Thinking about the Titanic tragedy 100 years later as a human being (sort of) and as a 19th and 20th century historian

by felicitamodna82

Only a few days ago I was sharing  joy, happiness and passion by writing about my beloved Modena F.C., and now….here I am, remembering a tragedy. Nothing new, actually, since I write  mainly about wars, crises and pandemics as an historian (and still manage to make humour when I see the potentiality…have a look at my essay about the Spanish Flu, unfortunately only in Italian at the present time!).

Actually, I mentioned even in my Modena Centenary post that tragedy was in the air (Italian-Turkish war, Titanic itself, Great War). Remembering the Titanic disaster as a human being and as an historian lead me to some thoughts I would like to share. (yes, I also know that everybody will be googling Titanic in the next hours and therefore many poor people will pop on my blog mislead by some evil search engine, so I don’t resist the occasion of being under a spotlight 🙂 )

La Stampa, 19 aprile 1912 - Archivio on-line la Stampa

I did not learn about the Titanic thanks to Cameron&DiCaprio (Leo was and is not my type!). I learned about the tragedy because of my “middle school” English book, named Flying start. One unit had an article with pictures about the Titanic disaster, in order to teach us “sink, sank, sunk” –  in other words, to introduce us verb patterns. The “scuola media” is a kind of school every Italian kid attends from age 11 to 14 and at that time (beginning of the 90s) it used to be the school where a foreign language, sometimes even two, was first introduced. The sad story of the 3rd class sacrifice, of the missing lifeboats, of the “women and children first” rule caught my attention. This lead to two consequences: the first one is that I rarely make mistakes in English verbs since I learned patterns as a sort of song, while I never really got motivated to learn long lists of German verb patterns. (I am grateful to be an Italian native who used to love Italian grammar and literature, because I would hav never learned all those complicated Italian verbs with the same efforts and motivation I faced German ones 😀 ). The second one is that along with my World Wars stuff I started to read about the 1912 Titanic wreck as well, so that by the time Cameron’s colossal came out, I wasn’t a newbie to the topic.

Just a small digression: yes, I saw Cameron’s Titanic 2 times.  I was going on fifteen, so cinema was one of the few free time activities I was allowed to do (times change, don’t they?) and the film is anyway very good, even though the romance in the beginning is not well developed (why do they fall in love? Just because he represents the freedom she is longing for?). No one can deny you “sink with the ship” as you watch Cameron’s Titanic. The first time I saw it, right in 1997, was after  removing one of wisdom teeth. I did not cry a single tear because of (or thanks to) some Novocain still circulating through my face. Nevertheless, I DID cry when I saw it in English a few weeks later. There was a cinema where films were played in the original language and I had a listening comprehension test to pass. So I caught the opportunity, and, boy, did I cry my eyes out! My school mates made fun of me for days because of my state! Actually I was sadder for the poor Neapolitan immigrant, Fabrizio, than for Leo/Jack. Of course, the width of the tragedy and the final scene made me cry as well. (I recently watched the finale on you tube and I still cry my eyes out, but my favourite character is always Fabrizio and not Jack. I mean, he is sexier, funnier and didn’t even got the girl!)

As a human being and as an historian, I am very fascinated by the complexity of this story. I know that there have been worse tragedies. Hell, I research about worse tragedies! Nevertheless, I could not resist the charm of this particular one.

My romantic side – the human being –  is fascinated by tales about couples who decided to stay together on the ship instead of separating. That is true love, the one I am looking for. (…yes, stop laughing, I am single and yes, I know this kind of expectation is not going to make it change…but I better have it this way than being stuck in a relationship without love!). I know that many marriages at that time had little or nothing to do with love, so I perfectly understand that some women jumped into (half-empty) lifeboats and then decided not to “risk their lives” by searching for their husbands. But…reading that even in that era there were true couples that did not part makes my heart warm. I hope they are somewhere still together! So, sometimes people have luck in love and love exists. For those who never loved, I would like to clear one thing: if you really love somebody, losing him/her is a terrible, unbearable pain. So, it is only natural that you  choose to 99% die together with your beloved partner instead of some-percent-survive and 99% never see your love again. (I keep estimates flexible because in accidents like that everything and everything contrary is likely to happen).

I am also fascinated by the elegance of that ship. Especially externally. I mean, compare it with the shape of one of the Costa ships…there is no comparison. Titanic-like ships (its “sisters” and similar ships as well) are elegant, attractive, beautiful. I cannot say anything about interiors, but I’d wish ships were still built like the Titanic externally!!!

Then, the historian comes out. By having a look at the Encyclopedia Titanica, I got the umpteenth evidence of the strong phenomenon of the  Italian immigration characterised by successful stories and less successful stories that ended up together in the same abrupt stop. Not that I ignore or neglect the relevance (and sufferings) of other nationalities and other immigrants, but as an Italian young woman and an historian working on social history those are the names and stories I notice the most. Many of their names are as usual misspelled or sometimes even willingly anglicised. I was also very impressed by the – very clever – supposition I read somewhere (I forgot where, anyway it is not mine!) that families such as the  Goodwin family (see the story of “Our babe“) stayed together because a mother with children but without husband and older male children would have missed the needed financial support – as hard as it sounds, it could be plausible.

I also made some spontaneous remarks . The tragedy happened in 1912, in an era when on the one side modernisation was taking a huge acceleration, on the other side there were so many remains from the previous world. So, the striking contrast between the hyper-optimistic and positivist assumption that finally unsinkable ships could be built,  and the strongly observed, old-fashioned “women and children first” cavalry rule is remarkable. I know that there were men who were not “keen on observing the rule spontaneously”, but nevertheless there are evidences that the captain, some officers and even some passengers believed in it and complied with it. Some of them even used a gun to “make it get observed”. The contrast and the contradictions modernity/modernisation/cavalry/tragedy seem to mirror the constant state of the Western society between the Second Anglo-Boer war and Hiroshima: positive and dark sides of modernisation, resistance towards modernity, nostalgic attitude towards the past. Also, the metaphor of positivist enthusiasm and of dreams of a better life crashing against an iceberg reminds me of the stormy era 1914-1945 (especially the First World war is often seen as a rupture characterised by harsh disillusions). The same goes for the “Titanic lesson”, and I mean by this the improvement of safety measures on ships after the tragedy. After each tragedy of the 20th century we tried to “learn a lesson”: partly we succeeded, partly not, sometimes we only dreamt of learning and improving something just to be harshly disappointed … and then we have – or had –  to start again. And here we are in the 21st century…well, I am letting you draw your own conclusions. (keywords: wars, crisis, tragedies, wrecks, epidemics…). Interesting to see that people from professional fields other that history draw other conclusions about “Titanic&learning lessons”, such as in this article you can click. An interesting perspective for my “other” job as trainer and lecturer!

Reading, reading, I found out that one of the survivors of the Titanic also escaped internment in Fossoli and the harsh situation of WWII’s Italy (hunger, bomb attacks, terror). Fossoli was the concentration camp set up for several categories of prisoners, including civil prisoners, located near Carpi, Modena. I am currently trying to understand more about the civil prisoners and the labour forces departments of the camp.   The woman’s story is incredible  – if you are meant to live longer, you will, even through a wreck and two world wars- , and the “ethnocentric-egocentric” side in me also makes me think how small the world is.

Alright, enough writing, I am closing my post with this article about the recovered baby corpse. I loved because it is so well written, really touching : http://thechronicleherald.ca/titanic/86496-our-babe-titanic-s-tiny-soul;

with two linked images  that symbolise the tragedy according to my sensibility, two grave markers (two paired shoes do not happen to reach the ocean floor together by chance): Titanic shoes debris by NOAA magazine  and Titanic shoes by titanicstory.com . (Update: I add a third one – read the related Daily Mail article also). About this, I think these two three first linked pictures are “human remains” without any doubt and are heart-wrenching, while this picture – click here – makes me doubt a little more: I cannot see the second boot, and the amount of things and the shape make me think more of a half-destroyed suitcase or trunk. What do you think? (Historians develop also a few forensic skills, as long as they deal with tragedies…)

and my personal soundtrack for the evening, Simple Minds: a group I love, especially for their Someone somewhere in summertime and Mandela’s day. I was in the mood for Simple Minds, and of course I “knew” they wrote a song called Belfast child. So, that was my choice: a Simple Minds/Big Country/other NW groups compilation featuring Belfast Child. The Titanic was a “Belfast child”, so even though the song has nothing to do with the wreck, I find it a good soundtrack. Not that I don’t like James Horner’s heart-wrenching tunes, but New Wave will always be a great love of mine!! Call it “artistic licence”!

Rest in peace, all of you victims (and survivors who joined you afterwards, since nobody is still living).

For further reading, the web is plenty…so visit blogs and sites in the languages you know: a lot of people did a good job 🙂 honour them and their efforts! Some links are hidden in my text and pics (Italian newspapers above, for example), then search on engines and Facebook. Here below, an Austrian newspaper (link to the on-line archive);

Die Neue Zeitung 17. April 1912 - ANNO archive - (Austrian Newspaper Online) by the Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Biblioteca Centrale dello Stato Austriaco)

I recently found two blog entries I appreciated. As an historian and as a curious human being, I was asking myself a few questions (about preservation, salvaging, and the time), and I found these:

http://aelizabethwest.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/memories-rms-titanic-april-14-1912/

http://awesometalks.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/what-time-did-the-rms-titanic-really-hit-the-iceberg/

I immediately “liked” them! So, check them out…and never stop looking for anything! (said the PhD student who was drowning in sources instead of quickly finishing her duties because she never stops looking for them…).

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2 Comments to “Thinking about the Titanic tragedy 100 years later as a human being (sort of) and as a 19th and 20th century historian”

  1. Thank you for liking and linking to my post! Yours was very good also. All perspectives on this tragedy are interesting; it seems to polarize a lot of people. Also, I inadvertently used the shoe picture in my post before I saw that the rest of them were identified as possibly being actual remains. 😦

    In any case, repeatedly discussing incidents such as this are a good way to keep them in the public consciousness so that they don’t happen again.

    • Thank you for commenting, and thank you for publishing such an inspiring blog entry! There are, in fact, many reasons why people are “attracted” to or moved by the Titanic tragedy. However, there has been more going on on Facebook than on blogs, which is somehow a pity: even though I enjoyed the night on-line with “fans” from all over the world, a blog provides more place to express oneself and more time (= editing) in order to achieve some kind of good style in writing.
      I don’t think your use of the shoe picture is something you should regret, now that you know what it is :-)The image is shown all over the web and it is indeed a way of giving a grave to people who never got one, and posting it is like bringing flowers (unless one has money and the guts to actually dive 4km under the ocean with those things…). It is nothing different from the Halifax grave markers without names. There is this new discussion about the picture I listed as “third”, which seems to me more than a luggage (the other two are for sure “human remains”). Let us see how it develops.
      My choice was more a stylistic/artistic one (I love the way they look on the page) combined with possible copyright issues I somehow face any time (there is something wrong with my karma!). So, I chose two public newspaper archives from “my “two countries.

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