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Titanic: Selene and Helios, fire, ice and war

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Another account on the “Titanic”, this time by Rhys Clift, partner at Hill Dickinson.

The British, Greeks and the Norse share a remarkable maritime heritage. And the Greeks, Norse and the Gaelic peoples, the forebears of the British, heavily represented by the men who built Titanic and those who filled the berths well below decks, share a rich history in fairytales, myths and legends.

The gods of Olympus and Asgard are beings of legend, but we now live in a secular age. In this post-Enlightenment, post-industrial world, we make our own myths. And yet one of the greatest of these contains all the elements worthy of a Homeric or an Icelandic saga: mortal hubris, elemental forces of sea, ice, the baleful influence of the moon, and destruction and loss on an epic scale.

Today the word ‘titanic’ evokes several meanings: the ancient pre-Olympian gods (several of whom may have played their part in this saga); gigantic, massive, enormous and the eponymous, “TITANIC” which drew on all of these resonances. And she was to prove worthy of her name both in conception and her fateful end.

Many questions about the “TITANIC” have now been answered. But some remain that may never be resolved. Was an unduly large quantity of ice unusually far south? And why, if so, was it there in the middle of April? The ancient gods of legend may be dead, but in the story of “TITANIC” the natural forces that fuel their myths live on.

When launched “TITANIC” was said to be the largest mobile object ever made by man. She was about 270 metres in length, with a maximum breadth of just over 28 metres. By contrast the world’s largest ever vessel was probably the more prosaically named “SEAWISE GIANT” built in 1979 (a ULCC, then an FPSO, before scrapping), at 458 metres in length with a maximum breadth of 69 metres.  But for her time, “TITANIC” was huge, and an awesome sight during construction in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard; nearly four times the length of the Parthenon, longer than the base of the Great Pyramid in Giza, longer than the Thames waterfront of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster, previously destroyed by fire, completed about 40 years before her launch.

“TITANIC”  sank on 15 April 1912 on her maiden voyage from Ireland to New York, packed with aristocrats, millionaires, industrialists (Astor, Guggenheim) and emigrants seeking a better life in the New World, following in the wake of Leif Ericson. She has a particular significance for Hill Dickinson since the firm, which was then called Hill Dickinson & Co and originally founded in Liverpool (her intended home port) in 1810, represented the owners White Star Line in the British Board of Trade enquiry and administered the mutual insurance association in which she was entered, the Liverpool and London Protection and Indemnity Association. Though in in a sense she was American, not British; the ultimate owner of the White Star line was the financier J P Morgan.

White Star line engaged Harland and Wolff to build the Olympic class vessels (“OLYMPIC”, “TITANIC” and “BRITANNIC”) to compete for the trans-Atlantic trade with other great ocean liners, including Cunard’s “MAURITANIA” and “LUSITANIA”. Opulence, size and speed were key criteria; although White Star chose to leave the “BLUE RIBAND” for the fastest crossing to others. “TITANIC” and “BRITANNIC” had notably short lives; the latter sunk in the Mediterranean in 1916 serving as a hospital ship after the outbreak of hostilities. “OLYMPIC” had a long and distinguished service history.

“TITANIC” has generated an extraordinary volume of comment, literature and press coverage, much mythologizing and no small number of crank theories; the loss of “TITANIC” is said to have been a harbinger of doom, to presage the end of an era; the end of the golden age which ran from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the glorious Edwardian summer when Europe was plunged into the sodden conflict of the Great War, mired in the mud of Flanders; the end of the rigid class system in Britain that segregated the aristocracy, the middle class and the working class, just as they were so clearly segregated on board (and so marked by the disproportionate deaths in steerage (third class)).

In reality the 19th Century was a period of astonishing change: industrial change, social change, triggered in part by the French and American Revolutions, and widespread conflict (The American Civil War, the Spanish American War, the Franco Prussian War, the Boer Wars to name but a few). And the Commons had already achieved ascendancy over the House of Lords in the first Parliament Act of 1911; though it was probably the carnage of the Second World War which finally sounded the death knell of social class division.

Nor was “TITANIC” lost at the zenith of Britain’s industrial might; by the time she was launched Britain had long lost her primacy as the first industrial nation. Some say the highpoint was more than 50 years earlier at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and the building of Paxton’s magnificent Crystal Palace) three years before the bungling and waste at Crimea. Certainly by 1875 Britain had been overtaken by America as the most productive industrial state, just as China is now on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy.

Looking back 100 years, at the cusp of the centenary of the sinking, “TITANIC” marked a point in the staggering transformation of the British Isles, through the Industrial Revolution originally driven by the iron and steel-masters of Coalbrookdale,   men like Abraham Darby. Looking back a further 100 years, to about 1812 and the founding of Hill Dickinson, a quite extraordinary change was in prospect. Up to that point, for the first 5, 000 years of human civilisation, work was done and goods carried and transported by the strength of men, horses and oxen; ships were built of wood and driven by oars and later the vagaries of the winds and the currents, broken on reefs, driven up beaches by unfavourable winds and tides, immobile and desperate in the Doldrums. By the end of the 19th Century steam power, which (setting aside the theories of Hero of Alexandria) had initially been harnessed by the genius of Newcomen and Watt to drive huge engines on land (giant static engines, like the beam engine “David & Samson”, to pump water out of coal and tin mines), had been adapted to provide motive force on rail and at sea, to navigate to destinations at choice; the gift of Prometheus (and Loki) was shackled to man’s will.

And perhaps this had fostered an illusion of invulnerability, a mastery of nature and the delusion of unsinkability that by all accounts persuaded the owners of “TITANIC” to reduce the number of life boats.

It was a century of curious hybrids; the first steam ship (“Comet”) was launched in 1812, but for decades after ships were built with both sail and steam; including those representing landmark change like Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the first iron vessel to cross the Atlantic and again at the time (1845) the largest vessel afloat. And as late as 1869, vessels like the exquisite clipper “CUTTY SARK” were built with a composite hull of cast iron frame and timber cladding, though driven solely by sail.

But iron then steel inevitably became the favoured medium of construction of hulls. And setting nuclear power apart, which has never developed widely as a commercial source of power at sea, the essential model has remained the same ever since; metal hulls driven by the burning of hydrocarbons (steam coal and steam turbines, then fuel oil and internal combustion engines). There is no serious alternative in prospect for the transportation of the vast quantities of goods which is essential to the modern operation of international trade; though huge numbers of people now cross the Atlantic in hours not days, by air.

For those interested in anthropogenic carbon (and its possible effects) Titanic played a very small part, burning about 850 tons of coal per day; to say nothing of the consumption of the Cunarders and the great German and Dutch steamers (Mauritania consumed 1, 000 tons of coal per day).

Dramatic sinkings at sea and serious loss of life are hardly unknown (as the sinking of the SS Arctic in 1854 so clearly demonstrates); but somehow “TITANIC” remains a particular focus of nostalgia, for some an aching yearning for the past; infused as she was with the genius of the Victorians, perceived by some as a sort of late floating echo of the magnificence of the railway stations (Marylebone and Waterloo) and the neo gothic majesty of St. Pancras.  Why should that be so; because of the huge loss of life on her sinking (approximately 1, 500 souls), because she lay undiscovered at the bottom of the deep, cold waters of the Atlantic for over 70 years, or because of the abiding image of the band playing “Nearer my God to thee” or perhaps yet some coronach or some haunting elegiac strain in the darkness, as the ship slowly sank in a flat glassy calm?

The tale of her discovery concealed a curious truth.”TITANIC” was discovered in 1985 by a team of oceanographers led by Dr Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute at the base of Cape Cod, not far from the huge US naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. And therein lies a hint; it was not until many years later that the funding for the search was revealed. At the time, the USA and Russia, their allies and satellite states were still in the grip of the Cold War. The Americans had lost two naval submarines in the deep Atlantic (Scorpion and Thresher). They were anxious to find out if their nuclear plants posed any threat. Ballard was provided with funding to find them and, it now seems clear, was permitted to use the remaining budget and time to follow his theory for the location of the “TITANIC” wreck. In this of course he was spectacularly successful. And subsequently he used the fame and resources brought to him by that discovery to locate the wreck of the “LUSITANIA” (sunk in 1915) and even to hunt for evidence of the Biblical Flood in the Black Sea; so much for the unintended consequences of a war budget.

The great glaciers on land sustain vast populations and feed rivers in particular in Asia and South America: for example, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yellow River, the Yangtse and the Mekong in the East. Today they provide hydroelectric power in France, Austria, Switzerland, in Canada and in the USA. In Europe they feed waterways and agriculture and cool nuclear power stations. But where they disgorge into the seas they pose a threat.

So was there an unduly large quantity of ice unusually far south in 1912? And why, if so, was it there in there in the middle of April?

Some say that fate is written in the stars, others that it is simply a matter of Newton’s silent hidden force; and perhaps in this instance, both in their own way may be right. A new theory propounds that the icebergs calved from the Jacobshavn glacier off Western Greenland, that normally ground and melt off the unforgiving Labrador and Newfoundland coast (where Ericson had first made landfall), had been re-floated in large numbers in January 1912 by a very unusual high tide. That high tide is now said by a team of astronomers from Texas State University to have been driven by the gravitational pull of the closest pass of the Moon (perigee) for 1, 400 years on 4th January 1912; in combination with the closest approach of the Earth to the Sun (perihelion) which took place just the day before. In this way man feels the consequences of a passing embrace of Selene and Helios, under a canopy of stars held up by Atlas.

The tides rise and fall as the Earth and the moon follow their varying elliptical paths; and the glaciers rise and encroach on the land, then melt and retreat, according to Milankovitch, influenced by the same cycles (and the precessional wobble of the Earth on its axis) though over vastly greater periods. Immediately after the sinking there was a Senate Enquiry in the US and a Board of Trade Enquiry in England. The former first opened in New York on 19th April 1912, where once the Wisconsin Ice Sheet (glacier) sat 1, 000 feet thick (and whose striations can still be seen on the rocks in Central Park).

In the last analysis, the essential truth of the sinking is mundane: the loss of “TITANIC” is simply a testament to hubris and to man’s vulnerability to the weather and the crushing force of ice and cold. In 1912 “TITANIC” sank because, in part, she was simply going too fast on her maiden passage in an area which was in any event prone to icebergs, driven south by the Labrador current; just as Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men were freezing to death in the Antarctic just two weeks earlier and just as 100 years earlier in 1812 Napoleon’s vaunting ambitions had been brought to ground in the destruction of his Grande Armee by the Russian winter.

But, even in the face of these, and previous and subsequent tragedies, “TITANIC” retains an iconic status in the imagination of all seafaring nations and for those in peril on the seas.


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