Titanica: A Night to Remember, and Remember, and Remember
In 2016, the Titanic sails again. At least that’s the plan. Australian billionaire Clive Palmer recently signed a deal with a shipyard in Nanjing, China to begin construction on the recreation of the ill-fated ship that sank one hundred and one years ago. Right now Palmer is on the road with the Titanic II World Tour. Guests of the events enjoy an eleven course meal based on the menu served aboard ship on its last night and then they can tour Titanic the Exhibition. Palmer’s company, The Blue Star Line, is taking reservations for passage on the ship’s maiden voyage. The list is reportedly more than 40,000 names long already.
Rebuilding the lost liner raises some interesting questions. The re-built ship will feature the same exterior design and interior décor. Passengers will eat the same meals, be encouraged to dress in period costume, and even be obliged to respect the same divisions amongst first, second, and third class as on the original. On the other hand, the boat will not recreate the design features that made it vulnerable to sinking and, by contrast, will have a full complement of lifeboats and safety equipment. This Titanic, in other words, is intended to arrive to its destination with all its passengers still safely aboard. (And on a happy note from the ship’s perspective, though perhaps troubling in other senses, global warming means that the ship isn’t likely to encounter many large icebergs in the North Atlantic.) Being true to the past, in this case, won’t include a reenactment of the dramatic part of the Titanic story.
Titanic II will sail its maiden voyage along the original route, from Southampton to New York. It will have to navigate half the globe from China to Great Britain first, but the definition of “maiden voyage” doesn’t count the travel from shipyard to ship launch. Indeed, Palmer noted at a Titanic II event in Macau that the new ship will not sail in Chinese waters. Presumably this is a nod towards the recreation’s fidelity to the original, however geographically impossible this might be.
The Belfast Titanic Society is not amused. Representatives from the group had hoped that at least part of the ship’s construction would be done at the shipyards in the Irish city where the original Titanic was constructed. According to one member, they also hoped that the Titanic II would serve as a floating public history memorial to the ship that would feature educational programs about the people who built it and went down with it. Instead, they now fear that Titanic II will recreate not the experience of the 1912 luxury liner, but that of James Cameron’s 1997 eponymous movie.
The idea that some people know the Titanic only as the setting for the fictional story of Jack and Rose and their doomed love affair seems far-fetched at first. Few historical events have been better or more lovingly documented than the sinking of the Titanic. In the United States there are two major museums that re-create not only parts of the ship, but even the iceberg. The city of Belfast has created a Titanic Quarter that is anchored by a building known as the Titanic Belfast. These are complemented by Titanic themed tours and even a light show in an effort to use Belfast’s historical associations with the well-known story to promote tourism, investment, and urban renewal. The RMS Titanic, the company that owns the rights to salvage parts of the wreck, has been touring its Titanic artifacts exhibition around the world. This is not to mention dozens of smaller museum exhibits and hundreds of books published on the topic. Perhaps it’s impossible to ignore the historical reality of the sinking of the Titanic but it’s easy enough to see that it’s dwarfed by the media that represents it. In its time, the event made a profound impression on all who learned of it and the story has since become an allegory for the perils of hubris and excessive ambition and for the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice and the vice of cowardly self-preservation.
Despite its outsized reputation, the Titanic was not the world’s worst maritime disaster. In fact it ranks seventh in terms of lives lost on ships sunk in peacetime. The worst disaster was quite a bit more recent. In 1987, a Philippine ship known as Doña Paz went down after a collision with another ship and took more than 4,000 of its passengers with it. The ship was being used to ferry passengers around the archipelago. It was overloaded and the ship that rammed it, unlicensed and understaffed. The Doña Paz caught fire as it sank and the passengers who leapt into the water to escape it also faced the threat of sharks. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, the event remains little known. A National Geographic documentary about it that has tried to correct this chose the title, Asia’s Titanic.
And so the Titanic continues to loom in our imagination. In these days of cruise ships gone wild (see Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph), the luxury liner industry seems a little tawdry. It remains to be seen whether the Titanic II will be an extension of this trend, or a reversal. For now, the unsinkable ship that sank remains improbably afloat on a vast sea of remembrance, recreation, and reenactment. It doesn’t seem likely that it will be going down again any time soon.