What is it about the Titanic that grabs the public imagination? What grabs you? Is it the enormous loss of life? Is it the tragic stupidity and greed of the White Star Line? Is it the indescribable pathos of such a beautiful artifact sliding beneath the waves?
I don’t know the answers, although I can tell you one thing: there’s nothing sadder than a shipwreck. There is no more evocative image than a magnificent vessel plunging to its doom, but think about this. The Titanic disaster was far from the greatest maritime disaster the world ever knew.
Here’s a random selection of disasters in peace and in war. The death tolls are appalling and yet we don’t seem to see so many movies. Nobody is building interpretative centres, as they did in Belfast to cash in on the Titanic tragedy.
On 20 December 1987, in the Philippines, the passenger ferry Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker and 4,341 died in the sinking.
The Kiangya exploded and sank near Shanghai in 1948, killing 3,000 people.
In Senegal, 1,800 people died in 2002 when the Le Joola ferry overturned.
When the SS Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River in 1865, 1,800 people were killed.
On 29 May 1914, the Empress of Ireland sank in the St Lawrence river, killing 1,012.
Did you see any movies about these disasters? I didn’t, but if you think peacetime tragedies are bad, they have nothing on the things that happened during war.
What to make of Wilhelm Gustloff, the worst maritime disaster, or crime, in history? On the 30th January 1945 a Russian submarine torpedoed the Gustloff, killing 5,348 refugees, soldiers and sailors. Other estimates range as far as 9,000 lost. This was the greatest loss of life in the history of seafaring, but it was run a close second by another Soviet atrocity three months later when a Russian submarine sank the Goya, killing at least 7,000 soldiers and civilians.
If you were a Dutch prisoner or a Javanese slave on the Junyo Maru you might have been grateful for your merciful extinction as the Royal Navy sank the Japanese prison ship with the loss of 5,600 lives. And if you were a prisoner from a German concentration camp, you might not have cared when the Thielbek was sunk by the RAF killing you and 2,750 fellow prisoners. On the other hand, if you were an Australian POW, you might not have been too happy with the US Navy sinking your Japanese prison ship, Montevideo Maru, killing 1,122 of your comrades.
How about the Lancastria – sunk in 1940 with the deaths of 4,000 and possibly up to 9,000? Or the Soviet hospital ship, Armenia, sunk on 7th November 1941 by German aircraft. 7,000 refugees died in the disaster. Iosif Stalin, a Soviet transport, struck three mines in 1941 and was then bombarded by Finnish artillery. 3,800 people lost their lives and the rest fell into the hands of the Germans.
The Gaetano Donizetti carrying 1,800 Italian POW’s was torpedoed by a British warship. No-one survived. Another Italian ship, the Mario Roselli was attacked in Corfu by Allied bombers while loading Italian prisoners of war and sank with the loss of 1,300 lives. SS Petrella was taking Italian POWs to Germany for slave labour when it was torpedoed by the submarine HMS Sportsman. 2,670 men were drowned. Another transport, SS Oria, sank while transporting 4,096 Italian POWs. Only 28 people survived. An American submarine sank the Tsushima Maru in 1944. killing 1,484 civilians including 767 schoolchildren, while another US submarine sank the Awa Maru hospital ship, killing 2,002. One passenger survived. On 3 May 1945 the prison ship Cap Arcona while full of prisoners from concentration camps, was attacked by the RAF and sank, killing 5,000. And finally, in another maritime disaster connected with Ireland, the Lusitania sank off the Cork coast in 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives, after being torpedoed by a U-Boat.
Apart from the Lusitania, I haven’t seen any movies about these disasters. Why is that? What was it about the Titanic that grabbed the public imagination? Was it just slick marketing or is there something more?