Thursday, April 7, 2011

"The Wreck of the William Brown" by Tom Koch

In the early spring of 1841, just 71 years before the RMS Titanic would be sunk by an iceberg while crossing the Atlantic, another, similar tragedy occurred. The William Brown, a passenger vessel bound for Philadelphia, with her sails rigged for full speed, hit an ice field and sank. The Brown, like the later Titanic, was woefully unprepared for the disaster, which resulted in an unnecessary loss of life. But, in spite of these similarities, there was one big difference in these two events.

For the most part, aboard the Titanic, chivalry was evident at every turn, as crew members, and passengers alike, held fast to the code of the sea. Women and children were first, and husbands parted with great honor from their spouses, giving up their own chance at survival so that others might live. As I said, this story is quite different.

It is the story of people, gripped in fear, and the lengths with which they will go, in order to save themselves, at the expense of others. When the ship, loaded with newly bound immigrants for America, was about to sink, the longboat, and another small craft, were both launched. The one with the captain aboard was adequately manned and loaded to it's near capacity. The other boat, a longboat with no rudder to steer with, was overcrowded and staffed with the first mate and some deck hands. The passengers consisted of able bodied men, as well as women and children.

The captain left them in the charge of the first mate, with orders to "do what must be done" in order to save his boat. The captain then set course for Newfoundland, leaving the smaller stricken vessel to it's fate. And what a fate it was!

This chart shows the close proximity in which the Titanic would sink 71 years later, almost to the day, and only 8 and a half miles apart. And in the ensuing years, nothing had changed much in the way of passenger safety,and traveling the North Atlantic in early spring was still a treacherous journey, at best. Though much had changed regarding the way men and women interacted, thanks largely to the Victorian Era, this journey took place before that, and so had a much different conclusion.

During the very first night adrift, in full view of the other passengers, crew members, acting upon the "orders" of the first mate, selected men to throw overboard into the frigid waters in an effort to "lighten the load." When two women cried out that they "didn't know if we can go on without our dear brother", they were summarily tossed in after the hapless man. All the while, the other passengers tried to "look small", and "attract no notice", lest they be next.

When the morning came and a ship appeared on the horizon, the killing continued, with at least two more men being thrown overboard. This was at a time when, not only was rescue imminent, but the boat was stable and in no danger.

A French Court found the actions justifiable, while the American Court found the actions of the crew, and notably the first mate, to be unworthy of seamen. He was tried in Philadelphia for Murder Upon the High Seas.

This book was a chilling look at, not only a failed social order, but a justice system more concerned with the profits of international trade than passenger safety. Their lack of oversight and initiative would come back to haunt us all, in the form of the Titanic tragedy, 71 years and 8 miles later.

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