Who was the most negligent Captain on the night of the Titanic disaster?


Adam Went

Hi all,

Here we go for May.....enjoy!

In your opinion, who was the most negligent Captain on the night of the Titanic disaster - Smith, Lord, Rostron or perhaps another? Why? Has one or more of them been unjustly portrayed - be it in a good or bad way - by the media and/or popular culture since 1912?

Oh dearie, dearie me!

Nice one Adam. Were you perhaps armed with a very large stirring stick in another life? I will answer as you guessed I would. But not now.

Jim C.
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Not to be a stick-in-the-mud...but...the questions seems to confuse “negligence” with “imprudence.”

In legal terms “negligence” is defined as the failure to exercise the care that the circumstances of the case demanded; or, an omission of duty or forbearing. The term is restricted in application to events such as collisions between ships or accidents such as running into icebergs. If nothing unexpected happens, there can be no negligence. Using the proper definition of the word effectively eliminates all of the captains in the vicinity of Titanic save one – Edward J. Smith. He is the only captain whose ship was involved in a marine casualty that night. We can discuss just how much or how his guilt for negligence. But, we cannot do the same for the other masters in the vicinity because they were not involved in any marine casualties, and thus by definition were not negligent.

“Prudence” is another matter. It is defined as skillful or wise management of affairs. At sea, prudence means not taking unnecessary risks. Imprudence does not always result in a marine casualty, but when it does there is always some level of negligence involved. In terms of field ice and icebergs reported across his ship’s path, a prudent mariner would first change course to avoid the danger. He might also slow down, post extra lookouts, and close all watertight doors as a precaution. But in any event, he would maneuver with extreme caution until all danger was past.

Who on the North Atlantic acted imprudently that night? By far, the most imprudent captain was Rostron of the Carpathia. He went full speed directly into the field of ice and icebergs with full knowledge that hitting one of those bergs had just sunk a larger, better compartmented vessel than the one he commanded. Nothing gave Rostron the right to risk the lives of his passengers and crew that night. In fact, his primary responsibility was to protect those people from harm by prudent navigation of his vessel. The lives of the people of Titanic were Captain Smith’s responsibility, not Rostron’s.

Much-maligned Captain Lord took prudence to the limit that night by going dead in the water when his ship, Californian, encountered the ice. He took no chances on the lives of anyone in his charge.

Which brings us back to Captain Smith and the real question, “Was Smith acting with prudence that night?” And, depending upon how you answer that raises the second question, “Was he negligent?” I don’t think there’s enough beer in the world to lubricate all the arguments which can be raised over these questions.

-- David G. Brown
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Nice post David.

Negligence can only be claimed if a master acts without due care and attention and without proper attention to the the circumstances of the case.
Any master who knowingly acts without due care and attention and who knowingly puts at risk his ship and all the souls on board her for whatever reason, is guilty of gross negligence. He is also grossly negligent if he sends up signals which can be mistaken for signals of distress.
I agree with you David that Captain Rostron of the Carpathia was the only master that morning whose actions fitted the bill. The only reason we are not discussing an even greater tragedy is down to the quick thinking of Joseph Boxhall when he had that box of green flares chucked into Rescue boat 2.

David mentions Captain Lord of the Californian. An excellent illustration of the circumstances prevailing in that area at the time.
Lord was in command of an eleven knot ship. He and his men were on high alert and on the lookout for ice. Despite all these precautions, he was unable to prevent Californian entering the pack ice, albeit briefly.
Rostron, in a ship which had been stopped for 5 minutes and which was slowing down, only just managed to avoid the same berg as did for Titanic. The mind boggles as to what might have happened had Carpathia shot past Boxhall without seeing him.

As for the ice warnings and actions of Captain Smith:

As far as we know, Smith only received a single warning pointed to ice to the north of his intended track. That was not sufficient to warrant a slowing down of his ship.
Titanic was manned by highly experienced officers who were used to operating in the vicinity of ice. Smith and his men relied on the longitude of the ice area rather than the latitude. The latter told them for certain how far north or south of the intended track it was. They also relied on the action of the sea against the ice to give them ample warning in good visibility. That is still the case today. Not all ice is detected.

Bottom line? We are all wise after the event.

Jim C.
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Hi David and Jim,

Very well, "negligent" might be a bit too strong of a word to use in the circumstances. Allow me to rephrase it, then, for potential future contributors to "imprudent" while also maintaining the other question about who has been unjustly portrayed and why.

Interestingly, I think Captain Smith has got off reasonably lightly over the years. He was not on the bridge when the iceberg was struck, and much of the rest of the story of that night surrounds Lord and Rostron and their ships that I think Smith has sort of been lost in it all a bit. I would agree with Jim that he had no significant reason to alter the speed of the Titanic, however he was certainly aware of ice in the area and an experienced seaman like himself should have known it was coming. Unfair or not, ultimately the responsibility of the safety of the ship lies with the Captain.

Jim, I'm also well aware that you (and others) believe there was another vessel in the area that night, and perhaps the unknown Captain of that vessel was the most imprudent of them all?

In saying that, perhaps I'm being strung along by the media hype a little but I do believe that Rostron did the right thing in the circumstances. He was aware of the upcoming ice and surely his ship would have been far more nimble than the Titanic at dodging icebergs. If he had been another couple of hours arriving at the scene, as was initially expected, he may not have seen Boxhall at all and more people who were already freezing may well have died.

As for Lord, on the other hand, he tops my list of most imprudent. It's not as if his crew were doing anything, they were stuck in the ice and going nowhere in a hurry. If for no other reason than to keep themselves occupied, they could have mounted a far greater effort to contact the mystery ship who was firing rockets for no apparent reason than they did. No attempt was made to reach her by wireless. Ultimately it may have made little difference but some of the criticism of Lord's actions - or more to the point, inactions - that night are justified in my humble opinion.

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As for the ice warnings and actions of Captain Smith:

As far as we know, Smith only received a single warning pointed to ice to the north of his intended track. That was not sufficient to warrant a slowing down of his ship.

Rostron was so reckless because he received none warning at all.

Smith (the Titanic) received two (at least). One by Phillips, one by Bride.
He was aware. There is an icefield ahead. Not just an iceberg.
Told you so Adam!:D

"He was not on the bridge when the iceberg was struck,"

Smith knew that Titanic would be up to the longitude (but not the latitude) of where, according to the information he had, the ice had last been seen. He had at least 3 sets of eyes looking ahead for small ice... not icebergs or pack ice. Had he known or suspected the presence of pack ice ahead of his ship, the instructions given to the lookouts would have been entirely different, as would have been his own actions. Had Smith known for sure about ice directly ahead, i.e. received the Mesaba ice warning, he would have done one of two things :

1. Mounted a full ice Watch... himself on the bridge and an officer on each wing plus two extra hands tight forward on each side of the bows and slowed down.


2: Mounted the full ice Watch but in addition, did as did Captain Moore of the Mount Temple and made a positive alteration of course to the south West.

Smith simply acted as any other master would have done given the information he had to hand and the prevailing conditions at the time. His experience of ice would tell him that it normally moved East, north East in low latitudes; that bergs very seldom reached as far south as his planned track. That his planned track was designed to take ship's like Titanic well south of the normal ice area.

On the other hand, Captain Lord of the Californian knew for sure that the ice was in latitude 42 North... directly ahead of his ship. He also knew when he would meet up with it. In dealing with the danger of known ice, he exhibited all the proper actions of a prudent master. As far as his actions during the rocket sighting incidents are concerned; he acted in accordance with the information supplied to him. He did exactly as any other master in 1912 would have done...ordered his officers to attempt contact with the nearby vessel. These attempts went on for an hour and a half. In any event, how should the master of ship act if he is told that a ship seemed to fire rockets then steamed away, changing it's bearing by a full 90 degrees?
As for Lord or Stone calling the Sparks? Everyone should remember that wireless use was not a universal thing at sea in 1912. It was only 7 years previously that one of the first British Ships, the Cunarder Campania, used wireless on the New York run. In fact, the use of wireless on Titanic was for the benefit of the passengers rather than safety of life at sea.
Lord,Stone and most of the bridge officers in this tale had been trained long before the advent of wireless. They did not automatically think: "distress..wireless"
Add to the foregoing the fact that in many cases, wireless operators worked for private Companies. Some of these actively tried to discredit the competition by ignoring attempts at contact. Another problem was the fact that English was not a universal language at sea.


There is no evidence that suggests Captain Smith or those on Titanic's bridge received that second ice warning from Mesaba. In fact, it was not addressed directly to him. It would have been received on Titanic by Phillips while he was receiving from Cape Race. The time of receipt on board Titanic would have been 9-48 pm. At that moment Lightoller was being relieved by Murdoch. Since it was not sent directly for the attention of Smith; If Phillips did deliver it to the bridge, he would not have done so until he was finished his work with Cape Race. He would have given it to Moody or Boxhall who in turn would have advised Murdoch. Lightoller would never have seen it.

Jim C.

There is no evidence that suggests Captain Smith or those on Titanic's bridge received that second ice warning from Mesaba. In fact, it was not addressed directly to him. It would have been received on Titanic by Phillips while he was receiving from Cape Race. The time of receipt on board Titanic would have been 9-48 pm.
Jim C.

I mean the message received by the Titanic from Californian at 05:35pm:

Three large bergs five miles to southward of us. Regards. Lord"

Smith received and acknowledged a message from Baltic that ice lay almost directly in their path in Lat 41° 51'N, 49° 52'W. Watch officers were informed and expected to come up to the ice later that night. Plain and simple, Smith thought that they would be able see and avoid any danger in plenty of time. He was wrong. He did not divert his ship's course. He not think it necessary to slow down. He did not think it necessary to post additional lookouts, nor did he remain on the bridge along with the OOW. He did not think it necessary to put the engine room on standby. He took a known risk and lost.
"Smith received and acknowledged a message from Baltic that ice lay almost directly in their path in Lat 41° 51'N, 49° 52'W".

Not exactly Sam.

He had received a message from Caronia four hours earlier specifically warning of ice in 42 North. However the position of that ice was 2 days old.
The message from Baltic was not a general ice warning but was a message which made reference to ice in its text. Smith would not act on that second hand bit of information; particularly when four hours earlier he had had an earlier warning from Caronia of ice to the northward of that position.

I suggest his thought processes were something like:

1: By now,the ice in Caronia' report will be farther north and east of where it was reported and therefore farther north and east of our intended track.
2: The Athenia's ice mentioned in Baltic's message is significant. There might be the odd growler and loose ice to the southward. Will inform the bridge to keep a sharp lookout after dark. In any case, (As you say) we always get plenty of warning due to the interaction of sea and swell against ice. If it's there, we'll see it in plenty of time.

"He took a known risk and lost"

I would prefer to say that if he considered risk at all, it was a calculated one based on his experience of ice movements and that previous ice warning from Caronia.

Lord in Californian thought along the same lines as Smith. At the US Inquiry he said:

"It was just a matter of courtesy.{Telling Titanic that Californian had been stopped by ice) I thought he [Smith in Titanic]would be a long way from where we were. I did not think he was anywhere near the ice. By rights, he ought to have been 18 or 19 miles to the southward of where I was. I never thought the ice was stretching that far down.

Lord had already passed three icebergs in the vicinity of 42 North that afternoon therefore he knew for certain there was still ice about so he took extra precautions. The sighting of these three bergs confirmed the warning of ice he received from the Caronia,
You will remember that at Noon that day, April 14, despite the fact that he was heading for Boston, Lord set his course a degree to the southward of due west. The Caronia warning was for the position of ice on April 12. Lord would expect that ice to move north and east between then and April 14 but Lord did not take chances.

You will also remember the grilling that Boxhall had about the position of the ice. He too confirmed Lord's thought process and the concentration by Smith et al on the report made by Coronia.

Jim C.
Do you really expect me to believe that Smith was so naive in his thinking? Athenia's ice report that Baltic's Captain forwarded to Smith mentioned "icebergs and large quantities of field ice," not a some stray growler or two and loose ice. The bridge officers were all warned ahead of time. Lightoller even admitted that they expected to be up to the ice that night. At about 7:15pm, Murdoch, who briefly took over from Lightoller at 7:00pm when Lightoller went to dinner, told Hemming to make sure the forward scuttle hatch was closed tightly as there was a glow coming from and that "we are in the vicinity of ice." We know about Lightoller's conversation with Smith from about 8:55 to 9:25 that night and, despite the clarity of the night, their mutual concern about there being a flat calm and not being a swell around the base of any berg that may lay ahead.

So what extra precautions did Smith do with the information he had? Nothing!
Plotting chart 42 deg

Plotting chart 42 deg
No Sam, I don't expect you to think that Smith was naive. Nor was he inexperienced.

The message from Baltic was not an ice warning. It contained an item mentioning ice. However it was not ignored. It was probably used by Moody to determine when Titanic was in the longitude of 49-57'West.

At 9-30pm, the lookouts were told by Lightoller to look out for small ice and in particular, growlers... not icebergs. Why, if he expected to meet up with icebergs would Smith not order Lightoller and through him the men on Watch to specifically watch out for them? Why simply small ice and growlers?

If you read all of the evidence, you will find that Smith and Lightoller discussed sighting of ice under specific conditions.
Additinally, 1912, they were concerned with longitude and did not rely on latitude when considering ice warnings hence the emphasis on 49 west.

As for the Hemmings story: don't you find that a little strange?

Why would Murdoch say they were in the ice region at 7-15 pm that evening? After all, if he knew about the ice and about the Baltic message, he also knew that they were at least 100 miles east of 49-57 west and of any ice.

The reason Smith did not take additional precautions was because he believed he was in control of the situation and did not need to do so. Given the prevailing conditions, he believed that his men would see any danger in good time to avoid it. Lightoller confirmed that :

" 3566. Now when you were in the vicinity of the ice, as you believed you were at 9.30 entering the dangerous field, did not it occur to you that you might run foul of a growler? A: - No, My Lord, I judged I should see it with sufficient distinctness to define it - any ice that was large enough to damage the ship.

Lightoller, like Smith, relied on there being the (until then) ever presence of a slight sea and swell to help them detect ice, even small stuff. In fact, the unforeseen almost unforeseeable happened.. there was no sea, no wind an d, most important of all and never seen before in that area..... no swell. It was truly flat calm.

Smith could never have have imagined that he would meet with such conditions. For that, he cannot be blamed.

Jim C.
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As for the Hemmings story: don't you find that a little strange?

Why would Murdoch say they were in the ice region at 7-15 pm that evening? After all, if he knew about the ice and about the Baltic message, he also knew that they were at least 100 miles east of 49-57 west and of any ice.

Because of the same reason Lightoller keep lookout for ice himself during his watch. (By 7 o'clock it was dark or already night so Hemmings story does make sense.) What was the reason for Lightoller to believe to be in the ice region after 9 o'clock and not as he claimed Moody said at 11 o'clock?

13535. At any rate when you gave Mr. Moody those directions he had the material to work on? - Exactly.
13536. And he calculated and told you about 11 o'clock, you would be near the ice? - Yes.
13537. That is to say an hour after your watch finished? - Yes. I might say as a matter of fact I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Moody did not take the same marconigram which Captain Smith had shown me on the bridge because on running it up just mentally, I came to the conclusion that we should be to the ice before 11 o'clock, by the marconigram that I saw.
13538. (The Commissioner.) In your opinion when in point of fact would you have reached the vicinity of the ice? - I roughly figured out about half-past nine.
13546. It was important to you? - I quite see your point, and I had reasons for not doing so. As far as I remember he was busy - what on I cannot recollect, and I thought I would not bother him just at that time. He was busy with some calculations, probably stellar calculations or bearings, and I had run it up in my mind, and I was quite assured that we should be up to 49 degrees somewhere about half-past 9.
13628. What was the basis upon which you were proceeding? Were you proceeding on the basis that you would expect to reach this region by half-past nine, or that you would not expect to reach it until 11 o'clock? - I was working on the half-past nine. I probably thought that Mr. Moody had based his calculation on the actual position of some berg or number of bergs.
13676. Now we come to the last half-hour of your watch, from 9.30 to 10, I think. Just tell us what you were doing as regards ice, looking for ice during that time? - At 9.30 or about 9.30 I took up a position on the bridge where I could see distinctly - a view which cleared the back stays and stays and so on - right ahead, and there I remained during the remainder of my watch.
13677. Were you looking out? - Keeping a sharp look-out, as sharp as was possible.
13678. Looking out for ice? - Looking out for ice and watching the weather; watching the conditions generally to see there was no haze which would rise that I should not notice, and, of course, keeping a sharp look out for ice as well.

It it quite clear that the Officers and the Captain knew what was directly ahead. Easy to deny later that they did not know or "see" the ice messages (as Boxhall who suddenly remembers when the ice warning was read in front of him during the inquiry.)
Capatain Smith try and lost. Captain Rostron try and had big luck not to hit an iceberg.
Perhaps the term 'warning' is not technically correct because the message from Baltic was not a MSG. However, it was a message from the master of one vessel to the master of another vessel that contained information that might affect the navigation of a vessel. And yes, they were concerned with longitude more because that would give them some idea, since they were heading west, as to when they might expect to be up to the ice because. As Lightoller agreed, ice in their path tends to set north and south and a latitude report in and of itself does not tell you much.

But the real question has to do with prudence and taking prudent action. Capt. Moore took prudent action by steering down to 41° 15' N, 50° 00'W from the corner. Capt. Lord was steering to down to 42° N, 51° W because of ice reports, and doubled the lookout at 8pm and personally took charge of the bridge where he remained along with 3/O Groves. It seems these two commanders were concerned enough to take additional precautions. Smith did none of that.

I just wonder exactly what experience Smith had, if any, navigating regions of ice at night?
Hello Ioannis.

By 7 o'clock it was dark or already night so Hemmings story does make sense.

I know it's splitting hairs but in fact, the sun would have set at about 20 to 7 that evening. It had been a brilliant day. The horizon ahead of Titanic would have been very clear and bright for a long time after sunset. Twilight would start at about 7-10 pm but from astern of Titanic. Lightoller took his sights almost half an hour after that and the horizon would still be visible through his star telescope. That was close to 7-40pm, 25 minutes after Murdoch talked to Hemmings.
However, according to Hemmings, Murdoch said they were actually in the ice region. They were not and I cannot for any reason understand why Murdoch should say so.

Jim C.