HOW TO SURVIVE THE TITANIC:
Or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
by Frances Wilson
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
“J. Bruce Ismay died on the night of April 14-15, 1912, and died again in his bedroom twenty-five years later. He was mired in the moment of his jump; his life was defined by a decision he made in an instant. Other survivors of the Titanic were able, in varying degrees, to pick themselves up and move on, but Ismay was not. His was now a posthumous existence” (p.22).
During the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, there seems to have been renewed interest in this famous oceanic disaster. Readers may recall that recently I reviewed Christopher Ward’s And the Band Played On, which explored the tragedy from the perspective of the author’s grandfather Jock Hume, one of the musicians in the ship’s orchestra (News Weekly, February 4, 2012).
How to Survive the Titanic looks at the disaster from the perspective of J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. He left the doomed ship on Collapsible C, one of the last lifeboats to be launched. In an era when gentlemen were expected to give women and children first place in lifeboats, Ismay became the victim of a press hate campaign, even before the Carpathia — the ship that collected the Titanic’s 705 survivors — reached New York.
Ismay’s escape has been the subject of controversy ever since. He has traditionally been portrayed as a coward, because of the order for women and children only to be evacuated. He entered a lifeboat while hundreds of women and children still remained aboard the stricken liner.
The accounts of his departure differ. According to some, Ismay was ordered and/or was shoved into a lifeboat by an officer. However, Ismay alleged that he entered the boat because there were no women or children present on that section of the deck.
Wilson’s account focuses on the British and American inquiries into the sinking. The chairman of the US inquiry, Senator William Alden Smith hastily subpoenaed key witnesses, including Ismay, and thwarted an attempt by the White Star Line to repatriate the surviving crew-members to Great Britain.
Senator Smith’s intention was to determine whether the Titanic sinking was due to culpable negligence, which would then have enabled interested parties to sue the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), J.P. Morgan’s American trust that owned the White Star Line.
The dynamics of the British inquiry, conducted by Lord Mersey, were more complex as the Board of Trade, responsible for registering ships, was conducting an inquiry against itself, as one of the chief reasons for the loss of life was the inadequate provision of lifeboats. Although sufficient lifeboats had originally been planned for the Titanic — a provision that the White Star Line subsequently did not fulfil — the inadequate number of lifeboats paradoxically was in excess of the out-of-date Board of Trade requirements.
Wilson argues that, although Ismay remained in a cabin on the Carpathia, essentially in a state of shock, it seems that he met the most senior officer to survive the tragedy, Second Officer Charles Lightoller. The two men concurred with each other about what to say to anticipated inquiries, so as to exonerate the White Star Line of any blame.
Wilson also alleges that Lightoller lied outright to both inquiries and that Ismay’s answers were evasive. Of particular interest to Senator Smith was Ismay’s role on the ship. Was he an ordinary passenger? Or was Captain Edward J. Smith, the master of the Titanic, taking orders from him? That is to say, did Smith recklessly maintain a speed of 22 knots when entering an ice field, rather than slowing the ship down, because Ismay had prevailed upon him to do so?
The questioning of witnesses in both inquiries was extensive, but selective. As anticipated, Lightholler and Ismay were questioned at length. By contrast, comparatively few third-class passengers who survived were questioned.
While the British inquiry resulted in ships from then onwards being required to carry sufficient lifeboats, it exonerated the White Star Line, attributing the sinking to an act of nature. However, J.P. Morgan’s IMM was ultimately to settle on a class action compensation claim in the US, a tacit admission of liability.
According to Wilson, Ismay never recovered emotionally from the sinking of the Titanic. Although he lived until 1937, his life was shattered.
Wilson explores a range of possible reasons that Ismay boarded a lifeboat. One interesting observation related by Wilson, which is generally overlooked by historians, is the revelation Ismay made to his sister-in-law that the reason he left the ship was that he had been ordered to do so by Chief Officer Henry Wilde so as to be able to represent the White Star Line in any inquiry. If this is true, it is consistent with the way in which he conducted himself.
How to Survive the Titanic is a fascinating study of the Titanic disaster from a unique perspective. The writer is familiar with the major accounts by survivors and other secondary works.
However, throughout the narrative comparisons are made between Ismay’s actions and the writings of Joseph Conrad, particularly his novel Lord Jim whose tragic life eerily anticipated Ismay’s. At times it can be difficult for the reader to discern all the connections Wilson is trying to make.