13 April 2012

Chivalry's last hurrah.

Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, at the time the largest ship ever built, and the largest moving object made by man up to that point.

The Titanic has come to mean many things to many people, and the story is rewritten with every generation.  Cameron has worked his own version, again, and peopled the Titanic with post modern self doubting men, and shown panic aboard the ship, despite the fact that every eyewitness account of the sinking tells that for the most part, calm reigned aboard the ship.  It does no justice to those who went down with the ship.

 For example, more women and children escaped from third class than did men from first.  When you factor in that the men in first class had first shot at the lifeboats, it means that every man from the first class who died on the ship volunteered to do so, that a woman or child might live in his stead.  Nor were they bitter to do so.  Industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim was seen dressed in his top hat and tails, sitting on a deck chair and sipping brandy and smoking cigars.  He gave a survivor a message for his wife:  "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward." He also stated:  We're dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen."   He was far from alone in these sentiments.  Many of the wealthiest men of the day went down on the ship. The band played Nearer My God To Thee in an effort to try and maintain some calm, and priests said Mass and distributed communion and blessing.  The captain of the ship commended his crew as the last lifeboat left, and told the crew they had done all that could be expected of them: "Now it's every man for himself." He was last seen on the bridge of his command, prepared to go down with the ship he could not save.

There is a desperation in those words.  Smith spoke them as a last resort: save yourself, if you can.  Compare it with the recent disaster of  the Costa Concordia, where the captain panicked and was among the first to flee from his ship.  Men on that ship were seen pushing women, old women, pregnant women, even children out of their way as they ran for the life boats, and as chaos and panic reigned supreme.  The men aboard the Titanic would have thought these cowards should be shot, and many would probably have volunteered to do the deed itself.  If chivalry is dead, the Costa Concordia went to the grave and relieved itself  there.

For me, the Titanic is a signpost marking the end of an era. Though I do not wish to deny the scale of the tragedy, I wish to point through the tragedy to the heroism and quiet dignity of these men and women who remained calm, yielded up their spot on the lifeboat for others who needed it more, and blithely stepped into eternity. Chivalry lasted beyond the Titanic, yet Titanic is chivalry's last hurrah, perhaps it's early farewell, and with a sense of timing rarely seen in history, chivalry saved its best for last.

3 comments:

Patience said...

What about the women and children in third class who were locked up to prevent them from taking up space in the lifeboats before the first class women and children? I don't think there was a lot of calm reigning below decks. The older movies I grew up on never mentioned this fact but apparently it's true. I'm sure there were some chivalrous men but there was also a class system in place that is thankfully less prevalent now (but not entirely gone)

Bear-i-tone said...

es, there was a class system that favoured the wealthy. More women adn children got out of first class than the others. I have heard about the locking of the third class down below, I have also heard that one denied. But the locks were not in place for long, if at all, for, as I said, more women got out of third class than did men from first. These men all stepped aside and allowed the women to take their place in the life boats. Compare this to the Costa Concordia, where there was no class system, and no chivalry, and the men shoved aside the women and children to get off the ship, or the Greek ship of a few years ago, where the crew abandoned the ship without telling the passengers it was sinking, and the passengers had to coordinate their own rescue. If you were to ask the people women of the costa concordia if they would rather have been on a sinking ship with these classless (in all senses), hedonistic men, or with the quaint edwardian gentlemen, with their class structures and quaint honour, whom do you think they would have preferred in the hours of panic? I do not think we are completely better off.

Puff the Magic Dragon said...

The UK's Daily Mail reported as much

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2087585/Cruise-ship-Costa-Concordia-sinking-Whatever-happened-women-children-first.html