Sunday, April 15, 2012

100 Years ago... !

So today marks the centenary of the most famous natural disaster in all of human history. At 23.40 local time on 14th April (8.08 am IST on 15th April), the front of the starboard hit an iceberg, resulting in the sinking of the ship that was thought to be unsinkable and the loss of more than 1500 lives, a motley crew ranging from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time (a first class suite on the Titanic cost the equivalent of $ 100,000 today !!) and hundreds of emigrants eager to start a new life in the land of hope and opportunity.
Over the past century, no other accident has been so closely examined. Dozens of documentaries have been made that feature various aspects of the Titanic : her design, her pomp and splendour, her maiden voyage and of course, her sinking. There are many theories as to why the biggest passenger ship in the world sank including one, by Robin Gardiner that, controversially, claims that it was, in fact, not the Titanic that sank but her older and sister ship the Olympic and that it did not sink naturally but was actually sunk purposely as part of a big insurance scam (though hopefully, the brains behind this did not mean to see over 1500 people die). This bizzare theory notwithstanding, there are endless debates on what caused the sinking: human error or design flaws. Was the ship too fast ? Could the sinking, so to speak, have been managed better in order to save more lives ? These, and many other questions, have not been conclusively answered to this day. To be fair, it was a confluence of many once-in-a-while factors that played their part in the tragedy'. It is now know that the winter of 1911-12 was one of the mildest in many years, causing significantly more ice to break off from Greenland and the Arctic and drift off, only to come right in the path of the busy Trans-Atlantic shipping routes (even though Titanic took the less dangerous southern route). The sea was exceptionally calm that night (its significance is in the observation that, had the seas been rough, the waves striking the iceberg could have been better visible to the people on the crow's nest). There was also the fact the the Earth and Moon were the closest in hundreds of years in January 1912, causing strong tides that took the icebergs much faster right onto the shipping lanes.  Then, of course, is the whole commerical angle to this fateful tale. The genesis of the Titanic was in the big race between the two premier shipping lines of the time, the White Star Line and the Cunard Line, with each trying to outdo the other in building ever more bigger liners. And, in part, this rivalry had to do with the decision to reduce, fatally in hindsight, the number of lifeboats on the Titanic. From the 64 proposed by the ship's designers, finally only 20 found their way on the ship, ostensibly to free up space and take in more passengers. There are many such stories and coincidences that have their part to play in the legend of the Titanic. Finally, there is the role of the Titanic as part of the larger geo-political picture. Some historians have speculated that the sinking of the Titanic actually started the 21st century as we know it, setting a chain of events that led to a century of World Wars. 

It is 100 years today, but the legend still lives on. And it will for the next 100 years, and even thereafter. There have been other natural tragedies, some that have taken more lives than the Titanic (the 1987 sinking of the MV Dona Paz in the Phillipines is supposed to have claimed about 3000-4000 lives !!) it is the story of the 'largest moving object ever built' that endures through generations. Perhaps, it is because the sinking of the Titanic reminds us that no matter, how grandiose and large we get in our design and engineering, we cannot conquer the forces of nature. Or perhaps it was the assertion that the ship was thought to be 'unsinkable' and that such a man-made structure should be overwhelmed by nature on her very first voyage (maybe if the Titanic had sank say, five years and ten journeys later, the legend would not have been the same).

Whatever the reason might be, the Titanic legend lives on forever !!
Read about Gardiner's theory here.


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