Titanic EnvHist?

For the past week news sources have promoted the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. The commemoration focused on the people and the events of the night; the tales of survival and the grief of the loss of life. There is some reflection on the fallacy of the belief any ship could be unsinkable but there is a huge opportunity presented by this anniversary for historians to rethink the place of the Titanic and the factors that led to its demise.
Let’s first go over the basics of the story of the Titanic’s rise and fall to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Built in a Belfast shipyard, even before completion it was touted as unsinkable, a great feat of engineering and the triumph of human ingenuity over nature. Then nature took it down in the form of an iceberg in the night.
Much of the popular and public history interpretations fixate on whether or not the ship could have avoided collision if the iceberg was noticed earlier. The heavy death toll was a combination of reluctance to admit mistake by the captain, an insufficient number of lifeboats, and the speed and way the ship went down. This places the demise of the ship solidly in the hands of humans and overlooks the non-human factors that were central to the ships sinking — the nature of the North Atlantic in mid-April, the meteorological conditions at play, the dominant understandings of the world based on the science available in 1912, and the belief that humans could bend nature to their will (one egotistical belief we are still working against).
Think of what an environmental history could tell us about the sinking of the Titanic and the ocean transportation in general at the beginning of the twentieth century. Instead of the story perpetuated by James Cameron, we could have a story of nature at a time when society was undergoing a huge transformation that situated it in a longue durée understanding of transportation and ocean conditions in the North Atlantic. Taking it further, an investigation of the wreck could shed light on how human tragedy creates new ecosystems that rewrite human history as part of ocean life.
Now I’m not about to encourage people to go and watch Titanic 3-D and look for the environment in the movie — I wish I could say I’ve never seen that movie but I was 12 when it came out — but I would encourage people to think about the ship and its demise differently the next time they encounter a commemoration of it.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Environment, Opinion, Public History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Titanic EnvHist?

  1. Mark says:

    This is really interesting. I think it is important to consider the environment. I don’t know much about the inns and outs of it, who is to blame etc. BBC History mag this month has a special section in it. There was some criticism as I understand it of the Califorinan which i believe had the claim it was stuck in ice or that it could not get there because of ice. Again that is the environmental playing a part. I don’t know how true that is, but if it is obv it just proves your point. I like how you watched it when you were 12 too! Hahaha.

  2. AWatson says:

    Certainly the North Atlantic environment had a large role to play in the story of the Titanic. But, I think this is also a history that involves hubris-level confidence in technology. From my understanding of the events of that night, not only did the captain recklessly steer the ship through high-risk waters where the chances of hitting an iceberg were quite good, but the ship’s crew also neglected to keep closed dozens of the bulkhead compartment doors in the lower decks. When the ship’s outter hull was breached, water was not prevented from rushing into interior sections of the inner hull as these doors were designed. In other words, the discourse at the time about the Titanitc being ‘unsinkable’ ultimately contributed to an over-confidence in the technology engineered to prevent it from every sinking, and an oversight in appropriate safety measures being taken. In this way, the sinking of the Titanic can also be seen as the unintended consequences of thinking (and behaving as if) human-made technologies are beyond the powers of nature.

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