Thursday, April 19, 2012

"In 1841 a ship sailed at maximum speed into waters where danger of icebergs was known to exist. It did this because speed meant profit and profit was the goal of the maritime trade, even when it endangered lives. As a result of its course and speed, the William Brown struck an iceberg and sank. Because it did not carry sufficient auxiliary craft, half of its passengers went down with the ship. At least 14, some say 16, persons saved to the ship's longboat were thrown overboard 24 hours later by sailors acting upon their superior's orders. One of those seamen was convicted a year later. The irony is that the man convicted, Alexander William Holmes, was the one hero of the whole sorry affair, the only crewman or passenger to risk his life in a selfless attempt to save another's." ~ The Wreck of the William Brown by Tom Koch

Seventy-one years after the William Brown tragedy, the Titanic sank in the same waters in a similar fashion. Both went down in April after striking an iceberg at maximum speed on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The captains of both vessels were experienced; they knew the waters they sailed and the potential dangers those waters held. Both vessels carried emigrants and neither carried sufficient lifeboats to permit the survival of more than half the passengers on board. As a direct result, at least half the passengers ... most poor emigrants ... drowned.

From the William Brown to the Titanic and into present time, the questions have been the same: who dies and who survives at what cost? When difficult choices must be made, would we do the same? Could we? Would be be so callous or bold? That ships sank with passengers aboard was a fact of 19th century life ... an accepted risk of the North Atlantic crossing. But to be saved from a sinking ship only to be killed by its crewmen was exceptional.

In the end, only one sailor, Alexander Holmes, was charged with one count of manslaughter on the high seas. (See United States vs. Holmes.) His conviction was a foregone conclusion, a necessity of politics and commerce but not of justice before the law. His trial was not just an act of conscious justice or pioneering law but carefully constructed morality play staged to reassure the thousands of emigrants then streaming from Europe to the Americas.

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