Did hubris hinder the rescue effort

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Devika Patel

Aug 27, 2008
Hello, all. Just another amateur Titanic buff, but I pride myself on having been a devoted fan many years before the world had even heard of an upstart named Leonardo DiCaprio. Anyway, I LOVE this site.

This is my first message board post, and a good bit of it may end up being worked into an essay I would like to write. A word of warning: It’s extremely long, but I am unsure of where to make my cuts just yet, so I hope you will bear with me. Feel free to skim! You’re such a witty, amiable crowd, I’m sure you’ll find a way to put up with me!

I’ve mulled over this topic a lot, and have managed to eke out my current position after heavy internal debate. Weigh in with your thoughts after you’ve read this, and please let me know if you agree with the thrust of my argument or if you see a weakness anywhere which I might have overlooked or neglected to think through. From what I read on this board, many of you are able to offer keen insights on even the most trivial of subjects, so of course, I wanted to turn here for my needed sounding board before investing any more effort in this piece.

And please don’t hold back. I’m rather thick-skinned (some might add thick-headed as well) and this sort of back-and-forth is very much my passion. I’d rather get a good dose of constructive criticism rather than be swarmed with a volley of largely useless praise. Don’t get me wrong, I love legitimate praise as much as the next fellow, especially when it’s directed at me, but what I’m looking for here are suggestions, hints, gentle (or not-so-gentle) prods to help move this in the right direction. So any pertinent comments at all will assist. I just ask that you refrain from the impertinent comments, unless they’re the sexy kind, in which case, go ahead. But make sure to send those through a private e-mail ;-)

What led to this probe was my curiosity as to whether or not there was another, unnamed, factor behind the unnecessarily large number of lost Titanic lives. Now, we know that the victims couldn’t all have been saved, given the inadequate numbers of lifeboats, but we also know that certainly many, many more of them could have been rescued.

Survivors, historians and laymen have given us plenty of reason why they think the others weren’t saved, with arguments ranging from “The women didn’t want to get into the boats without their men” to “No one really believed the ship would go down,” “They thought that they might manage better on board, with an injured Titanic listing a bit, but still maintaining enough buoyancy to hold her afloat until help arrived” and “No man would leave the ship as long as there were women on board.”

That last one has already been seen to be an exaggeration, especially given the number of male survivors who left early on the lifeboats (I’m not talking about the crew or the men who were plucked from the sea).

Some of those arguments make sense, such as the women refusing to leave their male protectors for the open sea, but the majority of these hypotheses never sat well with me.

Surely, by the time the last boats were being filled, everyone knew enough of the danger and realized the boat was failing fast? The ones working to free the collapsible boats above the officers’ quarters certainly knew they were wrestling against time, especially after that wave rose up and swept them off the deck.

By then there was little left to do, but these were not the first signs of danger. So what kept these able-bodied men from getting into the under-filled lifeboats before sending them away?
I have theory of what held them back, and it had nothing to do with Murdoch’s rules or Lightoller’s firearms and very little to do with the sea’s adage of “women and children first.” In a word, I believe these men were held back by hubris.

The same hubris that kept the ship going at 23 knots in waters where icebergs had been seen shortly before; the same hubris that had one elitist woman complaining about third class women and children being put in “first class lifeboats,” and yes, the same hubris that led many to believe that “God himself could not sink that ship.”

An inflated pride or confidence in one’s extraordinary abilities, achievements and capabilities, a noblesse oblige or sense of entitlement that makes one believe one is too wealthy, too powerful or too famous to die. I’m not saying that all, or even most, of the victims lost that April night fell prey to this mode of thought, but I do wonder if it could have been possible for a small number of them.

In an article on this site, Loaded and the Tramp, we see one of the boat’s most famous victims, John Jacob Astor, growing increasingly more outraged over the fact that a homeless tramp had the gall to wander in and fall asleep in the Astor mansion. The wealthy businessman throws charges, lawyers and money at the vagrant’s case until the offending sleeper had been properly punished with a prison sentence, and Astor himself is once again able to sleep peacefully knowing justice has been served.

This story tells me Astor is a man with a sense of entitlement, the type who might genuinely believe he was born into a class that was above the sufferings of the poor, destined to never feel the lower class hardships, which on occasion has been known to include hypothermia, the same hypothermia that might afflict victims of a shipwreck.

I won’t go so far as to say Astor didn’t think he could die, I’m just positing that perhaps he believed such a fine example of a ship would keep such a fine example of a man out of the water until help rushed to save him. If an Astor was on board, the help would surely come twice as fast. That last sentence is not unfounded, either; had any of the wealthy passengers’ families known their location and need, help would, indeed, have come quicker. Perhaps by bribing the Californian? A bit of a stretch, since her wireless operator already was asleep and the ship was under the command of a captain who would supposedly be above accepting bribes, but perhaps a well-placed bribe might have worked to rouse the troublesome and reluctant-to-help Frankfurt, which appeared to be closer than Carpathia, based on the strength of her wireless signals, as Titanic’s telegraph operator, Harold Bride, testified, but insisted on making trouble and needling the swiftly sinking ship until Titanic’s wireless crew were forced to tell the ship to shut up and stay out. Had large sums of cash been available, Frankfurt might have changed its tune and meandered over to assist rather than torment.

But the point I’m making is that many of Titanic’s First Class were used to getting their way, either through power, wealth or sheer determination. These giants of industry were not the type who heard “no” very often. Could their overconfidence in their abilities to maneuver difficult scenarios have played a part in their reluctance to board the lifeboats? I have no doubts that their morals assured them it would be preferable to send women and children first, but when faced with life and death scenarios, morals are not always our strongest guides.
If anything, I think these men operated on the assumption that, despite the ship’s sinking, nothing too terrible could happen to them. After all, they were the leaders of the world, and if they could conquer the stock markets, how tough would it be to manage a little ocean water for a short while, at least until help arrives. As an added bonus, the sea was hauntingly calm that night, which would make for a smooth swim.

I’m curious what you Titaniacs think of the following story about a well-known British expedition to the South Pole. As doomed as the Titanic seemed from the start, the hubris expressed by these explorers in late 1912 showed the world it had learned very little in the few months following Titanic’s plunge:

Doomed Expedition to the South Pole, 1912

I’m particularly interested in the lines that say: “Scott's British team distrusted the use of dogs preferring horses, once these died from the extreme conditions the sleds were man-hauled to the Pole and back.

“In fact, Scott deprecated the Norwegian's reliance on dogs. Their use was somehow a less manly approach to the adventure and certainly not representative of the English tradition of "toughing it out" under extreme circumstances. Man could manage Nature.

“A similar spirit guided the building of the "unsinkable" Titanic and then supplied the ship with far too few lifeboats to hold its passengers if disaster did strike. Just as the passengers of the Titanic paid a price for this arrogance, so too did Captain Scott and his four companions."

What was at play here?

How could the Western world be so confident, especially after such a sobering maritime disaster earlier that year, that it still could believe “Man could manage Nature”?

I suspect what was happening was that technology was advancing at such breakneck speeds, faster even than 23 knots, that the average Westerner truly believed that he could conquer Nature, even under the most brutal of conditions.

These advances in technology created a world in which a man could communicate across miles of ocean, using only a series of electrical sparks spelling out Morse letters. Machines were built for everything from canning foods and sewing clothes to constructing mammoth ships and steam trains for luxuriously comfortable travel. And that travel was across a much-smaller world, which was being shrunk daily as lightning-fast vehicles competed with one another to hold the title of the most technologically advanced.

One traveler in Titanic’s first class was rushing home to nurse her son who had been injured in, of all things, an airplane accident. Though only available for an elite few in 1912, these airplanes would literally take off in the years to come, allowing us to fly above the oceans and causing even the most luxuriously fashionable steam ship to seem out-of-date.
How on earth could mankind be hindered by something so trivial as a spat of cold weather or a lone iceberg when its people had constructed machines to defy gravity?

It was a completely different era, and it would be difficult, had we lived then, to remain sober and skeptical of our own abilities. After all, if we could fly, there seemed little else left to conquer.

But, of course, in looking back, we see those times as primitive. I believe somewhere on a message board here, perhaps discussing the Titanic surgery, someone was awed that there were no plasters for scraped fingers.
Personally, I could have lived without the Band-Aids, as long as there was a good quantity of penicillin and vaccines on board, but, of course, that wasn’t yet possible. Oh, and I suppose if it were up to me to supply the ship, some extra lifeboats might have helped too ;-)

While the majority of historians are easily able to accept and understand the technological and medical primitivism exhibited in past times relative to modern times, I think, at least for me, it’s a lot more difficult to watch historical events unfold and not feel frustrated with the narrow-mindedness that comes from the players being blissfully unaware of what is about to happen.

I’m not just talking singles instances in which passengers could be warned the ship will hit an iceberg and sink. I also mean the over-confidence that grips a society right before it is destined to meet its downfall. We’ve seen it in Ancient Rome, spreading itself out so thin that it is no longer able to defend its land from invading enemies; we saw it in Nazi Germany, which was fighting a war on both fronts, thinking the Third Reich army could somehow prevail where Napoleon could not. The arrogance that precedes a fall is so proverbial, yet somehow the current generation (ANY current generation) manages to fool itself into thinking that they are somehow immune to the dangers past civilizations fell victim to. They always think that this time, it will be different.

Historians, and the wary parents of teenagers, know it seldom is.

The historical example of arrogance that particularly stands out for me is that of the Edwardian era, most notably the British arrogance in the face of something so majestically indifferent as the Atlantic Ocean and her many icebergs.

Please don’t misread this: Some of my favorite historical figures were Edwardian Brits, but their mindset is one that would be difficult to duplicate these days, and one which, consequently, is a bit tougher for a modern-day inquisitive soul to relate to.

I’m also sure that the French, Italian, Americans and other nationalities all fell guilty of arrogance at some time or another as well, but for the purpose of this thought process, I would like to focus on the Brits.

Plus, the Brits were the ones who built the Titanic, and, aside from Americans, they made up the majority of the ship’s First Class, the focus of this paper. I just want to make sure that this doesn’t get me accused of anti-Brit prejudice; I really adore the Brits. Truly, I do. Despite their insistence that Marmite is edible. Bleh.

But back to their arrogance in 1912. I believe a good chunk of their self-satisfaction stems from the fact that the Brits had all of this technological know-how under their belts, and that, in itself, is enough to make you feel confident and impervious to those trivial afflictions such as shipwreck, hypothermia or the simple fear of finding yourself lost in the middle of nowhere, lacking adequate supplies (these conditions, by the way, whether found at the South Pole or in the North Atlantic are all manageable with a good supply of typical 1912 gadgets, such as penknives, compasses and a cozy sleeping bag).

But it’s much more than technology driving the British ego here, I believe, especially since that progress was fairly widespread throughout the 1912 world, so much so that industrialism was now a household word and the driving force behind much of that era’s politics, both within and without the British borders, leading to the late 19th Century rise in popularity of a man named Karl Marx. Citizens felt justifiably proud of these stellar achievements across their continents, so this was hardly attributable only to the British upper crust.

What was it that made these Edwardians even more assured than their contemporaries (who themselves were spectacularly self-assured to begin with)? Let’s remember that 1912 was a time when the sun never set on His Majesty’s empire. From the former colonies, across the Atlantic and around Africa, all the way to the Orient and the crown’s jewel of India, British citizens were sipping Twinings tea, playing cricket in their gentlemen’s clubs which were manned by fleets of native servants, and ruling over the indigent populations with the noblesse oblige every Englishman began learning at his governess’ knee. In short, the upper crust British citizen of 1912, not Leonardo DiCaprio (sorry, girls), was the true “King of the World” riding aboard the Titanic.

Add to this glory the untold amount of wealth generated from the machinery and colonies described above, and you don’t have to wonder very much why it appeared so easy for the First Class men to put their frailer wives and offspring into the lifeboats, while most of them “toughed it out” on deck, sipping drinks and smoking cigars, an act not too dissimilar from the one of sending the ladies back to their cabins to sleep while the gentlemen retired to the smoking room after a meal. A scenario that was played out every other night aboard this ship.

A number of them, however, were fully aware that the ship would sink, and many have posited that it was their bravery that kept the masses from panicking in those last moments before Titanic went down.

And it was true bravery. One husband, upon being begged by his wife to join her in the lifeboat, gently pulled away, telling her he must “be a gentleman.” It’s clear that he knew he was doomed to die, but instead of trying to save himself, he decided he would rather die honorably and according to his moral beliefs, than live on in disgrace. This is the man on board the boat for whom we feel the most: Admiration, awe, perhaps even a twinge of jealousy when we wonder if we’d be capable of behaving so nobly and with such self-sacrifice.

But what if there was another type of First Class man on board? Please forgive me, I don’t wish to rankle anyone with this supposition, or cast a less faorable light upon the dead, but what if SOME (not all, and probably not even most) of the men believed that they would be safe on board this man-made ship, built with the best of British engineering, rumored to be unsinkable even by God. Could their faith in the magic of technology been their downfall?

And in the event that they believed it would, indeed, sink, perhaps these gentlemen believed their British pluck, of which they were rightfully so proud, would keep them alive in those frigid waters, believing themselves to be capable “of ‘toughing it out’ under extreme circumstances,” as was said in that link above ("Doomed Expedition To The Pole, 1912," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1999).

Perhaps they viewed the challenges ahead as similar to that of an African safari: Dangerous, yes, but a challenge any British gentleman is capable of meeting head-on. I may be mistaken, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that many passengers were bringing home their “trophies” from safaris, dead jungle carcasses and furs collected from the hunt. This Edwardian pastime is a perfect example of how the Edwardian gentry flexed its muscles, using the sport of hunting as another way in which to display the British Gentleman’s superiority over all things, including the most deadly predators of the animal world.

After all, it was just a bit of water, and with a lifebelt securely in place, what would prevent a plucky Brit from swimming a few hundred yards out to the lifeboats, thereby saving himself while leaving his honor untarnished.

As we know, a few managed this feat, but not without a cost: that chilly “bit of water,” coupled with the calories burned by swimming under extreme circumstances, sucked such huge amounts of heat from the swimmers’ bodies that the ones who made it there were worse off than those who found pieces of wreckage to float on, later to be rescued. Even the most seasoned British swimmer, perhaps even familiar with crossing the Channel, would be unprepared for that 28⁰F water temperature out among those icebergs. Hardly a sport.

Perhaps they even went so far as to see themselves as “above” the commoner’s affliction of a hypothermic death.

If they did in fact believe themselves superior to danger, history has proven that they were fatally mistaken. If there survived any documentation proving that these sorts of thoughts were in their minds at the time, we, in the cozy hindsight of the 21st Century, might even be moved to chuckle at their audacity before sobering down to reflect on this as yet another irony of that terrible night.

But we’d be equally wrong if we were to chuckle over their lack of humility. Here, in the 21st Century, we have the good manners to express pity or awe when confronted with tragedy, but do we have enough humility in us to be able to admit, unequivocally, that such a disaster could happen again in our times?

Most of us would say no, citing ships as an outdated mode of travel, touting safety regulation standards and the wonderful advances we’ve made technologically.

There it is again, faith in technology to save us. Humility in the face of progress is not something we will ever be able to master completely. If we had been visiting Titanic’s era, we’d have fallen prey to almost all of the blunders the crew and passengers struggled with that night. We may have been a bit less gullible when it came to a machine’s infallibility, but even in this day and age, when machinery is a bit less green, our faith in progress, in new technology, in man’s ability to overcome the natural elements through invention (such as air conditioning and windshield wipers), remains strong enough that we’re not too far removed from that blind-faith mindset.

What we do have over them, however, is an understanding of how progress can sometimes be extremely lethal as well. Col. Astor walked the promenade deck unaware of the Great War, or First World War, that would kill countless soldiers before the decade’s end, and he was even less aware of the Second World War, following on the heels of the First and bringing with it technology’s most notorious achievement: the nuclear weapon. Now progress has made it possible to kill of entire cities, rather than wasting time destroying the miniscule numbers found aboard enemy planes, enemy tanks or enemy ships, such as the Lusitania.

Journalist Helen Candee, rushing home to her injured son, must have thought it rather impressive for him to be injured in such a novel way: an airplane accident. In those days, obviously, boats and trains were the way to travel and flying had yet to take off (pun intended). How would she react knowing that, instead of the threat of shipwreck, modern passengers now must fear crashing down from the sky, freefalling hundreds of thousands of feet, to die on impact when these newfangled manmade contraptions fail to work.

Perhaps she might think herself lucky to be aboard the sinking Titanic rather than try her luck with the perils of air travel, which can offer little privilege to the women and children aboard.

As for the hubris of wealth and empire, we all know what happened there. Not 20 years after the sinking, another crash, this time involving stocks, not bergs, brought the Western world to its knees. The Great Depression would carry us into World War II, after which Europe and America remained duly awed by the violent, volatile experiences of the first half of the 20th Century, but somehow found enough human spirit remaining, and were able to prod themselves into rebuilding and starting over from scratch.

And right around that time, the British Empire was being brought down as well, practically singlehandedly, surprisingly enough.

India’s Mahatma Gandhi eschewed factory-made imports in favor of his country’s more traditional hand-spun clothing, which was considerably cheaper, and rejected other British imports as well, after the heavy colonial taxes made these goods too pricey for India’s poor masses. Gandhi encouraged India’s many consumers to boycott British products, resulting in a threat to the invincible empire’s most vulnerable spot: Its wallet.

From there, it became even easier to rabble support for the burgeoning Indian Independence movement, which forced the well-armed and methodically trained European soldiers to fight against uneducated throngs on their own land; and the throngs fought back fitfully -- through non-violence.

Nonplussed by this approach, the soldiers lost ground, then lost battles, until, finally, an entire empire was lost after public outrage was sparked over the soldiers' attacks on unarmed citizens. This outcry back home forced the British government to remove its troops and leave India to her own devices. Indians continued rejecting British goods, regardless of the victory.

This resulted in a slight on both fronts for the occupying force: The colonies were ridding themselves not only British rule, but British manufactured goods as well, during a time when Britain was nearly as proud of her industrial strengths as she was of her colonial ones.

For a nation that had sailed the world creating colonies within which to trade goods for spices, thus building its economy to stupendous heights, this last economic loss must have stung for quite some time.

After losing India, the empire continued to crumble until the latter part of the 20th century, showing the world, at least, that the British pluckiness that ruled the empire and encouraged its citizens to “tough it out” against danger, whether manmade or natural, proved useless when finally pitted against a small, unassuming little man dressed in spectacles and a loin cloth. Not as scary as an iceberg, mind you, but he was certainly capable of making as much mischief in his own way ;-)

Jim Currie

Apr 16, 2008
NewtonMearns, Glasgow, Scotland.

I really liked your dissertation.

As one who was brought up in the dying days of the era you so aptly describe; I can very easily identify the 'hubris' you describe. Incidentally, I loved that word! but to my shame,must admit I had to look it up in my dictionary. Being an ignoramus, my first take was; "who the heck is this guy Hubris?". I could not remember having seen such a name in the lists of those involved. Oh dear!

You have, in my estimation,hit a lot of'nails' right on their heads. However, I would suggest you overemphasise the Edwardian aspect at the expense of that King's mother - Victoria. The old queen's influence survived her for many years. Indeed, it did so right up until the end of the 1950s.

As for The Mahatma - well now! he, I believe, was probably one of the world's best human beings - an example who, unfortunately for most of us, very few are able or wish to follow.

Your description of the overall British attitude at that time is further illustrated in the individual attitudes of questioners and questioned during the proceedings the UK BOT Commissioner of Wrecks Enquiry when compared to the American Senate Enquiry.
On the UK side hubris was rampant. Whereas, on the other side of the ocean, the Senators's questioning methods seemed to me to be a strange mixture of the famous American independent, no-nonsense approach, mixed with a fair dollop of old fashioned Victorian copy-cat.

Incidentally; There is no evidence to prove that 'Titanic' ever did get up to 23 knots - more like an absolute maximum of 22.5 knots.

I look forward to your further contributions.



Devika Patel

Aug 27, 2008
Thanks Jim, for taking the time to read my post and for such a thoughtful answer! I actually DID know that the ship never made it to 23 knots, but somehow let that slip into my post regardless.

Your point about Victoria having more influence than Edward is apt, but surely the prevailing culture at the time of the Titanic was Edwardian, right? Otherwise, why would there be so many posts on this site that discuss such things as Edwardian fashion, Edwardian lifestyles and class distinctions during Edwardian times?

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying you're wrong, just asking you why you might think the Victorian mindset is more applicable when we talk about the passengers aboard the Titanic.

One more thing: I was very flattered that you read my entire post. I really didn't expect anyone to do more than skim it and maybe comment on one or two points. I really appreciate that you took the time to do that and also took further time to look up my dear friend Hubris in the dictionary!!!

Anyway, much obliged.

Jim Currie

Apr 16, 2008
NewtonMearns, Glasgow, Scotland.

I always say 'where credit is due' etc.

You are right about the Edwardian fashion 'thing'.
Indeed; in the 1950's they had a group named 'Teddy Boys' proper name: 'Edwardian Boys'.
These lads were all about fashion as was the Prince of Wales who we are discussing. The Victorians and Victorian attitudes were to do with moral outlook. Indeed, the accolade 'Victorian' was awarded to one who had rather narrow, basic, almost biblical attitudes towards human behaviour. The 'women and children first' directive on Titanic was a classic example as was the the 'stiff upper lip' of the WW1 and WW2 UK officers. I suspect the 'Playing Fields of England' was also part of the 'residue'.

Nice to hear from someone who actually can think and feel as these people did.
I suspect the work of many historians, including those on this web-site is imperfect because individuals are incapable of using imagination constructively.


May 3, 2005


>>must admit I had to look it up in my dictionary. Being an ignoramus, my first take was; "who the heck is this guy Hubris?".<<

Glad to see I wasn't the only one who had to check on the meaning. I had a fuzzy idea but had to check it out: FYI:

Well done. My thanks for your dissertation. Compare to yours, I'm a rank amateur.
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