong
liquor charmed me exceedingly. For then it would have been unlike
the limited companies of which some exasperated wit has once said
that they had no souls to be saved and no bodies to be kicked, and
thus were free in this world and the next from all the effective
sanctions of conscientious conduct. But, unfortunately, the
picturesque pronouncement overheard by me was only a characteristic
sally of an annoyed sailor. The Board of Trade is composed of
bloodless departments. It has no limbs and no physiognomy, or else
at the forthcoming inquiry it might have paid to the victims of the
Titanic disaster the small tribute of a blush. I ask myself
whether the Marine Department of the Board of Trade did really
believe, when they decided to shelve the report on equipment for a
time, that a ship of 45,000 tons, that ANY ship, could be made
practically indestructible by means of watertight bulkheads? It
seems incredible to anybody who had ever reflected upon the
properties of material, such as wood or steel. You can't, let
builders say what they like, make a ship of such dimensions as
strong proportionately as a much smaller one. The shocks our old
whalers had to stand amongst the heavy floes in Baffin's Bay were
perfectly staggering, notwithstanding the most skilful handling,
and yet they lasted for years. The Titanic, if one may believe the
last reports, has only scraped against a piece of ice which, I
suspect, was not an enormously bulky and comparatively easily seen
berg, but the low edge of a floe--and sank. Leisurely enough, God
knows--and here the advantage of bulkheads comes in--for time is a
great friend, a good helper--though in this lamentable case these
bulkheads served only to prolong the agony of the passengers who
could not be saved. But she sank, causing, apart from the sorrow
and the pity of the loss of so many lives, a sort of surprised
consternation that such a thing should have happened at all. Why?
You build a 45,000 tons hotel of thin steel plates to secure the
patronage of, say, a couple of thousand rich people (for if it had
been for the emigrant trade alone, there would have been no such
exaggeration of mere size), you decorate it in the style of the
Pharaohs or in the Louis Quinze style--I don't know which--and to
please the aforesaid fatuous handful of individuals, who have more
money than they know what to do with, and to the applause of two
continents, you launch that mass with two thousand people on board
at twenty-one knots across the sea--a perfect exhibition of the
modern blind trust in mere material and appliances. And then this
happens. General uproar. The blind trust in material and
appliances has received a terrible shock. I will say nothing of
the credulity which accepts any statement which specialists,
technicians and office-people are pleased to make, whether for
purposes of gain or glory. You stand there astonished and hurt in
your profoundest sensibilities. But what else under the
circumstances could you expect?

For my part I could much sooner believe in an unsinkable ship of
3,000 tons than in one of 40,000 tons. It is one of those things
that stand to reason. You can't increase the thickness of
scantling and plates indefinitely. And the mere weight of this
bigness is an added disadvantage. In reading the reports, the
first reflection which occurs to one is that, if that luckless ship
had been a couple of hundred feet shorter, she would have probably
gone clear of the danger. But then, perhaps, she could not have
had a swimming bath and a French cafe. That, of course, is a
serious consideration. I am well aware that those responsible for
her short and fatal existence ask us in desolate accents to believe
that if she had hit end on she would have survived. Which, by a
sort of coy implication, seems to mean that it was all the fault of
the officer of the watch (he is dead now) for trying to avoid the
obstacle. We shall have presently, in deference to commercial and
industrial interests, a new kind of seamanship. A very new and
"progressive" kind. If you see anything in the way, by no means
try to avoid it; smash at it full tilt. And then--and then only
you shall see the triumph of material, of clever contrivances, of
the whole box of engineering tricks in fact, and cover with glory a
commercial concern of the most unmitigated sort, a great Trust, and
a great ship-building yard, justly famed for the super-excellence
of its material and workmanship. Unsinkable! See? I told you she
was unsinkable, if only handled in accordance with the new
seamanship. Everything's in that. And, doubtless, the Board of
Trade, if properly approached, would consent to give the needed
instructions to its examiners of Masters and Mates. Behold the
examination-room of the future. Enter to the grizzled examiner a
young man of modest aspect: "Are you well up in modern
seamanship?" "I hope so, sir." "H'm, let's see. You are at night
on the bridge in charge of a 150,000 tons ship, with a motor track,
organ-loft, etc., etc., with a full cargo of passengers, a full
crew of 1,500 cafe waiters, two sailors and a boy, three
collapsible boats as per Board of Trade regulations, and going at
your three-quarter speed of, say, about forty knots. You perceive
suddenly right ahead, and close to, something that looks like a
large ice-floe. What would you do?" "Put the helm amidships."
"Very well. Why?" "In order to hit end on." "On what grounds
should you endeavour to hit end on?" "Because we are taught by our
builders and masters that the heavier the smash, the smaller the
damage, and because the requirements of material should be attended
to."

And so on and so on. The new seamanship: when in doubt try to ram
fairly--whatever's before you. Very simple. If only the Titanic
had rammed that piece of ice (which was not a monstrous berg)
fairly, every puffing paragraph would have been vindicated in the
eyes of the credulous public which pays. But would it have been?
Well, I doubt it. I am well aware that in the eighties the
steamship Arizona, one of the "greyhounds of the ocean" in the
jargon of that day, did run bows on against a very unmistakable
iceberg, and managed to get into port on her collision bulkhead.
But the Arizona was not, if I remember rightly, 5,000 tons
register, let alone 45,000, and she was not going at twenty knots
per hour. I can't be perfectly certain at this distance of time,
but her sea-speed could not have been more than fourteen at the
outside. Both these facts made for safety. And, even if she had
been engined to go twenty knots, there would not have been behind
that speed the enormous mass, so difficult to check in its impetus,
the terrific weight of which is bound to do damage to itself or
others at the slightest contact.

I assure you it is not for the vain pleasure of talking about my
own poor experiences, but only to illustrate my point, that I will
relate here a very unsensational little incident I witnessed now
rather more than twenty years ago in Sydney, N.S.W. Ships were
beginning then to grow bigger year after year, though, of course,
the present dimensions were not even dreamt of. I was standing on
the Circular Quay with a Sydney pilot watching a big mail steamship
of one of our best-known companies being brought alongside. We
admired her lines, her noble appearance, and were impressed by her
size as well, though her length, I imagine, was hardly half that of
the Titanic.

She came into the Cove (as that part of the harbour is called), of
course very slowly, and at some hundred feet or so short of the
quay she lost her way. That quay was then a wooden one, a fine
structure of mighty piles and stringers bearing a roadway--a thing
of great strength. The ship, as I have said before, stopped moving
when some hundred feet from it. Then her engines were rung on slow
ahead, and immediately rung off again. The propeller made just
about five turns, I should say. She began to move, stealing on, so
to speak, without a ripple; coming alongside with the utmost
gentleness. I went on looking her over, very much interested, but
the man with me, the pilot, muttered under his breath: "Too much,
too much." His exercised judgment had warned him of what I did not
even suspect. But I believe that neither of us was exactly
prepared for what happened. There was a faint concussion of the
ground under our feet, a groaning of piles, a snapping of great
iron bolts, and with a sound of ripping and splintering, as when a
tree is blown down by the wind, a great strong piece of wood, a
baulk of squared timber, was displaced several feet as if by
enchantment. I looked at my companion in amazement. "I could not
have believed it," I declared. "No," he said. "You would not have
thought she would have cracked an egg--eh?"

I certainly wouldn't have thought that. He shook his head, and
added: "Ah! These great, big things, they want some handling."

Some months afterwards I was back in Sydney. The same pilot
brought me in from sea. And I found the same steamship, or else
another as like her as two peas, lying at anchor not far from us.
The pilot told me she had arrived the day before, and that he was
to take her alongside to-morrow. I reminded him jocularly of the
damage to the quay. "Oh!" he said, "we are not allowed now to
bring them in under their own steam. We are using tugs."

A very wise regulation. And this is my point--that size is to a
certain extent an element of weakness. The bigger the ship, the
more delicately she must be handled. Here is a contact which, in
the pilot's own words, you wouldn't think could have cracked an
egg; with the astonishing result of something like eighty feet of
good strong wooden quay shaken loose, iron bolts snapped, a baulk
of stout timber splintered. Now, suppose that quay had been of
granite (as surely it is now)--or, instead of the quay, if there
had been, say, a North Atlantic fog there, with a full-grown
iceberg in it awaiting the gentle contact of a ship groping its way
along blindfold? Something would have been hurt, but it would not
have been the iceberg.

Apparently, there is a point in development when it ceases to be a
true progress--in trade, in games, in the marvellous handiwork of
men, and even in their demands and desires and aspirations of the
moral and mental kind. There is a point when progress, to remain a
real advance, must change slightly the direction of its line. But
this is a wide question. What I wanted to point out here is--that
the old Arizona, the marvel of her day, was proportionately
stronger, handier, better equipped, than this triumph of modern
naval architecture, the loss of which, in common parlance, will
remain the sensation of this year. The clatter of the presses has
been worthy of the tonnage, of the preliminary paeans of triumph
round that vanished hull, of the reckless statements, and elaborate
descriptions of its ornate splendour. A great babble of news (and
what sort of news too, good heavens!) and eager comment has arisen
around this catastrophe, though it seems to me that a less strident
note would have been more becoming in the presence of so many
victims left struggling on the sea, of lives miserably thrown away
for nothing, or worse than nothing: for false standards of
achievement, to satisfy a vulgar demand of a few moneyed people for
a banal hotel luxury--the only one they can understand--and because
the big ship pays, in one way or another: in money or in
advertising value.

It is in more ways than one a very ugly business, and a mere scrape
along the ship's side, so slight that, if reports are to be
believed, it did not interrupt a card party in the gorgeously
fitted (but in chaste style) smoking-room--or was it in the
delightful French cafe?--is enough to bring on the exposure. All
the people on board existed under a sense of false security. How
false, it has been sufficiently demonstrated. And the fact which
seems undoubted, that some of them actually were reluctant to enter
the boats when told to do so, shows the strength of that falsehood.
Incidentally, it shows also the sort of discipline on board these
ships, the sort of hold kept on the passengers in the face of the
unforgiving sea. These people seemed to imagine it an optional
matter: whereas the order to leave the ship should be an order of
the sternest character, to be obeyed unquestioningly and promptly
by every one on board, with men to enforce it at once, and to carry
it out methodically and swiftly. And it is no use to say it cannot
be done, for it can. It has been done. The only requisite is
manageableness of the ship herself and of the numbers she carries
on board. That is the great thing which makes for safety. A
commander should be able to hold his ship and everything on board
of her in the hollow of his hand, as it were. But with the modern
foolish trust in material, and with those floating hotels, this has
become impossible. A man may do his best, but he cannot succeed in
a task which from greed, or more likely from sheer stupidity, has
been made too great for anybody's strength.

The readers of THE ENGLISH REVIEW, who cast a friendly eye nearly
six years ago on my Reminiscences, and know how much the merchant
service, ships and men, has been to me, will understand my
indignation that those men of whom (speaking in no sentimental
phrase, but in the very truth of feeling) I can't even now think
otherwise than as brothers, have been put by their commercial
employers in the impossibility to perform efficiently their plain
duty; and this from motives which I shall not enumerate here, but
whose intrinsic unworthiness is plainly revealed by the greatness,
the miserable greatness, of that disaster. Some of them have
perished. To die for commerce is hard enough, but to go under that
sea we have been trained to combat, with a sense of failure in the
supreme duty of one's calling is indeed a bitter fate. Thus they
are gone, and the responsibility remains with the living who will
have no difficulty in replacing them by others, just as good, at
the same wages. It was their bitter fate. But I, who can look at
some arduous years when their duty was my duty too, and their
feelings were my feelings, can remember some of us who once upon a
time were more fortunate.

It is of them that I would talk a little, for my own comfort
partly, and also because I am sticking all the time to my subject
to illustrate my point, the point of manageableness which I have
raised just now. Since the memory of the lucky Arizona has been
evoked by others than myself, and made use of by me for my own
purpose, let me call up the ghost of another ship of that distant
day whose less lucky destiny inculcates another lesson making for
my argument. The Douro, a ship belonging to the Royal Mail Steam
Packet Company, was rather less than one-tenth the measurement of
the Titanic. Yet, strange as it may appear to the ineffable hotel
exquisites who form the bulk of the first-class Cross-Atlantic
Passengers, people of position and wealth and refinement did not
consider it an intolerable hardship to travel in her, even all the
way from South America; this being the service she was engaged
upon. Of her speed I know nothing, but it must have been the
average of the period, and the decorations of her saloons were, I
dare say, quite up to the mark; but I doubt if her birth had been
boastfully paragraphed all round the Press, because that was not
the fashion of the time. She was not a mass of material gorgeously
furnished and upholstered. She was a ship. And she was not, in
the apt words of an article by Commander C. Crutchley, R.N.R.,
which I have just read, "run by a sort of hotel syndicate composed
of the Chief Engineer, the Purser, and the Captain," as these
monstrous Atlantic ferries are. She was really commanded, manned,
and equipped as a ship meant to keep the sea: a ship first and
last in the fullest meaning of the term, as the fact I am going to
relate will show.

She was off the Spanish coast, homeward bound, and fairly full,
just like the Titanic; and further, the proportion of her crew to
her passengers, I remember quite well, was very much the same. The
exact number of souls on board I have forgotten. It might have
been nearly three hundred, certainly not more. The night was
moonlit, but hazy, the weather fine with a heavy swell running from
the westward, which means that she must have been rolling a great
deal, and in that respect the conditions for her were worse than in
the case of the Titanic. Some time either just before or just
after midnight, to the best of my recollection, she was run into
amidships and at right angles by a large steamer which after the
blow backed out, and, herself apparently damaged, remained
motionless at some distance.

My recollection is that the Douro remained afloat after the
collision for fifteen minutes or thereabouts. It might have been
twenty, but certainly something under the half-hour. In that time
the boats were lowered, all the passengers put into them, and the
lot shoved off. There was no time to do anything more. All the
crew of the Douro went down with her, literally without a murmur.
When she went she plunged bodily down like a stone. The only
members of the ship's company who survived were the third officer,
who was from the first ordered to take charge of the boats, and the
seamen told off to man them, two in each. Nobody else was picked
up. A quartermaster, one of the saved in the way of duty, with
whom I talked a month or so afterwards, told me that they pulled up
to the spot, but could neither see a head nor hear the faintest
cry.

But I have forgotten. A passenger was drowned. She was a lady's
maid who, frenzied with terror, refused to leave the ship. One of
the boats waited near by till the chief officer, finding himself
absolutely unable to tear the girl away from the rail to which she
dung with a frantic grasp, ordered the boat away out of danger. My
quartermaster told me that he spoke over to them in his ordinary
voice, and this was the last sound heard before the ship sank.

The rest is silence. I daresay there was the usual official
inquiry, but who cared for it? That sort of thing speaks for
itself with no uncertain voice; though the papers, I remember, gave
the event no space to speak of: no large headlines--no headlines
at all. You see it was not the fashion at the time. A seaman-like
piece of work, of which one cherishes the old memory at this
juncture more than ever before. She was a ship commanded, manned,
equipped--not a sort of marine Ritz, proclaimed unsinkable and sent
adrift with its casual population upon the sea, without enough
boats, without enough seamen (but with a Parisian cafe and four
hundred of poor devils of waiters) to meet dangers which, let the
engineers say what they like, lurk always amongst the waves; sent
with a blind trust in mere material, light-heartedly, to a most
miserable, most fatuous disaster.

And there are, too, many ugly developments about this tragedy. The
rush of the senatorial inquiry before the poor wretches escaped
from the jaws of death had time to draw breath, the vituperative
abuse of a man no more guilty than others in this matter, and the
suspicion of this aimless fuss being a political move to get home
on the M.T. Company, into which, in common parlance, the United
States Government has got its knife, I don't pretend to understand
why, though with the rest of the world I am aware of the fact.
Perhaps there may be an excellent and worthy reason for it; but I
venture to suggest that to take advantage of so many pitiful
corpses, is not pretty. And the exploiting of the mere sensation
on the other side is not pretty in its wealth of heartless
inventions. Neither is the welter of Marconi lies which has not
been sent vibrating without some reason, for which it would be
nauseous to inquire too closely. And the calumnious, baseless,
gratuitous, circumstantial lie charging poor Captain Smith with
desertion of his post by means of suicide is the vilest and most
ugly thing of all in this outburst of journalistic enterprise,
without feeling, without honour, without decency.

But all this has its moral. And that other sinking which I have
related here and to the memory of which a seaman turns with relief
and thankfulness has its moral too. Yes, material may fail, and
men, too, may fail sometimes; but more often men, when they are
given the chance, will prove themselves truer than steel, that
wonderful thin steel from which the sides and the bulkheads of our
modern sea-leviathans are made.

Based on the etext prepared by David Price ccx074@coventry.ac.uk,
from the 1921 J. M. Dent edition.
Full etext of `Notes on Life and Letters` by Joseph Conrad
is available from : Project Gutenberg

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