by Senan Molony
Titanic survivors could have been marooned in the Azores!
Captain Rostron of the Carpathia considered landing them in the mid-Atlantic island chain for their treatment and onward travel – while he would continue his original voyage to the Mediterranean.
The unusual option was one of a number weighed up by the Cunard commander after his feat of rescue, and has been disclosed by research carried out at the Library of Congress.
Hitherto, it has been believed that Rostron only entertained a choice of Halifax or New York, once he had taken up the 712 occupants of lifeboats that escaped the sinking.
But the text of the earliest full report he made to his employers in Liverpool – now revealed – shows that Rostron also considered making for Boston, host city for the 2010 Titanic International Society convention.
If he had chosen to land passengers in the Azores, however, Titanic aficionados and researchers of today would be making pilgrimage to a very exotic and remote location.
The islands and Boston seem to have come only briefly into the reckoning, although Rostron’s first report on reaching New York also makes it clear that he “conferred” with Joseph Bruce Ismay, the freshly-saved Managing Director of the White Star Line, as to where he should go.
Captain Rostron, RMS Carpathia, and the man he consulted, White Star's J. Bruce Ismay.
Conventional wisdom up to now has been that Rostron merely indicated to Ismay that he considered New York the best destination for the new freight of souls, to which the traumatised shipping tycoon readily assented, along with Rostron’s suggestion that his ship should keep out of visual range of the Olympic for fear of upsetting those who had escaped.
Rostron’s first full report – he had of course signalled his employers to tell them he was putting about to return to his port of departure - was penned in his own hand aboard the Carpathia the morning after he docked in New York, and before he testified to the US Inquiry later that same day. It reads as follows -
R. M. S. Carpathia,
The General Manager,
I immediately ordered the ship turned round, and put her on course for that position, we being then 58 miles S. 52 E (T) from her. Had heads of all Departments called, and issued what I considered the necessary orders, to be in preparation for any emergency.(Please see [accompanying] letter for instructions given.)
At 2.40 a.m. saw flare half a point on the port bow, taking this for granted to be the ship. Shortly after we sighted our first iceberg. (I had previously had look-outs doubled, knowing that “Titanic” had struck ice, and so took every care and precaution.) We soon found ourselves in a field of bergs, large and small, and had to alter course several times to clear bergs. Weather fine and clear, light airs, calm sea; beautifully clear night, though dark.
We stopped at 4 a.m., thus doing the distance in three hours and a half, picking up the first boat at 4.10 a.m. Boat was in charge of [an] Officer, and he reported to me that “Titanic” had foundered. At 8:30 a.m., last boat was picked up; all survivors aboard and all boats accounted for, viz:- 15 Lifeboats alongside; one Lifeboat abandoned; 2 Berthon boats alongside; (saw one bottom upwards amongst wreckage); and according to 2nd Officer (Senior officer saved) one Berthon boat had not been launched, it having got jammed, making 16 Lifeboats and 4 Berthon Boats accounted for.
By the time we had cleared first boat it was breaking day, and we could distinguish the other boats, all within an area of about four miles. We also saw we were surrounded by icebergs, large and small, and 3 miles to NW of us a huge field of drift ice with large and small bergs in it. The ice field trending from NW round by W to S to SE as far as we could see either way..
At 8 a.m. the Leyland s.s. “Californian” came up. I gave him principal news and asked him to search and I would proceed to New York. At 8.50 proceeded full speed. Whilst searching over vicinity of disaster, and whilst we were getting the people aboard, I gave orders to get spare hands along and swing in all our boats, disconnect the falls, and hoist up as many “Titanic” boats as possible in our devils; also get same on fo’csle decks by derricks. We got 13 Lifeboats; 6 on forward and 7 in devils.
After getting all survivors aboard, and whilst searching, I got a clergyman to offer a short prayer of thankfulness for those saved, and also short burial service for those lost, in Saloon. Before deciding definitely where to make for, I conferred with Mr. Ismay, and although he told me to do what I considered best, I informed him – taking everything into consideration – that I considered New York best. I knew we should require more provisions, clean linen, blankets etc. even if we went to the Azores.
As most of the passengers saved were women and children, and they were very hysterical, and not knowing what medical attention they might require, thought it best to go to New York; also thought it would be best for Mr. Ismay to get to New York or England as soon as possible, and knowing I should be out of “Wireless” communication with anything very soon if I proceeded to Azores, it left Halifax, Boston and New York, so chose the latter as we would require coal, clean linen, blankets, stores, etc.
Again passengers were hysterical about ice, and pointed out to Mr. Ismay the possibility of seeing ice if I went to Halifax. Then I knew from the gravity of the disaster that it would be desirable to keep in touch with land stations all we could.
I am pleased to say that all survivors have been very plucky. The majority of the woman, 1st 2nd & 3rd lost their husbands, and considering al have been wonderfully well. Tuesday our Doctor reported all survivors physically well.
Our First Class passengers have behaved splendidly, giving up their cabins quite voluntarily, and supplying the ladies with clothes, etc. We all turned out of our cabins to give them up to survivors, Saloons, Smoke Rooms, Library, etc. also being used for sleeping accommodation. Our crew also turned out to let the crew of the “Titanic” take their quarters.
I am pleased to state that owing to preparations made for the comfort of the survivors, none are the worse for the exposure, etc.
I beg to specially mention how willingly and cheerfully the whole of the ship's company have behaved throughout, receiving the highest possible praise from everybody, and I can assure you that I am very proud to have such a ship's company under my command.
We have experienced very great difficulty in transmitting news, also names of survivors. Our “Wireless” is very poor, and again we have had so many interruptions from other ships, and also messages from shore (principally press, which we ignored). I gave instructions to send first all Official messages; then names of passengers; then survivors’ private messages, and the last press messages, as I considered the first three items most important and necessary.
We had haze early Tuesday morning for several hours; again more or less all Wednesday, from 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Strong S.S.Wly, winds and clear weather Tuesday with moderate rough seas.
N.B. For ‘devils,’ last two lines on p. 2, please read ‘Davits.’ A.H.R.
Addenda for instructions given (and carried out) 15.4.12
* Lamptrimmer and one hand to have cans of oil and pour oil down forrard W.C.s, either side.
* All discharges over side to be stopped as far as possible.
The additional instructions at the report’s conclusion supplement the famously long list of detailed preparations for the reception of Titanic survivors, issued during the rescue dash in the dark, for which Rostron received widespread praise.
A copy of Rostron’s first report survives only in the papers of President William Howard Taft in the Library of Congress, it having been passed to him by Senator William Alden Smith, Chairman of the US Inquiry, to whom Rostron gave a copy.
Senator Smith, and President William Howard Taft
The Cunard captain also gave its summary points to reporters who came on board his ship that morning, apparently reading excerpts from the document himself – as none reported the possibilities of Boston or the Azores, or the nature of the consultation with Ismay.
In his US Inquiry evidence, Rostron gave his famous list of instructions, finishing with ‘Ordered company's rockets to be fired at 2:45 A.M. and every quarter of an hour after to reassure Titanic,’ to which the extra two orders must now be appended.
His rocket instructions, incidentally, mean firings at 2.45am, 3am, 3.15am, 3.30am, 3.45am, and very likely 4am, since the first lifeboat was taken up at 4.10am when it was just breaking dawn. That would mean no fewer than six rockets in all. His ship fired distress rockets as well as displaying the Cunard company’s blue pyrotechnics.
Rostron also said he and his officers passed a moving steamer at 3.15am (apparently heading west), which was just the time he fired a rocket. This vessel must have seen it, and very probably a number of other rockets, but never identified herself.
'At 8:30am all the people were on board. I asked for the purser, and told him that I wanted to hold a service, a short prayer of thankfulness for those rescued and a short burial service for those who were lost. I consulted with Mr Ismay. I ran down for a moment and told them that I wished to do this, and Mr Ismay left everything in my hands.’
He later stated:
‘By law, the Captain of the vessel has absolute control, but suppose we get orders from the owners of the vessel to do a certain thing and we do not carry it out. The only thing is then that we are liable to dismissal… When I turned back to New York, I sent my message to the Cunard Co. telling them that I was proceeding to New York unless otherwise ordered. You see what I mean there? I said, “For many considerations, consider New York most advisable.”’
He mentioned only New York and Halifax as possible ports of arrival –
‘The first and principal reason [I went to New York] was that we had all these women aboard, and I knew they were hysterical and in a bad state… I knew very well, further, that if I went to Halifax, we could get them there all right, but I did not know how many of these people were half dead, how many were injured, or how many were really sick, or anything like that. I knew, also, that if we went to Halifax, we would have the possibility of coming across more ice, and I knew very well what the effect of that would be on people who had had the experience these people had had. I knew what that would be the whole time we were in the vicinity of ice. I took that into consideration. I knew very well that if we went to Halifax it would be a case of railway journey for these passengers, as I knew they would have to go to New York, and there would be all the miseries of that.’
Rostron insisted on his total powers to decide every navigational matter:
‘Immediately I leave port until I arrive at port, the Captain is in absolute control and takes orders from no one.
‘I have never known it in our company or any other big company when a director or a managing owner would issue orders on that ship. It matters not who comes on board that ship they are either passengers or crew. There is no official status and no authority whatever with them.’
But he consulted Ismay carefully, and not only about the port of deliverance, but also over the closing of the Olympic, and apparently about the prayer and burial service. Instead of his telling Ismay his preferences, it was the case that ‘Mr Ismay left everything in my hands.’
A certain degree of deference had been shown to the Managing Director of a rival shipping line. It raises the question of what would have happened if Ismay had strenuously insisted on a certain course of action.
A compromise between Halifax and New York might well have meant Boston.
But Ismay (at Br 17165) testified that he was in a very submissive state of mind —
‘Captain Rostron came into my room on board the Carpathia and told me he had received a Marconigram from Captain Haddock that the Olympic was coming to us as quickly as possible.
‘He (Rostron) suggested that it was very undesirable that our passengers on board the Carpathia, who were just settling down, should see the Olympic, as it would only probably harrow their feelings. The Olympic coming to us could do no good whatever, and I therefore entirely agreed with his suggestion, that it was undesirable the ship should come to us.’
The wider question is what Rostron’s conciliation of a shipping magnate, even of a rival conglomerate, might have meant for Captain Smith in his dealings with the head of his own line…
It is known that Ismay conferred with Titanic chief engineer Bell at Queenstown about coal consumption, for instance, an odd occurrence for a ‘mere passenger.’
In a separate matter, at his US Inquiry appearance, Rostron was asked about attempts to communicate with the Carpathia ‘from any Government vessel.’
‘Yes; from the [scout cruiser] Chester. I got a message from the Chester. The exact words of it I quite forget now; but there was something in it about the President; something, as far as I remember, about his being anxious about the passengers, if I remember right…’
USS Chester and USS Salem (contributor's collection)
Rostron evidently realized the importance of this matter to President Taft, in whose papers can be found a subsequent manuscript letter from Rostron, penned at sea, on Carpathia stationery, on April 24, 1912.
Addressed to ‘His Excellency, the President of the United States, White House, Washington DC, United States of America,’ it reads –
I have the honour to express to you, Sir, my sincere regret that you or the Government and people whom you represent should have the slightest cause to imagine than any act of mine - or those under my Command – could possibly be construed to intentionally, or otherwise, ignore or disregard any message with which your Excellency might honour me.
I am given to understand that the USS Chester sent wireless from you, asking if Major Butt was aboard this ship, or words to that effect.
I beg to state that I have absolutely no knowledge of any such message. I made enquiries from our Purser if any such message had been received. He replied: “We got one from Olympic, asking if Major Butt was aboard. I replied Major Butt was not on board.”
Fortunately this morning I came across the two first messages from the Chester, which I enclose, also scrap copy of one of mine in reply.
The only other message I received from Chester was “Yes, yes,” in reply to mine asking if he could take names of 3rd class.
I hope, Sir, this explanation will be quite satisfactory to you, and your Excellency may rest assured [that] nothing could be further from my mind, or any other under my Command, to ever dream of disregarding any message or request you might make.
As I had not a spare minute, and my time taken up by business etc the short time we were in New York, I find this the first opportunity of informing your Excellency of the actual state of affairs.
With my humble respects,
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
A. H, Rostron, Commander RNR,
Commanding RMS Carpathia.
Rostron did not know of two other papers in the Taft files, one a message to the White House from a field officer in New York, dated April 18, while the Carpathia was still at sea, and stating that: ‘Cruiser Chester reported officially to Washington that when asked Carpathia for disaster story he curtly refused.’
Another, sent at 8.10am that morning from the Navy Department, was a copy of a telegram received from the USS Salem –
‘Can get no information from Carpathia of any kind, although she is in easy radio communication. She sometimes acknowledges calls, but will not admit receipt of messages or make reply. Cannot believe that she failed to understand the messages I have sent her. She is within easy range of torpedo station, so Salem will go to Bradford (Naval colaing station, Narragansett Bay) this afternoon.’
The torpedo station later duly received a heavily garbled list of third class passengers, from ‘SS Carpathia, via Chester and Salem, via Newport, R. I.’
Rostron, in smoothing over ruffled feathers, also wrote at sea to Chairman Senator William Alden Smith and the ‘Gentlemen of Committee, Senatorial Inquiry on “Titanic” Disaster.’
He included a copy of the Cunard letter featured in this article. And he finished, rather unctuously, thus:
’With my sincere best wishes that your Committee may be able to formulate the best and safest means to reassure, not only the travelling public, but we who go to sea, making it our profession and our calling.
And with heart-felt sympathy for all those who in any may suffered from the terrible disaster, and all honour to those brave and noble men who gave their lives for the women and children first.’
(c) Senan Molony, 2010. All pictures supplied by the contributor. Taft, Smith: Library of Congress. Map courtesy Google Earth.