SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 207 April 2017

How corporate greed sank the Titanic

Titanic: the new evidence

Channel 4

Reviewed by Mick Whale

New questions are being raised as to why the Titanic sank in 1912 with the loss of over 1,500 passengers and crew. Brilliantly brought together by Senan Molony for Channel 4’s New Evidence series, this documentary is a damning condemnation of Sir Bruce Isnay and the White Star Line bosses who owned the ship.

The disaster has become part of common mythology. Older readers will have learned about it through the prism of the film, A Night to Remember (1958), which claimed to be a docudrama, most memorable for the unflappable heroism of the Titanic’s British officers. Kenneth More’s upper lip has rarely been stiffer. A younger generation will be more familiar with the Titanic as filtered through the Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet lower class-upper class love story. Neither of these films gives any proper explanation of why the ship sunk.

The official inquiry recorded that the cause of the tragedy was that RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic sailed too fast into an iceberg field. There is an element of truth in this, but Senan Molony has revealed that the ship was vulnerable even before it had been built. Greed and capitalist competition were the key factors in the ship sinking.

The White Star Line was the shipping company which owned and built the Titanic. Its finances in 1912 were not healthy and it felt it had to respond to the growing competition from the Cunard Line. It did so by building the Titanic, at the time, the biggest ship afloat. For the millionaires able to afford first-class berths, it must have been like travelling in the richest hotel. For the poorer passengers who had to travel ‘steerage’ class conditions were much more basic.

While the owners were prepared to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in decorations to impress the rich, they skimped on the materials used in the basic construction of the ship. Given its colossal size, it was recommended that the skin and the bulkheads should be made out of special reinforced steel. Anxious to avoid any ‘unnecessary’ cost, however, the bosses opted for ‘ordinary’ steel instead. Three months earlier, almost in ironic anticipation of the impending tragedy, a sister ship RMS Olympic, also made from lower grade steel, had its side punctured in a collision and was forced to return to docks for repairs.

The steel used was to have catastrophic consequences because of the next piece of evidence: a fire had been raging for three weeks in one of the coal silos before it had even been launched! Like most ocean liners at the time, Titanic was coal fired. This meant that it had to carry huge amounts of coal which teams of firemen shovelled from the silo to the furnace which drove the engine. Preparing for the maiden voyage, the ship was loaded with coal weeks in advance because the owners were trying to avoid a coal strike. As the weight of the coal built up, the compression led to spontaneous combustion.

The only way to deal with the fire would have been to move the coal from the silo to the furnace. However, as the ship was not scheduled to sail for weeks, this would have been a waste of the coal reserves. So the fire smouldered and burned. Nothing was done about it until the ship was actually sailing. Photographs of the ship in Southampton show discolouration of the outer skin of the ship. This is almost certainly the effect of the fire.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that something was wrong was the actions of those who knew. The ship owners, particularly Sir Bruce Isnay, ordered all men to keep quiet about any problems. The last thing the White Star Line wanted was any delays to the voyage to New York. This would have meant a loss of prestige in the face of competition from its rivals. The firemen did indeed keep quiet but a staggering 140 of the 150 who had started the voyage from the docks in Belfast, left the ship at Southampton. We can only speculate but for most of them it must have been out of fear of the fire.

As the ship set sail it became possible to dig out the smouldering coal and put it into the furnaces. However, this meant that it had to travel at top speed. If the ship had slowed down, it is questionable whether it would have had enough fuel to reach New York. It also meant that, when the ship was warned of icebergs, charting a different route might have led to the ship running out of coal. Sir Bruce Isnay, who was on board, could not accept anything which might have delayed the Titanic or caused it to run out of fuel. This would have exposed the Titanic and its owners to ridicule and lost them potential custom. The greed of the bosses of the White Star Line came before safety.

The combination of the steel used and the fire in the silo was to have further devastating consequences when the ship hit the iceberg. RMS Titanic had been designed using a bulkhead safety system. In effect, the ship was divided into sections with steel bulkheads acting as walls that would keep any water that might enter the ship in that one section. This would stop tons of water moving around, thereby keeping the ship stable. In theory, the Titanic should not have sunk as quickly as it did. Had the bulkheads held as they were supposed to, the Carpathian rescue ship would probably have been there in time to rescue all of the passengers and crew.

A suppressed statement from one of the firemen described the bulkhead where the fire had been raging as being buckled. When the water entered the fire-weakened bulkhead gave way and it flowed from one section to others very quickly. This made the ship unstable and hastened its sinking. So sure were the designers that the bulkheads would hold that they decided that it was not necessary to include a lifeboat place for all the passengers. That decision was to prove a death sentence to more than 1,500 passengers and crew – out of a total of 2,224.

Yet, just when you think that things can’t get any worse, Channel 4’s documentary shows that Isnay’s first action after being rescued – no stiff upper lip or thought of going down with his ship here – was to send a message to New York to round up any surviving crew and get them on the first ship back to Britain. This was to avoid any statements which might have exposed the White Star Line’s negligence. The first thought of the bosses was to cover up what happened so as not to lose prestige and profit. In Britain the official inquiry chaired by Lord Mersey heard no testimony from survivors from the lower decks. It completely ignored the valiant efforts of the firemen’s union to expose the details of the fire.

The Titanic sank over 100 years ago. However, the battle for health and safety goes on. Unfortunately, the modern day equivalents of Sir Bruce Isnay continue to put people’s lives at risk in order to increase their profits. Southern Rail and its attempts to cut safety guards, the building contractor who stops a rest break to get the job done quicker, the local council that speeds up bin collections are three examples from an almost endless list.

Capitalism is becoming more cutthroat and so the pressure to take penny pinching short cuts which could risk people’s lives becomes ever more likely. Thank goodness we have trade unions to offer some protection. The real answer is the nationalisation of all transport under workers’ control and management. We cannot trust the bosses with something as important as our health and lives.

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