For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by shipwrecks, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been interested in all things White Star for years. When Robert Ballard published a book about his 1985 expedition to the Titanic I wasn’t slow to get hold of a copy and pore over it for hours, and I was very taken with the revelation I found there that the whole disaster had been predicted in an 1898 novel by Morgan Robertson. The idea was like a ghost story: the prescient writer foreseeing with uncanny accuracy a tragedy that seemed when it occurred to be so unexpected. He even almost got the name of the ship right. Perhaps this story could prove E.S.P., or time-slips, or something. To be fair to myself, I was only ten at the time.

Thanks to the internet, I recently read Robertson’s novel (The Wreck of the Titan; or Futility), and discovered that fans of the supernatural have been a bit economical with their descriptions. Although his liner does, indeed, sink after colliding with ice in the North Atlantic, the author was more concerned with his hero’s battles with alcoholism and his evil British superiors on board than commentary on maritime safety. His book is overwrought, poorly written and descends several times into anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia (the worst kind: Anglophobia). His Jewish underwriter is a sub-Shylock ogre that could have been penned by Julius Streicher. He presents disregard for maritime safety as a trait confined to British lines (ironically, in 1912 the White Star Line was owned by International Mercantile Marine, an American firm). The recipient of his protagonist’s unrequited love –  much of the novel is spent in his realisation that she isn’t worth his tears – is a timid, paranoid and fickle marital opportunist, who is entirely to blame for his drinking problem and subsequent wreck of his career as a U.S. Navy officer. The fight between the unarmed hero and a polar bear on an ice floe is ridiculous and his survival beyond unlikely. Even the disaster itself is mainly caused not by incompetence, but a malicious bid to discredit our noble hero’s forthcoming testimony that the great liner has run down a sailing vessel at high speed and failed to stop. How nobly he turns down the gagging bribe offered by the wicked captain, an RNR officer. How pernicious is that figure’s gift of a large bottle of whisky, and subsequent drugging of his bridge lookout. The Royal Naval Reserve probably wasn’t a Nelsonian paragon in those days, but I doubt that they would have given a commission to someone stupid enough to deliberately incapacitate his own lookouts. I digress. The point is that this wasn’t a literary genius at work, just a man who knew about common practice on the North Atlantic lanes.

This is where the novel really starts to shed useful light on the Titanic disaster. In the officers’ testimony at both inquests it becomes clear that it was normal and expected that a captain would make the greatest possible speed at all times. That Robertson was aware in 1898 that this could be a problem only underlines how myopic was the culture at sea, where each new crossing was expected to be smoother and faster than the last. It also makes the argument presented by Titanic‘s senior surviving crew that events conspired against them to bring about an unavoidable catastrophe ring more than a little hollow. Of course, people being what they are, readers nowadays prefer to see a creepy supernatural premonition rather than a simple prediction based on known flaws in safety procedures. Even the name Titan isn’t much of a reach, given that it was common to call the new superliners by names that emphasised their scale.

This brings me neatly to another great and ill-fated liner with a spooky history. Many years ago, I read in The Usborne Book of the Unexplained that S.S. Great Eastern had been plagued throughout her unlucky career by a mysterious hammering from her double hull, and that when she was broken up the skeleton of a riveter was found sealed between the plates. Nobody ever seems to have identified this person or turned up a contemporary account of the discovery, but a fairly cursory internet search reveals an article from the Providence Evening Press of December 2nd, 1862 that describes an industrial dispute during major repairs. Workmen had been disturbed by a mysterious hammering from the hull, and due to the involvement of a psychic medium they had decided the ship was haunted and unsafe. Captain Paton, the ship’s master, investigated the noise and found a cable tapping against the outer hull. He told the story to a meeting of the Mercantile Marine Association in Liverpool on November 14th of that year and this was reported in the Liverpool Times, so it was hardly a secret.

I suppose that the point I want to make is that everyone loves a good ghost story, but few ever hold up to serious scrutiny. More than that, it’s always worth investigating mysteries of the unknown, because quite often there’s nothing unknown or mysterious about them.

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