Authors: Richard Davenport-Hines
Voyagers of the Titanic
Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From
For Patric Dickinson and David Kynaston
and for the gentle memory of Cosmo Davenport-Hines
From Greenland’s Icy Mountains
Its most striking feature was the stillness—and deadness—and impassability of this new world: ice, and rock, and water surrounded us; not a sound of any kind interrupted the silence; the sea did not break upon the shore; no bird or any living thing was visible; the midnight sun—by this time muffled in a transparent mist—shed an awful, mysterious lustre on glacier and mountain; no atom of vegetation gave token of the earth’s vitality; a universal numbness and dumbness seemed to pervade the solitude.
here were no witnesses. It didn’t look like a moment from history. A great block of ice broke off the end of a glacier and crashed down into a fjord with a rumbling roar. Probably it was the Jakobshavn Glacier, the source of most of the world’s largest icebergs. A hundred years ago Jakobshavn was the fastest-moving glacier in the world, pushing down from the ice cap at the rate of sixty-five feet a day until it reached the west coast of Greenland. About 10 percent of all Greenland icebergs have split—or “calved”—from the end of Jakobshavn. After they have wrenched away from the glacier, itself made of densely compacted snow that fell on the Arctic ice cap thousands of years earlier, icebergs rock and tilt on the water until finally they settle into balance.
Although there is a human settlement at Jakobshavn, Greenland is an inhuman landscape of never-ending wastes. One cannot hope for mercy from the elements in this savage land of lifeless gloom. Long, dark, freezing winters are followed by brief, colorful summers—so bright that Matthew Henson, the black American who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1909, found summer midnight in Greenland’s icebound wilderness as bright as dusk in New York on the Fourth of July. The land belongs to polar bears, reindeer, musk oxen, wolves, arctic foxes, and mountain hares. White-tailed eagles rule the skies, especially near Cape Farewell; black ravens are ubiquitous with their croaking; guillemots and ptarmigans are hunted as food; stiff-winged gliding petrels, snow buntings, and peregrine falcons abound. There are fish and walruses, but until recently no pleasure seekers in the fjord. In such a wilderness of primeval rocks and eternal ice was launched the iceberg that made history.
Since 2000 the tongue of Jakobshavn Glacier has retreated from the coast at an alarming rate, and the ice flow behind has sped up. Jakobshavn, indeed, is one of the great loci of global crisis. Nowadays 35 billion metric tons of iceberg calve from the glacier each year and float oceanward down the fjord. Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above water: the submerged seven-eighths can be so deep that icebergs get wedged on the floor of the fjord and remain jammed there until broken by the weight of other icebergs smashing onto them from the glacier. As they are largely submerged, the drift of icebergs is governed by current and little affected by wind.
Some icebergs from Iceland are carried by the East Greenland Current around Cape Farewell, where they join thousands of other icebergs from the western glaciers and together sweep into Baffin Bay. There they are taken by the Labrador Current, which carries them southward toward the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Many icebergs run aground on the coast of Labrador or on the northern part of the Banks and there disintegrate. The first appear near the Grand Banks about the beginning of March—“cold monsters that are so beautiful to look at and so dangerous to touch,” in the words of a Cunard captain on the North Atlantic run.
By the end of June they have ceased. During a normal year some three hundred to three hundred and fifty icebergs drift south of Newfoundland, and about fifty are borne south of the Grand Banks. Short of bombardment there is no means of destroying an iceberg except by waiting for it to melt. The largest of them drift twenty-five hundred miles before they dwindle away in the sun around latitude 40º north. From the bridge of a liner on a clear day a large iceberg can be seen at sixteen to twenty miles’ distance. In bright sunshine it appears as a luminous white mass. In dense fog its somber bulk is undetectable at more than a hundred yards. On a fogless night without a moon an iceberg would be visible at a quarter of a mile, but in moonlight it might be seen at a distance of several miles.
Field ice—great sheets of ice piled on one another by wind and currents—is formed on salt water. It is practically impassable, and a ship caught by it will have difficulty getting free without damage. Field ice drifts out of the Arctic all year long, carried south by the Labrador Current and supplemented by coastal ice. Often it runs ashore in bays along its route. It is susceptible to wind, unlike icebergs, and by early February of each year covers much of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. There it drifts at the mercy of winds and currents until it melts. It is hard to detect at much distance, especially by night, but can be spotted by a flickering luminosity in the sky called “ice blink.”
The Arctic winter of 1911–1912 was exceptionally mild. This accelerated the calving of icebergs from glaciers jutting over Greenland’s west coast. The icebergs were larger than usual, which meant that they took longer to melt as they drifted southward. In April 1912 there was therefore more ice than usual floating in the Atlantic, and it was farther south than usual, too. During the previous months of February and March, violent storms had pounded the Newfoundland side of the North Atlantic. The three-thousand-ton sealing ship
vanished with thirty-seven souls; a schooner,
struggled for two months to cross from Portugal to Newfoundland until—battered, leaking, and with one crewman dead—it was crushed in the ice pack. By early April the tempests had abated, but the North Atlantic was strewn with spars, planks, and lost cargo. Over a thousand icebergs had drifted to the eastern edge of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland where for years at a time it had been rare to see an iceberg. As the Labrador Current sent these icebergs southward, a sheet of pack ice a hundred miles square went with them. In mild weather, icebergs may split apart with sharp reports, creating large lumps of ice called “growlers.” But in April 1912 the biggest bergs did not split into growlers. Instead, these hard, implacable masses headed at the rate of twenty-five miles a day toward the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic.
One of the most difficult—strictly speaking, impossible—things for historians to recapture is a sense of what people did not know at the time.
“A seaport without the sea’s terrors, an ocean approach within the threshold of land” . . . Enemies or tourists, missionaries or immigrants, they all entered or left land here, and in some other age their phantoms are still processing along Southampton Water.
n 1901 H. G. Wells likened the urban poor to an iceberg with much of its rock-hard bulk lurking under the surface: “the ‘submerged’ portion of the social body, a leaderless, aimless multitude of people drifting down toward the abyss.”
This submerged mass of the poor had accumulated from across the world, their recruitment accelerating as spreading railway and steamship routes more easily carried migrants from remote fastnesses to great cities. If the iceberg was a metaphor, the great modern liner was a paradigm of Western society—“a monstrous floating Babylon,” wrote one of the
passengers during its maiden voyage.
G. K. Chesterton made a similar analogy between modern liners and the society that built them. “Our whole civilization is indeed very like the
alike in its power and its impotence, its security and its insecurity,” he wrote after the ship’s loss. “There was no sort of sane proportion between the extent of the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress—just like the modern State.”
Over eighty years later the paradigm was sharpened into class war. James Cameron’s film
diabolized the rich Americans and educated English, anathematizing their emotional restraint, good tailoring, punctilious manners, and grammatical training, while it made romantic heroes of the poor Irish and the unlettered. If Cameron’s film had caricatured the poor as it did the rich there would have been an outcry. Instead Jiang Zemin, the president of China, hailed the film as a parable of class warfare, in which “the third-class passengers (the proletariat) struggle valiantly against the ship’s crew (craven capitalist lapdogs and stooges).” He urged fellow Marxists to see the film and study its depiction of money and class. Similarly, Serge July, editor of
told his fellow French
that the film represented the suicide in mid-Atlantic of a society divided by class rather than a sinking ship.
Class demarcations on ocean steamers were based on hard money rather than notions of social justice. The German-American Edward Steiner described how, after a midocean storm in 1906, seasick third-class Atlantic passengers sidled from the hold looking shaken, pale, and unkempt. On deck they made a diverting spectacle for richer voyagers who, from their spacious upper deck, looked down on them “in pity and dismay, getting some sport from throwing sweetmeats and pennies among the hopeless-looking mass” of emigrants who wanted to be accepted as Americans. “This practice of looking down into the steerage holds all the pleasures of a slumming expedition with none of its hazards of contamination,” Steiner continued, “for the barriers which keep the classes apart on a modern ocean liner are as rigid as in the most stratified society, and nowhere else are they more artificial or more obtrusive. A matter of twenty dollars lifts a man into a cabin passenger or condemns him to the steerage; gives him the chance to be clean, to breathe pure air, to sleep on spotless linen and to be served courteously; or to be pushed into a dark hold where soap and water are luxuries, where bread is heavy and soggy, meat without savour and service without courtesy. The matter of twenty dollars makes one man a menace to be examined every day, driven up and down slippery stairs and exposed to the winds and waves; but makes of the other man a pet, to be coddled, fed on delicacies, guarded against draughts, lifted from deck to deck, and nursed with gentle care.”
For the millionaires on board, but also for surprising numbers of the poorest passengers, an Atlantic crossing was a regular round trip that they made twice or more often a year. For many others, though, it was momentous. An ocean voyage separates and estranges. People are parted, sorrowfully or cheerily, as it may be, with hope, regret, or relief. At departure some think only of their next reunion, and others are set on a lifelong repudiation. There are times when leave-takings open chasms. U.S. immigration laws stipulated that passengers of different classes must be separated on liners by locked metal barriers to limit their supposed power to spread contagion, but some obstacles between the classes were more insurmountable even than barred gates. Money made the difference. Contrast the contents of the pockets of two
corpses recovered from the ocean: John Jacob Astor IV (“Colonel Jack”), the richest man on board, had $4,000 in sodden notes in his pockets; but the jacket of Vassilios Katavelas, a nineteen-year-old Greek farmworker, had more meager treasures: a pocket mirror, a comb, a purse containing ten cents, and a train ticket to Milwaukee.
The White Star Line, which operated the liner
promoted its leviathans as expressions of racial supremacy, for this was an epoch when Africans and Asians were customarily described as “subject races.” “The
” declared the owners, “are not only the largest vessels in the World; they represent the highest attainments in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering; they stand for the pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon race on the Ocean.” Both liners “will rank high in the achievements of the twentieth century.”
Such clamorous confidence was soon to seem like deadly hubris.
Southampton, on England’s south coast, was the White Star Line’s new port for its New York service. When Alfred the Great was king of the Anglo-Saxons in the ninth century, Southampton was his harbor. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Southampton became a vital port between the duchy of Normandy and the kingdom of England. Roman barges, plague ships, merchant vessels, troop ships, Sir Francis Drake’s
bringing Spanish gold to Queen Elizabeth—they all used Southampton harbor. After 1750, Southampton was developed as a smart spa town: spacious Georgian stucco terraces were built, and pretty villas studded the surrounding countryside. In 1815 the first steamship came to Southampton, and in 1839 the railway to London was opened.
It was not until 1892, when the London & South Western Railway (L&SWR) bought the Southampton Dock Company for £1,360,000, that the port mounted its challenge on Liverpool. Southampton held an advantage with which Liverpool could not vie: a double tide caused by the way that the Isle of Wight juts into the English Channel and diverts ebb tides. Norddeutscher-Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika steamships already stopped at Southampton as they carried the emigrant traffic between Germany and the United States, but it was an auspicious day when in 1893 the liner
owned by the American financier John Pierpont Morgan, docked at Southampton, where its passengers were carried away on the South Western Railway. By 1895 the railway company had invested £2 million in the port, through which passenger traffic had risen by 71 percent. Norddeutscher-Lloyd then built three ocean greyhounds, the
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosser
(1901), and the
Kaiser Wilhelm II
(1903), while Hamburg-Amerika’s
(1900) held the Blue Riband for the swiftest North Atlantic crossings in three consecutive years (at an average speed exceeding twenty-three knots). First-class passengers, especially rich Americans, became disinclined to make the railway journey to Liverpool for embarkation on Cunard or White Star liners when from London they could reach more readily the swift German steamships halting at Southampton.
In 1907 White Star withdrew its Atlantic liner service from Liverpool and inaugurated a new outward service from Southampton to New York via Cherbourg in Normandy and Queenstown, Ireland, with a return service calling at Plymouth rather than Queenstown. A director of White Star, Lord Pirrie, became a director of L&SWR to ensure that relations between the two companies were lubricated by trusty cooperation. To meet White Star’s needs, the railway erected a passenger and cargo shed at Southampton, seven hundred feet long, with passenger gantries for passengers to embark on the
. It was said that “what Brighton is to London for pleasure, Southampton will be to London for business.” Other railway men called it “London-super-Mare.”
But by 1911–1912, Southampton’s prosperity was faltering. Seamen and ships’ firemen had long been pitied by trade unionists as the most downtrodden of workers. In 1911 they struck for higher wages, and after tense weeks in which money was short in Southampton, the shipowners yielded to the strikers’ demands. This outcome encouraged dockers to strike several weeks later, and in August two men were shot dead when the army was used to quell riots on the Liverpool docks. Later that month, during the first ever national railway strike, two further men were shot dead by soldiers during rioting. On March 1, 1912, continuing the unrest, 850,000 coal miners struck for a minimum wage. Once the mines shut, another 1.3 million iron and steel workers, seamen, and others were thrown out of work. Despite the government’s introducing minimum-wage legislation, the strike had its own stubborn impetus and was not settled until April 6. This left insufficient time for newly mined coal to reach Southampton and be loaded into the
’s bunkers for its maiden voyage, and 4,427 tons of coal had to be transferred from other liners lying at the quayside.
The gross tonnage of the
was 46,328 tons. It measured 882 feet long and 92 feet wide. Its eight decks reached the height of eleven stories. The top of the captain’s quarters was 105 feet above the bottom of the keel. Three million rivets held its hull together. The ship’s three propellers were each the size of windmills. Its steel rudder, weighing 101 tons, was 78¾ feet high. Its three anchors weighed a total of 31 tons. Its four funnels (one of them a dummy added for aesthetic balance) were 22 feet in diameter and rose 81 feet above the boat deck. With such proportions, a high crane, movable along the side of the liner on rails set into the concrete quay, was needed to lower cargo into the ship’s hold. This was done long before passengers arrived.
The freight laden into the
’s holds resembled the twentieth-century equivalent of the luxuries pictured in John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes,” with its Spanish galleon carrying rare gems and tropical spices and its quinquireme from Nineveh rowing across the Mediterranean bearing its treasure of ivory and peacocks. Precious stones sent from Antwerp alone were insured for nearly £50,000. One diamond merchant lost stock insured for £18,000 when the ship went down: “a North Atlantic liner, freighted with millionaires and their wives, is a little diamond mine in itself.”
A consignment of ostrich plumes valued at £10,000 was also carried. There was a red twenty-five-horsepower Renault motor car, and high-class package freight such as velvet, cognac and other liqueurs, cartons of books, as well as fine foods such as shelled walnuts, olive oil, anchovies, cheese, vinegar, jam, mushrooms, and goods like goatskins and jute bagging. Some 3,435 bags of mail were loaded at Southampton: business letters, of course, but equally precious to the recipients, letters going to migrants’ homes and boardinghouses, from Finland, Sweden, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, and the rest, bringing their treasures of memory and love from the old country. There were thousands of registered packets. Joseph Conrad had posted the manuscript of his story “Karain” to his New York admirer John Quinn, one of those American collectors who rifled Europe for rarities to hoard in their private troves. “Karain” was lost in the sinking, together with a seal ring belonging to the Irish dramatist Lady Gregory. Fortunately, Conrad had sent the manuscript of “The Secret Agent” to Quinn by an earlier ship. The
was also carrying a rare copy of the
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
in a unique jewel-studded binding by the English binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe. A Colorado mining millionairess, Margaret Brown, who made a late booking on the
traveled with three crates containing architectural models of the ruins of ancient Rome, which she intended to give to the Denver Art Museum.
It was providential that there were not more grievous, irreplaceable losses. When the
sailed, many European art rarities were in packing cases awaiting their final far migration to a New York millionaire’s showplace on Madison Avenue. The U.S. Customs Tariff Act of 1897 had imposed a 20 percent tariff on imported works of art destined for private homes. As a result, collectors like Pierpont Morgan had for fifteen years kept their acquisitions in London or Paris. But the balance of tax advantages had recently shifted. In the United States, partly at Quinn’s instigation, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 repealed the import duty on artworks, while in Britain, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” raised the level of death duties. Morgan’s aversion to paying tax spurred him to order the transfer of his London collection to New York—despite Lloyd George issuing an official statement in January 1912: “Mr. Pierpont Morgan’s art treasures would not be liable to death duties in England unless they were to be sold.”
That January, to the consternation of English cognoscenti, Morgan’s paintings, furniture, miniatures, silver, sculpture, bronzes, ivories, majolica, enamels, porcelain, and jewelry began to be packed for transatlantic shipment. The princely house in Kensington that served as a showcase for his collection—“it looks like a pawnbroker’s shop for Croesuses,”
the connoisseur Bernard Berenson observed—was given over to packers, hammerers, and carters. Pierpont Morgan felt that the ships of the White Star Line, which he owned, had an inviolable safety record, and insisted that his precious rarities be carried on its vessels. White Star liners conveyed Morgan’s first packing cases across the Atlantic in February, but in March shipments had to be suspended for lack of an official who was required by pettifogging U.S. Customs regulations to monitor the packing. By this chance not a particle of Morgan’s collection was shipped on the