Friday, June 26, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Edward J. Smith

With the death of Millvina Dean on May 31, the last survivor of the Titanic disaster has passed on. A whole industry has grown up around the story of the Titanic and its captain, Edward J. Smith, an industry fueled by speculation, conspiracy theory, and outright falsehood.

Smith was born in England in 1850, and left school at age 13 to go to sea. He joined the the White Star Line, the line that would one day build the Titanic, in 1880 as Fourth Officer and seven years later was given his first command. He commanded larger and more prestigious ships as the years went on, along the way earning decorations, a rank of Commander in the Royal Navy reserve, and a reputation as the best and safest passenger liner captain in the world. The only major blemish on Smith’s career prior to Titanic was a September 1911 collision between the White Star Liner Olympic, which he commanded, and the British cruiser HMS Hawke.

Smith took command of the Titanic in 1912 and no sooner had the ship sailed on April 10 when quick action on his part helped avert a collision with the SS City of New York, which broke free of its mooring lines due to the surge caused by the Titanic’s passing. He was not so fortunate four days later: he was one of the roughly 1500 people who died when Titanic sank after striking an iceberg.

The popular image today is that of Smith going down with his ship, standing stoically on the bridge as the waters rose over his head, an image portrayed in the 1997 James Cameron film. One legend has him diving into the water with an infant in his arms, which he places on a lifeboat before swimming off to either die or look for more survivors. The last person know to have seen Smith alive was junior radio officer who says he saw the captain dive into the water from the bridge wing a few minutes before Titanic’s final plunge.

In terms of loss of life, Titanic was not the worst passenger ship disaster in history. More than 7,700 refugees, crew, and military personnel were killed on the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff when she was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in January 1945. Eighteen other liner disasters have higher casualty figures than Titanic’s. But the attention given this sinking was unequalled, and led to major reforms in maritime safety and eventually to the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) that we operate under today.

For more on Smith, see his biography and other pages on the “Titanic – A Voyage of Discovery” website at This includes some more colorful theories on how Smith met his demise.

The UK site “Lasting Tribute” has a nice short bio on Smith, including a kind of strange video montage with Kenny G. background music. Find it at

Walter Lord’s 1955 book A Night To Remember is still one of the best Titanic works out there and to my mind the best introduction to the whole Titanic story. Plus, you can read it in an afternoon.

The Economic Times of India has a sweet obituary of Millvina Dean at

For a good overview of the SOLAS convention, see the page on the International Maritime Organization's website at

1 comment:

  1. If only Capt. Smith would of dismissed all the hoopla and put his ego aside on commanding such a new inovation and stuck with basic seamanship; history would have been altered a bit. Operating at 20 knots in the dark and fog, with ice present is a bad idea even in this day of ice postion reports via fax and state of the art radar!