The Rough Guide

to the Titanic

What really happened on the night 
the Titanic went down?
Why is the ship still remembered a century later?
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What really happened on the night 
the Titanic went down?
Why is the ship still remembered a century later?
Shortly before midnight on Sunday 14 April 1912, the White Star liner Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Two hours and forty minutes later, the great ship sank.
Just over seven hundred survivors found their way into lifeboats, and were picked up the next morning by the Cunard liner Carpathia. Meanwhile, fifteen hundred men, women and children died. Many froze to death in the open ocean, adrift in their lifebelts and crying out for help that never came.
That appalling catastrophe captivated the attention of the world. There’s no mystery as to why – the largest ship ever launched, sailing between the two wealthiest nations on earth, was destroyed in a disaster that claimed the lives of prominent citizens and humble emigrants alike. It was the ultimate story, in an era when the newfound ability of news to race around the world seemed almost magical.
What’s not so obvious is why the Titanic still exerts such a hold on popular imagination a hundred years later.

The crucial factor may be that the disaster happened beyond the usual confines of time and space. It took place in neither the old world nor the new, but in a liminal space between the two. Unseen in the witching hour of a moonless night, for the eternity between the collision and the final plunge, the Titanic’s passengers and crew found themselves poised in terror between life and death.

Even as the Carpathia made her way back to New York, the Titanic was entering the realm of myth. During those three days, the only information was a slowly accumulating list of survivors. Newspapers filled the void by extrapolating from snippets. That no husband had survived his wife was interpreted as proof that the conduct aboard the Titanic was a “splendid tribute to the Anglo-Saxon sense of duty”. After a bewildered White Star Line spokesman told reporters that he’d thought the ship was “unsinkable”, it came to be believed that the world at large had shared his opinion.

Over the coming weeks, as the survivors described their experiences, some of the initial stories turned out to be true. Some did not, but remained in the public consciousness anyway.

The tragedy tapped into crucial concerns of the era. What did it mean to be a man, or a woman? What did it mean to be British?  It also posed more timeless questions. We all live in the awareness of death, but how should we – and how would we – behave when confronted with its imminent certainty?

for the full story, read the Rough Guide to the Titanic . . .

text © Greg Ward, images Library of Congress archives



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