The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
For many, the sinking of the Titanic marked a symbolic end to the Edwardian age, the time between the death of Queen Victoria and the beginning of World War I when the power of the British Empire reached its zenith.
Ian Christopher Fletcher, a Georgia State University history professor and co-author of “European Imperialism: 1830 to 1930,” reflects on what the tragedy revealed about the changes that were taking place — and what our reaction to disasters teaches us.
The Titanic disaster occupies an extraordinary place in the history and imagination of the past century. the event came as a great shock, for the new ship was on its highly publicized first transatlantic crossing and then, in just a matter of hours, some 1,500 passengers and crew members had lost their lives.
From the very first Marconi wireless messages sent from the sinking ship, expanding communication networks conveyed news of the disaster worldwide. Editorials, sermons and official American and British inquiries were only part of the effort to shape the meaning of this event.
The stories of the drowned and the saved became the stuff of many forms of popular culture and entertainment. Films like “A Night to Remember” (1958) and “Titanic” (1997) refreshed the collective memory of the disaster for new generations. the current television series “Downton Abbey,” yet another iteration of the English belle epoque, draws on Titanic for its backstory.
In 1912, a social and political crisis was unfolding in Edwardian Britain and Ireland. George Dangerfield’s “the Strange Death of Liberal England,” originally published in 1935, still captures the swirl of conflicts before World War I.
His story treats the fate of the prewar Liberal government as it faced Conservative opposition, labor unrest, suffrage militancy and Ulster resistance to Irish home rule. this context helps us understand the complex and contested meanings of the Titanic disaster. the contrast between aristocrats and plutocrats and poor passengers and working crew lent itself to socialist criticism of class inequality. Women’s suffragists and “antis” debated claims about masculinity and femininity, in light of the notion of “women and children first” and the actualities of gender relations.
In honor of W.T. Stead, the crusading journalist who drowned in the sinking of Titanic, women activists pushed Parliament to pass controversial legislation against what they called “white slavery,” the sexual exploitation of women forced into prostitution.
Historians today are attentive to the imperial and global dimensions of the prewar turbulence. Colonial subjects around the British Empire were demanding rights and recognition while an “awakening of the East” challenged the dominance of the West.
In South Africa, where he was leading a campaign for Indian civil rights, Mohandas Gandhi dashed off a line in response to the disaster about the smallness of human beings. In India, Ramananda Chatterjee’s Modern Review published a long account of the character and merit of Stead and other men and women on board Titanic that concluded with an observation about the “common humanity” shared by people around the world. Another probing piece reflected on the social and political conditions found in “independent nations” — but not, the author argued, in dependent colonies — that enabled citizens to engage in self-sacrificing conduct.
Now as then, we suffer disasters. They highlight our interactions with the natural environment, our social and political arrangements, our conceptions of humanity. Exploring the Edwardian past surrounding the Titanic disaster does not reveal a simple meaning or true lesson. yet in coming to terms with the varied and changing interpretations of such an event, we may learn a great deal about ourselves as well as about history.