Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

Protection Of Ocean Liners—1914
The loss of the Empress of Ireland awakens feelings somewhat different from
those the sinking of the Titanic had called up on two continents. The grief for the
lost and the sympathy for the survivors and the bereaved are the same; but there
is not, and there cannot be, the same undercurrent of indignation. The good ship
that is gone (I remember reading of her launch something like eight years ago)
had not been ushered in with beat of drum as the chief wonder of the world of
waters. The company who owned her had no agents, authorised or unauthorised,
giving boastful interviews about her unsinkability to newspaper reporters ready to
swallow any sort of trade statement if only sensational enough for their readers--
readers as ignorant as themselves of the nature of all things outside the
commonest experience of the man in the street.
No; there was nothing of that in her case. The company was content to have as
fine, staunch, seaworthy a ship as the technical knowledge of that time could
make her. In fact, she was as safe a ship as nine hundred and ninety-nine ships
out of any thousand now afloat upon the sea. No; whatever sorrow one can feel,
one does not feel indignation. This was not an accident of a very boastful marine
transportation; this was a real casualty of the sea. The indignation of the New
South Wales Premier flashed telegraphically to Canada is perfectly uncalled-for.
That statesman, whose sympathy for poor mates and seamen is so suspect to
me that I wouldn't take it at fifty per cent. discount, does not seem to know that a
British Court of Marine Inquiry, ordinary or extraordinary, is not a contrivance for
catching scapegoats. I, who have been seaman, mate and master for twenty
years, holding my certificate under the Board of Trade, may safely say that none
of us ever felt in danger of unfair treatment from a Court of Inquiry. It is a
perfectly impartial tribunal which has never punished seamen for the faults of
shipowners--as, indeed, it could not do even if it wanted to. And there is another
thing the angry Premier of New South Wales does not know. It is this: that for a
ship to float for fifteen minutes after receiving such a blow by a bare stem on her
bare side is not so bad.
She took a tremendous list which made the minutes of grace vouchsafed her of
not much use for the saving of lives. But for that neither her owners nor her
officers are responsible. It would have been wonderful if she had not listed with
such a hole in her side. Even the Aquitania with such an opening in her outer hull
would be bound to take a list. I don't say this with the intention of disparaging this
latest "triumph of marine architecture"--to use the consecrated phrase. The
Aquitania is a magnificent ship. I believe she would bear her people unscathed
through ninety-nine per cent. of all possible accidents of the sea. But suppose a
collision out on the ocean involving damage as extensive as this one was, and
suppose then a gale of wind coming on. Even the Aquitania would not be quite
seaworthy, for she would not be manageable.
We have been accustoming ourselves to put our trust in material, technical skill,
invention, and scientific contrivances to such an extent that we have come at last
to believe that with these things we can overcome the immortal gods themselves.
Hence when a disaster like this happens, there arises, besides the shock to our