The Titanic Shipwreck: Who is to Blame?

Any time there is a shipwreck, or any time there is a disaster that isn’t caused by the forces of nature, for that matter, we look to assign blame. This is doubly true of catastrophes of the first proportion, and the Titanic shipwreck, which claimed over 1,500 lives, would certainly seem to qualify as such. So, who is responsible for the Titanic shipwreck? Was it the captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, or was it someone else, or perhaps a combination of a few different people? Or is the Titanic shipwreck the rare kind of disaster to which no one can be assigned blame?  

When a ship is involved in a wreck, the first person that gets blamed is generally the captain. And so we must start by asking if Captain Smith is to blame for the Titanic shipwreck. Many argue, naturally enough, that a captain is ultimately responsible for the ship he sails. At the end of the day, the captain must bear the responsibility for a ship’s successes and failures. By that logic, Smith is of course ultimately responsible for the Titanic sinking.

However, a lot complicates this rather simplistic view, as Smith was certainly not a negligent captain, both in general and with respect to his commanding of the Titanic in particular. (Smith was in charge of the Titanic, at the time the largest ship in the world, precisely because he was regarded as such an outstanding captain.) It was claimed by some at the time of the disaster that Smith ignored warnings about icebergs, but in fact he registered them in the chart room as he sailed, according to Gary Cooper, who wrote the book Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith.  And of course the iceberg warnings were merely warnings. They didn’t necessarily demand that the Titanic alter its course or speed of sailing. It is true that Smith was sailing at nearly top speed through an icy region of the sea, but given the conditions during the night of the iceberg collision – calm and clear – Smith’s approach was in line with what any other captain would have done, and in fact several captains from other ships said as much at the inquiries into the disaster.

Moreover, the iceberg that the Titanic struck was particularly difficult to see. Since the sea was so calm, water was not breaking against the iceberg, which would have made the iceberg easier to see from a distance. Still further, the iceberg the Titanic hit was not white like most icebergs. Rather, it was almost clear, and for this reason it reflected the dark night sky off of it (such icebergs are actually called “blackbergs”), making it extremely difficult to see even at relatively short distances. (Blackbergs are rather like patches of black ice that can’t be easily seen on surfaces.)

If we grant that it is at least understandable that the iceberg was struck (which of course many are not willing to do), there is still the unresolved matter of why there were not enough lifeboats on board the ship to save every passenger. On this matter, there is an easier person to blame: J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of White Star Line, the cruise line that owned the Titanic. Although Alexander Carlisle of Harland and Wolff (the company that designed and built the Titanic) lobbied for the inclusion of more lifeboats as the company was finishing its design for the ship, Ismay did not agree to the addition. To be sure, the Titanic actually had more lifeboat seats than were required by law at the time, but it still seems questionable at best to send so many people to sea without any means of escape should something go wrong. Ismay had the chance to include more lifeboats and he didn’t.

So, it is difficult to say who exactly is to blame for the Titanic shipwreck. Surely Captain Smith must be held at least partially responsible because he was in charge of guiding the ship, but it is equally true that he didn’t run the ship into the iceberg because he was being entirely negligent. Ismay also deserves some blame for not authorising more lifeboats to be put on board the ship, but, strangely, the provisions he did provide exceeded those required by law. It is worth noting that Ismay was one of the few men to survive the disaster, for which he was ceaselessly ridiculed. Captain Smith remained on the vessel till the end, going down with the ship.

2 Comments

  1. David

    To the people who are claiming if Bruce Ismay had ordered more lifeboats, more people would be saved, you seem to forget that some of the collapsibles were never properly lowered. One of them almost went down with the ship itself and was only freed at the last moment and floated upside down in which 30 people climbed on. The other was half submerged in water with 20 people clinging on to life.

    They could have put a million lifeboats on the ship and it would have made no difference. If anything more people might have died if there really was enough for everyone because many people would have just assumed if there was any danger they can get on later.

  2. John Mihaljevic

    There are actually two different aspects of the loss of the Titanic to which blame might be attached: the actual sinking of the ship; and the resulting massive loss of life.
    The sinking of the ship was probably an accident in the true sense of the word, with no one to blame (although Captain Smith bears some responsibilty for not being more cautious, although that is perhaps being wise after the event).
    The really serious – and blameworthy – aspect of the loss of the Titanic was the massive (in total and as a proportion of the total number of people aboard at the time) loss of life. This was due entirely to insufficient lifeboats. Ismay must bear some responsibility for this, but perhaps not as much as those who established the regulations controlling how many lifeboats the Titanic had to have. Their failure to require enough lifeboats for everyone aboard makes them the real villains.

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