The Unthinkable Disaster of the “Unsinkable” Titanic:

An “exception that proved the rule.”


Excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Business of Transatlantic Migration


Titanic sank so quickly that most passengers realized they were going into the water (in or out of lifeboats) only minutes in advance, leaving little time to react, let alone reflect…A catastrophic loss of passengers and crew was trebly unthinkable: firstly because shipwrecks on Atlantic crossings had become extremely rare by 1912, secondly because the disaster only occurred due to an unusual confluence of risks which would have amounted to an astounding fluke (even had no lives been lost), and finally because the ship was the newest, most technically advanced, and biggest in the world, and thereby almost automatically assumed to be the most “unsinkable” of the hundreds of large passenger vessels then traversing the North Atlantic. The extreme unexpectedness of the tragedy indicates the extent to which sea travel had become significantly safer than just a generation or two earlier…Titanic was not White Star’s first ship sunk at sea, but the company had from its inception espoused a “safety first” motto…Nothing any later movie maker would likely ever have heard of would have happened on the night of April 14-15, 1912 were it not for two improbably simultaneous mistakes. Titanic was, first of all, going at full speed at night, despite it being an unusually warm year with an excess of icebergs, despite repeated warnings of such icebergs from other ships, and despite there being no moonlight to reflect off, or rough waters breaking around, icebergs to make them visible from a distance. A second misfortunate decision was swerving, rather than merely slowing down, once the iceberg was sighted, thus allowing the ship to be gashed in a manner which swiftly doomed it. But even this double blunder would not have cost many, if any, lives, were it not for the risks caused by three additional strategic misjudgments: no double-shelled hull on Titanic, a nearby ship (typically but quite unfortunately) switching off its wireless after midnight, and Titanic not having “lifeboats for all” aboard passenger liners. These three risky practices were permanently proscribed across the entire North Atlantic, soon after Titanic’s demise…In addition to the nearly fifteen hundred deceased, another Titanic casualty was the public reputation of Bruce Ismay [and he] left the active management of White Star within a year. By that time, indeed within weeks of the disaster, every major North Atlantic shipping line had revised its normally unchanging newspaper ads to include promises that every voyage would provide lifeboats for all passengers and crew aboard.


...Statistics of victims and survivors reveal that gender clearly trumped class: third class female passengers survived at a higher rate than first class male passengers did...Class distinctions were nonetheless important in two respects: immigrants were, to a disproportionate extent, unintended victims of the sinking, and, in the reforms which swiftly followed, to a somewhat disproportionate extent, intended beneficiaries.


Useful books with further information relating to Titanic:

John Maxton Graham, The Only Way to Cross (1972) (1997 edition)

Terry Coleman, The Liners (1976)

Walter Lord, The Night Lives On (1998)

Joseph Mortati, Collision Course (2013)

Kristian Sebak, Titanic’s Predecessor (2004)




For information on other famous or important ships, go here.