by Timothy Lane 3/8/14
by Daniel Allen Butler • The title of this book owes a great deal to Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, which basically created the modern fascination with the story of the sinking of the Titanic. Indeed, Butler (author of a previous work on the subject, “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of SMS Titanic) was encouraged to write this book – which focuses more on the other side of the story, the very different response of Captains Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia and Stanley Lord of the Californian.
The North Atlantic had a long history as the cruelest ocean, with ship after ship simply disappearing (back before radio, there was rarely any surviving trace by the time anyone realized that a ship had probably been lost at sea). Still, in the late 19th Century the modern luxury liners began making the trip look safe. Especially once wireless telegraphy was introduced, it seemed that even if a ship sank, there would be time to rescue everybody – as in fact happened in 1909 after the Republic sank after being rammed accidentally by the Florida. This optimism would play an unfortunate role in the events of April 14-15, 1912.[pullquote]Captain Stanley Lord of Californian was also an experienced man, though less so than Rostron and Smith, but also a tyrannical boss who got along with few people. His main problem, in Butler’s view, was that he was a sociopath.[/pullquote]
The modern steamships might seem safe, but it took a lot of work for that to happen. Butler goes into the heavy and unpleasant labor (for low wages) of the “black gangs” who kept the boilers well fed with coal. He also points out the tiresome (if physically easier) work of the radio operators. Small ships (such as Carpathia and Californian) had only a single operator, who usually worked a 15-hour shift and left the radio unattended at night unless the ship’s master called him back to work. Larger ships (such as Titanic) had a pair of operators who worked 12-hour shifts.
Much depended on the masters, of course, since they were responsible for what the ship did. Captain Edward J. Smith was an extremely experienced man who traditionally made the first runs in the White Star Line’s liners, which is why he was master of the Titanic on his last voyage (which indeed proved to be his last, if not quite as he had intended). Captain Arthur Rostron of Carpathia was also an experienced master, and one who got along well with both his crew and his passengers (it helped that the upper crust – the one-percenters, some might say today – preferred the larger, more luxurious ships). Captain Stanley Lord of Californian was also an experienced man, though less so than Rostron and Smith, but also a tyrannical boss who got along with few people. His main problem, in Butler’s view, was that he was a sociopath.
Many ships were encountering a large ice floe on the night of April 14, and reporting it on the radio. Meanwhile, Titanic’s radio operators were kept busy sending chit-chat from rich passengers to their friends ashore (standards of use weren’t adequately developed at this early stage in the history of wireless telegraphy). Even as Captain Lord stopped Californian for the night as he found himself virtually surrounded by ice, Captain Smith continued on into it at full speed with only the normal watch. And so it was that Titanic encountered an iceberg, spotting it too late to avoid it completely. It merely brushed one side – but it did just enough damage to doom a ship advertised as “unsinkable.” Captain Smith and the ship’s builder (Thomas Andrews) both realized what the minor shock of the collision meant, and after checking the compartments they discovered that the accident had penetrated one too many of them for the ship to survive.
Smith immediately had his radio operators sent out requests for help. Fortunately – by sheer chance – Harold Cottam of the Carpathia was still on his machine when he first heard their request, and promptly took the message to Captain Rostron. The latter quickly prepared to send his ship to the aid of the large liner 56 miles away (about 4 hours travel time at top speed), and even sought to cut down on any drain on the ship’s steam power so that it could (and did) travel above its maximum speed. He also made sure to put on extra lookouts so that he wouldn’t run into any icebergs himself (a real concern; his ship had to dodge many of them during its rescue run).
Unfortunately, Cyril Evans of Californian had already shut down his radio operation for the night, subject to recall if Captain Lord decided he was needed. Fortunately, the ship was close enough to see the 8 white rockets that Titanic sent up over the span of about 90 minutes. All who saw this realized it was a distress signal, as did Captain Lord, but he had no desire to follow his obligation to rescue the unknown ship (in fact, he would always deny that he was close enough to see Titanic, even falsifying his log to cover up his failure, but the fact remained that he knew someone out there needed help and still refused to go to the ship’s aid). Nor did he wake up Evans and have him check for any calls for help. Instead, he pretended to think the rockets might perhaps be some sort of company signal (which might have been true with only a single rocket, but not several all of the same color).
In the end, nothing could have saved Titanic, and probably most of the 1500 passengers and crew who went down with the ship or drowned in the icy water would have died anyway. The ship actually had lifeboat space for about half of the people aboard, but the “women and children first” motto was interpreted by some officers to mean “women and children only,” so that most of the lifeboats went off not fully filled. Some of the richest men in the world accepted their grim fate, such as John Jacob Astor assuring his pregnant wife that he would see her later even as he undoubtedly knew he never would, and Benjamin Guggenheim explaining, “No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward. We’ve dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentleman.” He and many others did so (including the mystery writer Jacques Futrelle, author of the Thinking Machine stories). For that matter, some of the survivors became famous for that, which is why a Denver matron would become known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown” (though Butler doesn’t mention her or Futrelle, I should mention; I just find them nice tidbits to add here).[pullquote]The ship actually had lifeboat space for about half of the people aboard, but the “women and children first” motto was interpreted by some officers to mean “women and children only,” so that most of the lifeboats went off not fully filled.[/pullquote]
Carpathia eventually rescued over 700 people, and by the time they finished, Californian had finally shown up after a detour by Captain Lord to hide its previous proximity. Captain Rostron suggested that the ship look for any remaining survivors; if it made any serious effort to do so, it found none. Then Rostron (who quickly realized he didn’t have the supplies needed to go forward) sailed back to New York, arriving a few days later. (His passengers did a nice job of adjusting to the sudden arrival of a large number of passengers without any form of luggage. The Titanic story involves many heroes of various levels, as well as a small cast of fools and villains.)
Naturally, a disaster like this required examination. Why were third-class passengers so unlikely to survive? There were many reasons for this, and one Butler points out is that many of them (immigrants from Europe, it must be remembered) were used to doing what they were told to do. They also were unfamiliar with the ship outside of the third-class section. Still, many did make it onto lifeboats. The crew fared even worse, a severe blow to the city of Southampton where most came from. The fact that the ship only had enough lifeboats for half of the crew and passengers indicated that standards were too low, and the fact that most of them were only half-full indicated that some better rules were needed there as well.
But there was also the simple matter: could the 1500 dead have been saved if someone had gotten there sooner than the Carpathia was able to do? Captain Lord always insisted he did absolutely nothing wrong, but none of the investigators agreed with him, and he was quickly fired by Leyland Lines. A year passed before he finally got a job running a ship carrying nitrates from bird guano. In particular, the Board of Trade inquiry in London carefully pointed out how the witnesses on board both Titanic and Californian, when their testimony was juxtaposed, made it clear that indeed the two ships had seen each other, and thus that Captain Lord could (and should) have come to the stricken liner’s rescue.
For Captain Rostron, the future held honors and promotion as he became the Commodore of the Cunard Line. Although he was older than Lord, he retired later (though Lord had a nice long life – after all, “only the good die young” – to face condemnation every time he tried to bring his case up again, though he would also find his desperate defenders as well). Both ships had already gone down during the Great War, and the White Star Line would follow by the beginning of World War II (though Cunard has somehow managed to survive).
Butler does agree with one defense of Captain Stanley Lord: even if he had acted properly, time was against his arriving in time to save those who actually went down aboard the ship, and the hypothermia would probably have killed many of those who were able to jump off and escape immediate drowning. Butler actually presents an alternate scenario to demonstrate what would have happened if Lord had behaved properly, and concludes that perhaps another 300 people could have been saved. But they weren’t, because he didn’t do his duty.
As I already mentioned, Butler concludes that Lord was a sociopath, and explains not only how the sociopathic personality works but demonstrates how Lord’s behavior matches it. This is not a political book, and in any case a 2009 book wouldn’t have tried comparing Lord to any contemporary figures. But those who read it today might find his description interesting. He notes that, “A sociopath is defined as someone who a certain set of distinguishing characteristics, among them deceit, a tendency to be manipulative, a failure to plan ahead or anticipate consequences, aggressiveness, and . . . a reckless disregard for the sfety of others, and a lack of remorse for any injury to others which might result from their actions or inactions.”
He points out that they can be quite charming, which they naturally use to manipulate others. They can maintain normal-looking relationships and even marriage – but those “can be ended whenever their usefulness ends. Ultimately, sociopaths are interested only in their own personal safety, needs, and desires, without concern for the effect of their behavior on others.” Sociopaths either have no conscience or a defective one; at a minimum they can “completely neutralize or compartmentalize any sense of moral or ethical responsibility. Bluntly, they are incapable of ever conceiving themselves to be wrong, let alone doing something wrong.” In the end, they see “no moral or ethical standard other than whatever will advance their ends.” They have no true emotions (or at least those based on reacting to other people).
I think most people here can think of at least one other significant person today who matches that description just about perfectly. • (1709 views)