as Titanic a symbol of noblesse oblige or elitism? Were her final hours marked by male chivalry or by class warfare? In recent years, the trend among some authors and film producers has been to minimize reports from Titanic survivors in favor of a historiography predicated on raw statistics.
But do statistics comparing the percentage of Titanic deaths by class prove a deliberate attempt on the part of crew and first class passengers to withhold lifeboats from the poor? It is true that more third class passengers died than first class, but what does that mean? Are the statistics, in and of themselves, evidence of class warfare? Is the disproportionate death ratio between first and third class passengers a function of the location of the third class deep in the bowels of the boat, of their disbelief that Titanic was sinking, of the poor communication that passed through the ship, or of a deliberate attempt to give preferential treatment to the rich? Were there other factors at work, factors of which we are not even aware? The raw statistical data cannot answer these questions.
Undaunted by the need for accuracy, many popular authors continue to present class-based statistics as proof positive for pet theories which claim to disprove the numerous accounts of survivors. Those personal accounts have established that the distinguishing characteristic demonstrated by crew and passengers alike during the final hours of Titanic’s life was bravery and sacrifice. In their efforts to castigate the Edwardian age and to dispel the notion of male chivalry aboard the Titanic, these critics frequently base their case on a logical fallacy — the notion that statistics prove causality.
Wyn Craig Wade, author of The Titanic: End of a Dream, actually mocks the Reverend Eakin for delivering a sermon in which the minister asserted that during Titanic’s final hours “there was no class distinction on the ground of wealth or any other of those barriers that we in our folly have raised so high.... The prospect of death leveled all distinction.” Wade’s rebuttal? “The extent of Reverend Eakin’s own “folly” would stand revealed when the statistics of survivors were published.”
In his book Titanic, James Cameron jokes about inserting Marxist class warfare theory into his best-selling movie. Cameron portrays the rich bribing their way to freedom, the crew deliberately preventing the poor from reaching safety, and Titanic officers killing a third class passenger. There is no credible evidence that any of these outrages took place aboard Titanic. Good Hollywood — bad history. Yet in interview after interview, Mr. Cameron has insisted that every aspect of the film was presented with the utmost consideration for historical accuracy.
How does Mr. Cameron justify his “neo-Marxist” interpretation? Statistics. When asked about class differences aboard the Titanic, Mr. Cameron frequently compares the number of third class deaths with first class deaths.
To the uninitiated these statistics might sound convincing, but consider the following statistics from the Titanic disaster:
Obviously, further inquiry is necessary to give meaning to these statistics. Unlike many of the third class passengers who arrived late on the launch decks, first class men and crew had ample opportunities to board the lifeboats, but either chose not to board or were actually prevented from doing so. It is helpful, for example, to know that, of the first class men and officers who were saved, several survived, not because they were given lifeboat seats, but because of God’s providential intervention as they flailed in the water. Colonel Archibald Gracie and Second Officer Lightoller, who held onto an overturned collapsible they found in the water, are just two examples.
- The overall death toll was 9 men for every 1 woman.
- By percentage, third class women did far better than first class men.
- More than 5 times as many third class men were saved as second class men. (This was true even though second class men had better access to the lifeboats.)
- 75 third class men lived, 57 first class men lived, and 14 second class men lived.
- In retrospect, second class men had a 1 in 11 chance of survival, but third class men had a 1 in 5 chance of survival.
- Almost twice as many male crew members died as did third class males.
- The male to female death ratio for crew members was a whopping 233 to 1.
Notwithstanding the discrepancies in the death toll between first, second, and third class passengers, there is no credible evidence that first class passengers were given priority seating rights. To the contrary, there are numerous accounts of first class passengers giving up their seats and assisting third class passengers into lifeboats. In fact, the issue of class distinction was raised by passengers of different social status at least twice as the boats were being loaded and was specifically rejected as a basis for preferential treatment.
A careful look at the historical record reveals that several factors contributed to whether or not a person was given a seat on the lifeboat.
In the final analysis, class-based statistical comparisons by themselves are of limited value in determining whether or not first class passengers were deliberately given preferential access to lifeboats in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Evidence based on eyewitness accounts and testimonies all seem to validate the statement of Reverend Eakin, that when it came time to load the lifeboats, “there was no class distinction on the ground of wealth or any other of those barriers that we in our folly have raised so high. ... The prospect of death leveled all distinction.”
- Gender: The guiding principle was “women and children first.” This was the unquestioned rule. It was obeyed. Women were given seating on a first come first serve basis. First class passenger cabins were most conveniently located near the lifeboats. Most third class passengers were asleep in the bowels of the ship at the time Titanic hit the iceberg. Because of their location, news of the danger took much longer to reach them. After the order for women and children was rigorously applied, several secondary considerations were, on a boat-by-boat basis, to play a role in determining which men, if any, would get a lifeboat seat.
- Secondary Considerations included the following:
- The Need for Crew to Direct and Row the Boats: It was standard practice to place a small compliment of crew aboard each lifeboat to direct the passengers and to row for the women. In some instances where no crew was immediately available, male passengers were placed in boats as substitutes.
- The Absence of Women and Children: The officers charged with the responsibility of launching the lifeboats were racing against the clock. In those instances where women and children could not be located at the time of the launching, some crew members opted to place men in the boats.
Doug Phillips is the president of CBMTS
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