THE GRAND BANKS (WHTM) — On April 14, 1912, on her maiden voyage, the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic struck an iceberg. She would sink on April 15, resulting in the death of 1517 passengers and crew. Over a century later, some people still refer to it as “The Worst Maritime Disaster in History”. 

Now, I already knew when I started researching this story that Titanic wasn’t the world’s worst shipwreck, but I must admit I was dumbfounded to learn it doesn’t even make it into the top thirty! 

Wikipedia has compiled a very extensive list of shipwrecks. Lists of shipwrecks, actually-so many lists, in fact, they have lists of the lists. They are sorted by (among other things) dates, locations, military conflicts-and death tolls.  

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The dubious honor of the worst sinking of all time goes to the Wilhelm Gustloff, torpedoed by a Russian submarine on January 30th, 1945. She was crammed to the gunwales with German refugees, fleeing the advancing Russian Army in the waning months of World War Two. The early estimates of the death toll were around 6000; over the years, as more records have been discovered, the estimates have crept up and up and up. Right now they range from 6000 to 10,000. 

In fact, almost all of the sinkings that outrank the Titanic are war-related. But this raises the question – is it really fair to include them? After all, in wartime large groups of people put a great deal of time and effort into messily exterminating other large groups of people. Shouldn’t you count only those shipwrecks in which the fortunes of war are not a factor? 

Well, even if we do so, Titanic still isn’t the worst shipwreck in history. Holding the top spot right now is the Dona Paz, a Philippine ferryboat that collided with an oil tanker on  December 20, 1987. She was loaded way over capacity, and record-keeping was — ahem!–sloppy, so the exact death toll is uncertain, but it’s believed somewhere over 4000 people went to the bottom with her. Dona Paz is followed by the Kiangya, a passenger ship filled with refugees fleeing the Communists in China. On December 3 or 4, 1948, it apparently struck a leftover mine from WW II and sank between 2,750 and 3,920 dead. Next comes the LeJola, an overloaded ferry that sank in Senegal in 2002 with an estimated 1,864 dead, then the Sultana, a Mississippi steamboat whose boiler exploded in 1865, killing at least 1,547, mostly Union Soldiers heading home from the war. (Overloaded passenger ships seem to figure in a lot of large sea disasters.)  

So, if the Titanic isn’t the worst sinking in history, why do so many people think it is? Why has her loss so gripped the imagination that no other maritime disaster can shoehorn its way into popular notice? 

We might want to consult Aristotle.

People sometimes refer to the Titanic as a Greek tragedy, usually in the simple sense that it embodies the Greek concepts of Hubris, great pride, being followed by Nemesis, a punishment for hubris. But there is a lot of that in other shipwrecks as well. What’s different about the Titanic story? Unlike many other sinkings, Titanic is a classic Greek Tragedy-the story of the ship’s doom fits many of the attributes of a properly constructed tragedy, as outlined in 350 BC by Aristotle in his Poetics

Aristotle stated that a tragedy falls into two parts–Complication and Unraveling. Both are triggered by the actions of people who are, in some way, exceptional (“Our captain and crew are the best of the best.”) and which “come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty” of the protagonist(s). (“We’ve built an unsinkable ship — let’s crank up the engines and see what this baby can do.”) The complication is all that happens leading up to, and helping to produce, what he called the Peripeteia, the Reversal of the Situation, the  “change by which the action veers round to its opposite”. (“Iceberg dead ahead!”) This is coupled with the Recognition,  the “change from ignorance to knowledge”. Aristotle goes on to add ”Even inanimate things…may in a sense be the object of recognition.” (“Our unsinkable ship is going down on her maiden voyage!”) Then comes the Unraveling, where all the problems set up in the first part of the tragedy play themselves out (“We don’t have enough lifeboats!  We haven’t done any lifeboat drills!”) and in which the actions produce a Scene of Suffering. I think we can all agree the Titanic sinking provides scenes of suffering in abundance. 

Of course, Aristotle also had choice words for dramatists who rely on unlikely coincidences to propel their stories. If you gave him the bare bones of the Titanic story, would he borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, and condemn it as “an improbable fiction”? 

Wikipedia-Lists of Shipwrecks

Wikipedia-20th Century Shipwrecks

Wikipedia-WW II Maritime Disasters