To mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, last week’s IJN featured articles about Titanic survivors, its sister ship the Olympic, and how life was like for immigrants - among them some Jews - both during the voyage and the horrific sinking. One forgets that alongside the passengers, both glittering and those in steerage, were the staff - from coal shovelers to maids to cooks, including of the Hebrew variety, which is not a Jewish cook, but a chef who prepared kosher food.
So there’s the things people probably didn’t know about the Titanic, like the kosher food, and there’s the things people thought they knew about the Titanic. In fact there exist many a myth surrounding the Titanic, most of them developed and honed by the many films depicting the disaster. A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s spectacularly successful Titanic are largely to blame.
Of these five myths collected by the BBC, which did you think were true?
- ‘Unsinkable’: The White Star Line never claimed it was unsinkable and in fact the Titanic wasn’t big news until after it sank. Its sister ship the Olympic stole most of the media attention when she made her maiden voyage the previous year.
- The Band’s Final Song: That the band did continue to play as the ship sank is likely true, but what exactly they were playing (they are popularly accredited with playing the hymn Nearer They God to Thee) and at what moment they stopped is obviously unprovable as any eyewitnesses soon became victims themselves.
- Captain Smith: Despite Smith being remembered as a hero and going down with the ship as a captain should (take note Captain Francesco Schettino!), Smith failed to issue an “abandon ship” order, resulting in many passengers being unaware that they were in imminent danger. One academic described the captain as “vanishing into ether”.
- Villainous Businessman: Much of the bad press about White Star Line president J Bruce Ismay, calling him a “coward” for saving himself and even branding him J Brute Ismay, boiled down to a feud with yellow press magnate William Randolph Hearst. In fact an inquiry found that he helped many into lifeboats and only boarded the last to leave the sinking liner.
- Steerage Passengers: The scenes in Cameron’s Titanic of third-class passengers being forced to wait below deck while first and second class passengers make their way to lifeboats may be tear-jerking, but are likely untrue. While gates did exist on the ships, they were there to comply with US immigration regulations and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. It is true, however, that no lifeboats were stored in third class.
Are you as surprised as we were that some of these assumptions about one of the worst maritime disasters are imagined? Don’t feel too bad. According to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, some Twitter users are admitting to not even knowing that the disaster was an historical event - and not just a popular film.