Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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By Turtle Bunbury

Within hours of Titanic’s sinking, the blame game had begun. The immediate and obvious villain was the killer iceberg that seemingly loomed up out of nowhere and serrated the ship’s steel hull with such devastating effect. The British commission of enquiry that followed concluded ‘that the loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the ship was being navigated.’ The American commission reached a similar judgment.

Understanding what really happened – and who was responsible for the tragedy - has become ever more intricate since Robert Ballard’s historic discovery of the Titanic wreck in 1985.

There are numerous crackpot theories – it was an insurance scam, the iceberg was another ship, the Jesuits sank her, Winston Churchill did it – but the vast bulk of the evidence concurs with the verdicts of the two commissions. Nonetheless, it sometimes takes many small steps to make a big tragedy and the greed and negligence of some of those involved in the sinking cannot be overlooked. Here are seven men who can be apportioned some of the fault, as well as two rather more cosmic suspects.


Titanic’s captain Edward Smith, with his Bird’s Eye beard, is one of the best-known faces of the calamity. The fact that he sank with the ship, as captain’s were supposed to do, has bestowed a halo of British nobility upon his memory. However, the 59-year-old Englishman, as captain of the ship, was castigated by the commission on three accounts – failure to take proper heed of ice warnings, failure to ensure the lifeboats were properly filled and crewed, and for recklessly steaming into a hazardous area on a moonless night at too high a speed. He could arguably be absolved from the latter charge as he was obeying the instructions of J. Bruce Ismay, his Managing Director, but his acquiescence was both weak and foolhardy. It was also noted that Smith, experienced seadog that he was, had struggled to keep up with technology and did not completely know how new ships like Titanic operated. Just months earlier, he was captain of the Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, when she collided with a British warship. Both ships had limped back to safety but Captain Smith was held accountable for the incident. He was last seen on Titanic’s bridge seven minutes before she sank.


The shipbuilder William James Pirrie was born in Canada to Irish parents in 1847 and raised in County Down. He entered the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast as a gentleman apprentice aged 15 and rose through the hierarchy to become its chairman in 1895. As a particularly hands-on chairman of the company who built Titanic, he must shoulder some of the blame for using substandard materials, specifically the steel plates on the ship’s hull. It had been his intention to sail on Titanic until prevented from doing so by illness. He continued to be chairman of Harland & Wolff until his death in 1924.


Another person who narrowly avoided sailing on Titanic was John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), arguably the most powerful banker in the USA at the time. Pierpont, as he preferred to be known, co-founded the International Mercantile Marine Co., an Atlantic shipping business, which owned the White Star Line and bankrolled the construction of Titanic and her sister ships. His plans to dominate the North Atlantic shipping trade collapsed with the sinking of Titanic and the American commission openly criticized Morgan for effectively allowing greed and malpractice to overrule safety. The 75-year-old tycoon died in his sleep in Rome eleven months after the tragedy and the IMM Co. went into receivership in 1915. An oft-told and rather far-fetched Titanic conspiracy theory holds that Morgan deliberately engineered the tragedy in order to eliminate opponents to his plan to establish a Federal Reserve System. Three of his principal opponents were apparently Benjamin Guggenheim, Isa Strauss and John Jacob Astor, all of whom died on Titanic.


One of the most enduring images of Titanic is the heroism of the men of every class who ensured that the women and children got to safety, while they awaited their own inevitable deaths. As such, there was considerable scorn for Joseph Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, when he emerged safely from a lifeboat full of first class women. People felt it was his moral duty to drown with the ship and he became known as "Coward Of The Titanic". Although both the British and American enquires exonerated him of any wrongdoing, he was reprimanded for fatally ordering the number of lifeboats to be reduced from 48 to 16, the minimum allowed by the Board of Trade, in order to create more room on the promenade for the first class passengers. Both enquiries concluded that this shortage of lifeboats, combined with the fact that so many weren’t filled to capacity, led to the death of at least 470 of those who drowned. Ismay also stands accused of urging Smith to fire up the boilers and go faster so that Titanic might make the crossing in record time, and thus secure White Star some added prestige. After the tragedy, Ismay settled in Costelloe in Connemara, Co. Galway. He died in London in 1937 at the age of 74.


When the unthinkable happened and the unsinkable Titanic met an immovable iceberg and sank, attention soon turned to the ship’s designer. Clearly Titanic wasn’t quite as robust as had been claimed. Thomas Andrews Jr. was managing director and head of the drafting department at Harland and Wolff. Born in Comber, Co. Down, the popular Andrews was also a nephew of Lord Pirrie, the shipyard chairman. It’s arguable that he could have done more to protest against a cost-cutting decision to use what transpired to be substandard steel plate on the hull. This steel became unexpectedly brittle in the ice-cold water and hence, when the ship hit the iceberg, it cracked far too easily. Andrews headed up an eight-strong “Guarantee Group” who went on the maiden voyage to advise Captain Smith should any problems arise. None of them survived. He was later applauded for his heroic work in ensuring women and children got to safety. He gained further respect when it was revealed that his plans to include a double hull and water tight compartments that went up to B deck, as well as 36 more life boats, had all been overruled by his superiors. His brother John Miller Andrews later served as the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.


One of the designated villains of the Titanic tragedy was ship quartermaster Robert Hichens, a stocky 29-year-old from Cornwall who was rather unfairly labelled ‘The Man Who Sank Titanic’ in a recent book. Hichens was at the ship’s wheel when the terrifying warning came that an iceberg was straight ahead. He swung the wheel as far as possible and held it there until relieved by another Quartermaster. So far, so good. Hichens’ villainy stems from his subsequent behaviour when, in charge of one of a lifeboat with room for more, he refused to pick up any survivors after the ship sank, holding that it was pointless and that they were already ‘stiffs’. He later did four years for attempted murder and died of heat failure on board a British cargo ship in 1940.


Sometimes it’s not what you do but what you don’t do. Second Officer David Blair was due to sail on Titanic until a last minute change in the crew’s hierarchy obliged him to disembark. Amid the haste, he forgot to hand his keys over to the new Second Officer. One of those keys was to a locker in the crow's nest where the ship’s binoculars were kept. It sounds small fry, and one wonders if no other passengers had a pair, but the lookout - who survived - told the British commission that if he’d had the binoculars, there would have been ‘enough [time] to get out of the way’.


A team of astrological scientists from Texas State University have recently concluded that the moon was to blame because it had basically turned the traditional shipping lanes of the Atlantic into a deadly minefield. In January 1912, the sun and the moon lined up with the earth in such a way that their combined gravity led to a cycle of unusually high and low tides. When this combined with the moon’s closest approach to Earth in 1,400 years, many icebergs drifted into new positions, including the killer berg.


And finally you can’t rule out good old fate. In 1886, W. T. Stead, a well-known journalist and spiritualist, wrote a fictional story about an ocean liner that sank with tremendous loss of life because of an insufficient number of lifeboats. Twenty six years later, Stead was on board Titanic. He did not survive.




Titanic & Australia by Turtle Bunbury (The Australian, April 2012)

Titanic & Ireland by Turtle Bunbury (Ireland of the Welcomes, March 2012)

Titanic & South Africa by Turtle Bunbury (Mail & Guardian, South Africa, 13 April 2012 - see online version here)

Who sank the Titanic? by Turtle Bunbury

Violet Jessop - The Luckiest Stewardess Afloat by Turtle Bunbury (Irish Daily Mail, 12 April 2012)