The Titanic

The “unsinkable” ship that sunk

The myths about the RMS Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912, are themselves so big and numerous that we could call them titanic in their own right. In fact, they’ve lasted so long they might be considered unsinkable.

Let’s take that word, “unsinkable,” first. The story is that the Titanic was built to be unsinkable, that it was promoted as unsinkable to potential passengers, and that no ship had ever had that label affixed to it, is a myth. In the first place, neither the ship’s builders Harland and Wolff, nor its owners White Star Line, claimed “unsinkability” for its famous sister ships, The Titanic and The Olympic, as an absolute, and without qualification. The White Star Line’s promotional material said, “as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable.” Only after the Titanic went down and became such a dramatic and famous story, did the idea that it was promoted as absolutely unsinkable appear. Further, the claim of “designed to be unsinkable” weren’t rare. The same claim was made by the builders of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sank, and many other big passenger liners of those decades.

Perhaps the most poignant myth about the sinking is that the Titanic’s band played the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the ship went down. The band did assemble on the forward half of the boat deck and played stirring music to keep up passengers’ spirits. And the band, quite heroically, played until the very last moment and they all went down with the ship. So that part is true. What’s in contention is what song they played in the last moments before the ship sank.

Accounts vary, but the survivors who reported that it was “Nearer, My God, to Thee” had been able to get into lifeboats at least an hour before the Titanic went under and were too far away to have heard the band. Further, those who “remembered” “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and who told the story in later years, may have been conflating their Titanic memories with their memories of the very famous reports of the sinking of the Valencia in 1906. In that case, a group of doomed passengers assembled on deck just before the ship went down and sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Lots of other Titanic survivors claimed that the band’s last piece was “The Song of Autumn,” a popular waltz at the time. But “Song of Autumn” was not in the White Star band’s songbook, so that’s not certain either. Perhaps the most reliable witness was Colonel Archibald Gracie. He was on the Titanic until the very end and was only able to survive by bumping into a capsized lifeboat and clinging on. He wrote an account of the sinking from his hospital bed a few days later. He said the band played only cheerful songs and that, if they had played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “I assuredly should have noticed and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all and one likely to create panic.”

So there you have it, Buzzkillers. The two most dramatic legends about the Titanic are misunderstandings at least, and myths at best.

Further Reading:

Richard Howells, The Myth of the Titanic: Centenary Edition (2012).

Cartwright and J. Cartwright, Titanic: The Myths and Legacy of a Disaster (2012).

Archibald Gracie, Titanic: a Survivor’s Story (2009).

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