Encyclopedia Titanica


Washington Times

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As Captain of Olympic Smith's Vessel Hit British Cruiser Last Fall
If the twentieth century retained a belief in the power of malignant spirits and the human passions of natural forces, the termination of the career of Capt. E. J. Smith, of the Titanic, would afford a stunning example of the jealous power of Neptune, for this captain, after a clear record of forty-three years on the high seas, was the victim of a series of accidents that mounted in seriousness to the final annihilation of Captain Smith and his vessel.

Last September, as captain of the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, Captain Smith underwent the ordeal of an inquiry after his vessel crashed into the British cruiser Hawke. He was retained in the service. In February the Olympic struck what is supposed to have been a submerged wreck, and lost a propeller blade. The vessel was docked at great expense for repairs. Leaving Southampton, last week, as captain of the largest vessel in the world, Captain Smith's ship narrowly averted crashing into the American liner New York. Three times within eight months had this officer, with a previous clear record of nearly half a century, met with accident to his ship. Then came the gigantic encounter between the Titanic and an iceberg, and the last chapter in Captain Smith's career was written.

Would Cost Job

Had he been saved, Captain Smith's career was ended. He had twice escaped the rule that the victim of an accident to a vessel must give up his post, but in previous accidents no lives were lost. It was considered because of Captain Smith's previous excellent career that the officials at the White Star line retained him in its service after the two mishaps to the Olympic, thus violating a deep sea tradition that has been more rigorously maintained by the British merchant marine than by that of any other nation. The rule has been almost invariable among steamship companies to dispense with the services of officers in command of vessels that met with disaster. One reason for this is the insistence of the insurance companies.

Lloyd's keeps in its London office the records of all marine officers, so when a man is put in command of a vessel his whole career can be immediately inspected.

Whether this "grand old man of the sea" was at fault for the disaster to the Titanic depended in a great measure on the degree of vigilance used after the delicate instruments all vessels now carry warned of the vessel's proximity to ice.

A few steamship companies, among them the North German Lloyd, have shown leniency toward officers whose previous records were good, and have allowed them a second chance, provided the vessel not been a total loss.

Fate of Sealby

The White Star line has been among the strictest of the British companies in this regard, as is evidenced in the fate of Capt. Inman Sealby, who commanded the Republic when she sank in collision with the Italian line steamship Florida, on January 23, 1909. No blame was attached to Captain Sealby for faulty navigation or bad seamanship in handling the vessel, and all his career he had been with the White Star line without figuring in a wreck. Nevertheless be was dismissed, afterward going to the University of Michigan to study admiralty law.

Captain Smith began his sea career in 1869, when he shipped as apprentice on board the Senato [sic] Weber, purchased by A. Gibson & Co., of Liverpool. In 1876 he got a commission as fourth officer of the square rigger Lizzie Fennel, and in 1880 was appointed fourth officer of the White Star line's old steamship Celtic, which subsequently was sold to the Thingvalla Company and renamed the America. He attained the rank of captain in 1887, when he took command of the old Republic, later going to the old Baltic. Next he was in command of the freight steamship Cufic, and then of the Runic. Afterward he went to the old Adriatic, then the Celtic, the Brittanic [sic] and the Coptic, in the Australian trade.

Commanded First Voyages

It was in 1892 that the White Star line bestowed its first great honor on Captain Smith, when it made him commander of its largest steamship, the Majestic, on her maiden voyage. Since that he has commanded each large steamship of the White Star line on her initial trip. When he was put in command of the Titanic it was reported that he would retire after he had conducted her across the Atlantic and back, but the White Star officials afterward announced he would have charge of the Titanic until the company built a larger and finer steamer.

Captain Smith had the utmost confidence in the safety of the ocean giants that are now being constructed. In 1907, when he came to New York in command of the Adriatic, on her maiden trip, he said:

"Shipbuilding is such a perfect art nowadays that absolute disaster, involving the passengers, is inconceivable. Whatever happens, there will be time enough before the vessel sinks to save the life of every person on board. I will go a bit further. I will say that I cannot imagine any condition that would cause the vessel to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.

"The love of the ocean that took me to sea as a boy has never left me. In a way, a certain amount of wonder never leaves me, especially as I observe from the bridge a vessel plunging up and down in the trough of the seas, fighting her way through and over great waves, tumbling, and yet keeping on her keel, and going on and on--I wonder how she does it, how she can keep afloat in such seas, and how she can go on and on safely to port. There is wild grandeur, too, that appeals to me in the sea. A man never outgrows that."

An officer of the Adriatic, who heard part of Captain Smith's remarks, put in:

“Don’t forget when you write of the captain's 'uneventful' life to put in that it is the great captain who doesn't let things happen."

But the iceberg is marked with no cross on the chart. The wise and seasoned mariner can evade rocks and reefs, and can pick his way through fogs and storms, but the iceberg brings disaster in spite of all precautions.

Last December, on arriving at New York with the Olympic, a banquet was given to Captain Smith at the Metropolitan Club, and among the guests were Gen. Stewart L. Woodruff, Chauncey M. Depew, W. H. Truesdale, and W. A. Nash.

Related Biographies

Edward John Smith


Mark Baber, USA

Comment and discuss

  1. sean (2694)

    sean (2694) said:

    not all of this is 100% correct. only, like, 94%...

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2004) TITANIC'S CAPTAIN HAD LONG RECORD ON THE HIGH SEAS (Washington Times, Wednesday 17th April 1912, ref: #4037, published 23 October 2004, generated 1st December 2021 09:08:18 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanics-captain-had-long-record-high-seas.html