Reviewed by Inger Sheil
Titanic metaphors have long been a staple of political and social discourse; to “rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic”, “to hit an iceberg; these are useful, if rather well-worn clichés. Among them are variations of “he looks like the captain of the Titanic” - well understood shorthand for a politician or sportsman who has the look of one facing imminent disaster. Edward John Smith, even if his name is not on the tip of the speaker’s tongue, has become an archetypal figure of the tragedy. But what form that archetype takes – a tragic icon of doomed heroism, a symbol of his society’s supposed hubris, an individual overwhelmed by destiny – often depends very much on a selective reading of the extant sources. The scattered, fragmentary accounts available about the final hours of his life have lent themselves to interpretation and sometimes over-interpretation. The man himself is more often than not subsumed in myth in the popular imagination – a myth that began in the immediate aftermath of the sinking and continues unabated on screen and page.
Gary Cooper has taken on a rather challenging project. From sometimes conflicting accounts, controversies, gaps in the evidence and the patina of legend, he has attempted to reconstruct the life of an Edwardian merchant officer and his role in a notorious disaster. Overwhelmingly, he has succeeded. While at times we see through a glass dimly, we still see, and what is probably the most clearly delineated portrait of Smith we are ever likely to have emerges.
Titanic's future Captain Edward Smith c.1895
Describing himself as primarily a local rather than a Titanic historian, this is not Cooper’s first foray in this field. In 1992 he published his first biography of Smith, The Man Who Sank the Titanic, a solid work that was regarded as a comprehensive overview of the man and his career. Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith is not a revised version of that earlier book - it is a rebuilding from the ground up. The end result is thorough, beautifully researched and told in an engaging pace and style that constitutes a vividly fresh angle on what is assumed to be a well-worn story.
Most recollections of Smith by those who knew him were recorded posthumously, recollections frequently softened by nostalgia and affection and often coloured with a sense of the tragedy to come. Smith was not a prolific correspondent and most of his recorded public utterances are those of a man representing his company and profession. Captain Smith was a quasi-public figure even before the sinking, a professional at a time when the captains of large transatlantic liners were a breed of minor celebrity; their company sought on voyages by passengers, pursued by journalists in port as a convenient source of comment for maritime related stories and anecdotes, and in demand in club society while in port.
Cooper deftly wends his way through his sources – some of the most interesting stories he recounts involve Smith’s shoreside friendships, and visits to New York where the Captain was feted in the Metropolitan Club – the so-called “Millionaire’s Club”- and counted among his personal friends J Pierpont Morgan. Through painstaking research, all those public utterances Smith made to reporters in port during his career are sifted, assembled and assessed in the light of what they reveal, with the author acutely aware that many of these statements were guarded ones, made with an eye to what presented the company he represented in the best light.
The work is blessedly free of speculation masquerading as fact – Cooper does not say “did” when he means “may have”, and steers clear of the ready trap of filling in gaps in the record with excessive extrapolation. This means that at times he must resort to general local and social history, particularly when writing about Smith’s childhood in the North Staffordshire Potteries district and later in his early years at sea. In spite of this need to draw on official records and the histories of his contemporaries, the reader never feels that they have lost sight of Smith himself, even when the direct records are thin. Cooper has extracted all possible information from official sources, but this is not a dry recounting of data on Births, Deaths and Marriages supplemented with Official Logs. The narrative remains lively and the pacing engaging even when the author is disentangling his subject’s family tree – and any biographer or genealogist can appreciate how monumental a task that constituted when his protagonist’s name is “Smith”. Cooper manages it with a skilled hand, and his account of how a boy born in the industrial grime of a working class family in the Potteries managed to ascend to the affectionate nickname of “The Millionaire’s Captain”, and the irony with which that nickname was finally invested, is an enthralling one. As a local historian, he is able to paint a vivid and memorable portrait of Smith’s childhood home that is a nuanced depiction of life among the Victorian working class in Staffordshire, and is one of the books great strengths. One can gain a greater appreciation for just how far the Titanic’s Captain came in his career and the necessary skills and dedication that put him in the position of being in command when his life, and that of his vessel and many souls under his care, came to a tragic end.
Hanley (1905) : Captain Smith's Birthplace
While a sympathetic portrait, it is far from a hagiographic one. The author does not lose sight of those navigational practices or personal errors that contributed to the disaster, and Smith’s role in contributing to the tragic events that play out is not diminished. His treatment of ice warnings from the Marconi room, mistakes Smith made in the evacuation – all these are examined in the story with a clear and critical eye, as are the controversies connected with the Captain’s story, from rumours of his impending retirement following the maiden voyage to his final movements prior to the sinking.
Left: SS Majestic, Smith's longest command. Right: Memorial Plaque
Many readers, familiar with Titanic story, may feel that Smith’s history and role in the disaster is too familiar to yield substantial new information 100 years after the tragedy that bestowed notoriety on both, or that they must forever remain a cipher given the gaps in the record. Reading this book should disabuse them of that notion. Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith represents a substantial contribution to our knowledge of Smith the individual, and gives us an invaluable, clear narrative of his role in the Titanic’s brief life and tragic fate.