Captain Smith's role in the disaster


Allison Steele

RMS Titanic, Inc. has posted this on their blog:

What role do you think Captain Smith played in the Titanic disaster? Was he a hero, or is he responsible for the deaths of those who didn't survive the sinking? Leave your feedback in the comment section...

Innocuous question? What are your reactions?

P.S. Happy 161st birthday to Captain Smith.
I'm not one of the experts on this subject this forum so I will leave that to Messrs. Standart,

There seem to be so many myths and legends in this regard...either he was "a goat" or "a hero".

Glad you asked. Maybe this will start another discussion.
As the commander of the ship, Captain Smith bears the ultimate responsibility for everything they got right and everything they got wrong. That includes the deaths of the nearly 1500 people who lost their lives that night, including his own. Pretty draconian, but that's the level of responsibility which goes with the authority.

I think he did the best he could under the circumstances. I don't believe he was in the sort of catatonic shock so often portrayed in the pop histories and in the movies. The testimony given at the inquiries just doesn't bear that out. I'm not so sure I'd call him a hero, but he wasn't quite a zero either.
  • Like
Reactions: Titanic idiot, Brad 23, Mike Spooner and 2 others

I think Captain Smith ultimately was responsible for the sinking. The reason is because Titanic received 7-9 iceberg warnings and still didn't stop! I know this wasn't his decision but Murdock ordered "Hard a starboard" and stopped all engines. This is not good because there were only thirty seconds until Titanic hit the iceberg and if they hit it head on the ship probably would've have stayed afloat with the damage in the first two compartments.
Last edited by a moderator:
Captian smith was busy entertaining the guests and praising how titanic was never going to sink.
I think Mr. Standart has one important thing right - Captain Smith bore the ultimate responsibility because of his authority.

However, I have always felt that Titanic's sinking was a classic case of what I will genteelly term a clusterfudge - many small, seemingly unrelated events came together in just the wrong way at just the wrong moment, and there was little anyone could have done about it once she was in that ice field. Everyone did their best. Everyone's best was unavailing.

It has been said Titanic's design and steel were faulty, but Olympic sailed with just such a design and just such steel without sinking. She should perhaps not have ventured into that ice field, but other ships traversed that year's ice safely. She was a new ship with a crew not quite used to her, but that too was a combination seen frequently, and most ships came through that period just fine. Other ships almost certainly had crew with personality quirks, and never met with disaster.

Murphy's Law just plain damn ran off the rails that night, and Captain Smith had little to do with it, though he has been quietly accepting his responsibility at the bottom of the North Atlantic for the past 101 years.
Michael is correct Sandy. He illustrates perfectly the ultimate responsibility of Smith or any other ship's captain when at sea.
The seemingly innocuous (harmless?) question is; was Smith a hero or a villain?
None of us know for sure the answer to that question. Few, are qualified to make such a judgement. Only those who fully understand the implications of all the evidence available from that time can be reasonably confident of their conclusions regarding the guilt or innocence of Captain Smith of the Titanic.

Few stop to consider the actions of Captain Rostron of the Carpathia; the hero of the piece. "There bit for the grace of God....."
Not a few qualified critics shudder to think about it.

Jim C.

PS: crisshaw: Murdoch had less than 15. not 30 seconds to make his decision.
EssaysFor: Smith was not entertaining guests at the time, he was in his day-room.
>>The seemingly innocuous (harmless?) question is; was Smith a hero or a villain? <<

Realistically Captain Jim, I don't think he was either. I think he was a man in a very difficult position I hope anybody would...did the best he could when everything went to hell. If what I saw in the testimony of both inquiries is any indication, he was a lot more active and involved then the popular hysterias make him out to be. He wasn't just standing around in a stunned daze.
Absolutely Michael!

That's my take too. I get a little tetchy when I see all the speculative rubbish that has been written about the man by people who wouldn't know the sharp end from the blunt end. But then you know that.:cool:
>>I get a little tetchy when I see all the speculative rubbish that has been written about the man by people who wouldn't know the sharp end from the blunt end. But then you know that.<<

Yes, and what makes it worse is that a lot of the "stunned daze" assertions in the popular hysterias come from regurgitating what was being said somewhere else, and anywhere except a primary source.
I fully expect to see people out on my front lawn with pitchforks and torches after they read what I'm about to say, but here goes, anyway:

I think that - allowing for great simplification, some error and some dramatic license - that the Cameron film has it somewhat right. Captain Smith is shown as decisive at first, then progressively overwhelmed as events unfold. As who in his position would not be? After Andrews had described what would happen, it would have been abundantly clear that the most magnificent ship afloat, costing $7.5 million real and solid 1912 dollars, would be at the bottom of the North Atlantic in less than two hours, with two-thirds of her passengers and crew drowned. It would also have been well within the Captain's consciousness that he himself, above all other persons aboard, was absolutely, fully, unequivocally expected - required - to be among the dead. If anyone thinks Ismay caught Hell for surviving, a live Captain Smith would have been a pariah for the rest of his life, if not imprisoned.

It would have required superhuman strength of character to have avoided becoming overwhelmed under the circumstances. Perhaps Captain Smith did. Perhaps he did not. But if he did, who among us could blame him? One of the horrors of human existence is that human beings are capable of setting events in motion that the human race has no psychic means to deal with.
  • Like
Reactions: Vocabo
Don't think so Sandy!

Cameron and his script writers were guessing. They portayed Smith in the way they did because that was their perception of how some people might have acted in such circumstances. Unless one of the writers in question had been in a similar situation or had absolute proof of how Smith acted, the film portrayal of him was simply a preferred outcome.

I can only speak from experience of witnessing many captains in tight situations. I only saw behaviour once which might be described by the uninformed as 'panic'. That was back in the 50s when a senior officer fouled his whites during a helicopter rescue operation in horrendous weather. The same man had gone through WW2 and suffered untold miseries during that time. He had been left with shattered nerves. In this instance, he did not panic or give up.. he was so bloody angry at the incompetence of those round him that he nearly busted a gut but decided to s~~~ himself instead. :rolleyes:
As for Captain Smith: the man was highly experienced. He too had been in war and had spent many years in sailing ships.. not an arena for the weak at heart. In fact, following the sea as a career in the old days soon sorted-out the wheat from the chaff.
The evidence from survivors paints a picture of a supremely confident, efficient officer who, because of his vast experience of personal danger, would not have taken time to lament his failures. As they say, "the song's not over until the fat lady sings". My guess is that Smith waited in vain to hear the end of that song. But hell! I wasn't there. More to the point - neither was James Cameron (blessings be upon his name);)
>>It would have required superhuman strength of character to have avoided becoming overwhelmed under the circumstances. <<

If what was offered in testimony at both inquiries is accurate, then Smith not only managed to avoid being overwhelmed, he was as proactive as his circumstances allowed him to be. Click on TIP | United States Senate Inquiry and read for yourself.

It's occasionally been said...and in my opinion quite accurately...that if the captain is doing his job right, he'll be the most useless man on the ship. It's not his job to be in all places in all times doing every single job in sight, nor is it possible for him to do so. More to the point, no smart skipper even tries to be a micromanager. The ones who do burn out very quickly. The smart skipper, like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, keeps his eyes to the music sheet and his ear to the tempo but he let's his players do the playing.

That was how Smith did business. He set the tone but let his people do their jobs while being someplace...the bridge...where he could be easily reached if he was needed to make a command decision.

This whole "Stunned catatonic" thing strikes me as little more then projection: Assuming that since some of us would react that way, that Captain Smith must have as well.

Well, MAYBE he did, but the available evidence doesn't support it.
  • Like
Reactions: Vocabo
Well said Michael!

I know I'll get a blast but I have to say it. I have studied the Costa Concordia disaster in some depth. The 'hystery' - books will record it as dictated by the media. However if the history books are properly written after all the available evidence is properly scoured of ill-informed rubbish, I think we will find that the captain of that ship could not have behaved like the normal, experianced captain. He could not have done so because he did not have a bridge or even a level deck to stand on to rally his boys. and delegate duties. By contrast; most of the time the ship was being evacuated, the clown who was directing it for the Italian coastguard was 40 miles away up the coast.

Well, I think anyone else's opinion is as valid as mine, particularly given that this is an event that occurred over a century ago. However, I did try to qualify what I said rather heavily, as follows:

"I think that - allowing for great simplification, some error and some dramatic license - that the Cameron film has it somewhat right."

Great simplification - error - dramatic license - somewhat right. That's not a ringing condemnation of the Captain, and I would remind everyone that Smith's bio here on ET contains the following:

"Surprisingly little is known about Smith's actions in the last two hours of the ships life. His legendary skills of leadership seem to have left him, he was curiously indecisive and unusually cautious."

When I say I think Captain Smith was overwhelmed, I don't mean that he gibbered or curled up into a fetal position under one of the tables in the Cafe Parisien. But I do think he was not himself, and I also think he had excellent reason for that.