Titanic: A Great Tragedy’s Warning and Inspiration - 1912

Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line.

Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line. The Shipbuilder (Midsummer 1911) p. 2. GGA Image ID # 10b1ec3dc2

In its sacrifice of safety to speed and show, the sea's greatest catastrophe lays bare a weak spot in modern life; in the moral heroism called forth, the disaster reveals civilization's most exquisite flower.

We may blame the Titanic’s brave captain for running at almost top speed in the region of icebergs of whose presence he had been thrice warned. Perhaps it may be found that blame rests, too, on the managing director of the White Star company who was on board the ill-fated “unsinkable’’ ship.

We may blame, also, and rightly, the steamship company which directly or inferentially encourages the taking of great chances to make record trips. We may hold the company responsible, likewise, for having only about one-third of the necessary lifeboat capacity, absurdly offering to the public unobstructed outlooks and promenades, swimming pools, squash courts, gymnasia, and other luxuries, in place of universal provision for the saving of life.

But, in justice, it should be said that the White Star company has not sinned above its sister companies in these regards. In the building of the Titanic, it had scored on its competitors, but among all the leading companies there has been a keen rivalry to possess vessels which spell the last word in size and luxury of appointments and to clip hours, or even minutes, from transatlantic records.

Captain E. J. Smith, Commander of the Titanic, Who Went Down With His Ship.

Captain E. J. Smith, Commander of the Titanic, Who Went Down With His Ship. © Underwood & Underwood. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic (1912) p. 00-c. GGA Image ID # 1102b58573

Yes, captains and steamship companies are responsible. But there is a third party to the case. And that is our speed-mad and luxury-loving age, which has demanded this sort of thing, and, when the risk has been carried through with success, has loudly applauded.

Time and again in our country similar warnings have come to us when in railroad wrecks the same demand for records has thrown safety to the breeze, entailing the sacrifice of a dozen or score of lives.

At what awful price has the tragedy of the sea taught the world that human cargoes are more sacred than luxurious vessels and record-breaking voyages.

A new “long” course farther south has already been agreed to by the steamship companies. Other reforms, in the matter of sufficient lifeboats, speed, and luxury limitations, will follow, we believe.

Turning to the sinking of the great ship, we have a picture heartrending and infinitely sad, but a tale of voluntary renunciation and sacrifice making an immortal contribution to the ideals of humanity.

No scene of martyrdom in the arena of long ago ever presented human nature in nobler aspect than that shown as the Titanic's captain called out, “Women and children first!” in the main every man on board, millionaire and stoker, first cabin and steerage, answering the call.

Whence came this strange rule of the sea? No law prescribes it. No proud civilization of the past gave it birth. Even with many civilizations today, the tyrannical rule is, “Men first, children next, women last.”

Suggestions of the ideal may not be wholly lacking in other religions and civilizations, but it is the Christian religion and Christian civilization which inspires vicarious sacrifice, teaching that “the strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak.”

The evolutionary hypothesis has been much modified since Darwin explained the history of the race by the “survival of the fittest,” though for many the phrase still epitomizes their philosophy of life.

The Christian Gospel has never so taught. And it takes a tragedy like this to show how great our own age, universally decried as sordid and material is permeated with Christianity’s sacrificial ideals.

It is the common element in human life that gives to character its most valuable content. Each one who went down with the ship died that someone else might be saved. The Carpathia might have come back with a boat-load of men, with stories of women beaten and pushed from lifeboat and raft and children left on the foundering vessel.

Then would we have hung our heads in shame? But survivors tell a story of most exceptional heroism on the part of men and of women as well—a tale which will make an immortal chapter in the literature of our common humanity and add precious treasure to the ideals of the race.

"A Great Tragedy’s Warning and Inspiration," in Leslie's Weekly, Vol. CXIV, No. 2956, 2 May 1912, p. 503.

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