Illustration of Rose and Jack from the film Titanic.

The RMS Titanic and a Study on How We Treat Tragedies

110 years after the sinking of the 'Ship of Dreams,' its legacy has taken a nightmarish turn.

On Sept. 1, 1985, oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballad and his team of scientists set out to explore the depths of the Northern Atlantic’s frigid waters. They didn’t expect to find the wreckage of the greatest maritime disaster in history during their expedition. Using high-technology submersibles funded by the U.S. Navy, they followed a trail of debris along the seafloor off the coast of Newfoundland, leading them to uncover gargantuan boilers and the hull of the RMS Titanic, presenting herself shortly afterward in a haunting blue glow.

Lit up by the eerie halo of the submersibles, the discovery fascinated Ballard and his team. They were eager to study the wreck and its rapid deterioration despite the climate of its final resting place. However, beyond the air of excitement, the team was acutely aware that they were floating over a mass grave, as the Titanic held over one thousand souls on that fated April night in 1912.

Ballard’s expedition continued, with his team making several more trips to the wreckage, focusing their exploration on the exterior. Rusticles and bacteria were slowly eating away at the ship, reducing its grandiosity to nothing more than a heap of metal on the ocean floor. Months later and with more advanced submersibles, Ballard was able to explore the interior of the wreck. It was here that some faded glimpses of the Titanic’s former glory were found still intact, like chandeliers where the once elaborate Grand Staircase would have been and stained glass windows from the first-class Turkish baths.

He also noted several other artifacts and relics of life that had once occupied the liner’s short one. However, he refused to bring them back with him to the surface, as he thought the wreckage should remain intact and untouched. He believed that the lives lost aboard it should remain undisturbed.

At the end of Ballard’s initial expedition, he left a plaque at the base of the wreck’s hull, urging any future expeditions to follow the same standard of respect. However, the request seems to have been swallowed and lost underneath the dark waves that left so many to perish 110 years ago. Instead, the same ambition for wealth and fame that had caused the Titanic to meet her untimely end came back above the surface.

Founded in 1994, the company RMS Titanic Inc. claims to retrieve artifacts from the wreck in the name of research in an honorable way. The company has since removed over 5,500 pieces from the wreckage, including a 17-ton piece of the ship’s hull in 1997. While the majority of the pieces excavated from the ship are strictly required to be displayed in museums and not for profit under maritime law, other companies and explorers have blatantly ignored the greater significance of the wreck and the loss of life embedded into its memory.

In contrast, the 1997 film directed by James Cameron caused an intense resurgence of popularity for the Titanic, but was made with no intention of disrespecting or sensationalizing the tragedy. In actuality, Cameron’s initial goal for creating such an iconic love story was to further illustrate the humanity that can co-exist in the face of tragedy, further shedding a light on the insurmountable scale of damage the demise of the ship and its passengers caused.

To achieve this, Cameron made several dives into the wreck during the production stages of the film, some of which appeared in the film itself. He even created a to-scale model of the wreck and sets replicating the elaborate interior of the ship before its collision with disaster. Although the film grossed over $2 billion at the box office, he ultimately placed historical accuracy at the forefront of his mission.

However, even with Cameron’s resurrection of the ship borne out of a respect for the tragedy, in the years following the film’s release, there’s been an influx in interest around the Titanic that’s been based solely on gaining profit. A violin found strapped to the lifeless body of its owner, Wallace Hartley, who last played it during the Titanic’s last panic-stricken hours, was sold at auction for $1.7 million. The diving company Ocean Gate offered commercialized personal submersible dives to visit the wreck until 2012.

But the most notable, and most vulgar display of disrespect for the tragedy, was the construction of a Titanic replica cruise funded by Australian billionaire Clive Palmer, unoriginally named “Titanic II.” The main goal for this endeavor is to follow the original route that the Titanic took from Southampton, England, to New York City — the shore it sadly never reached — and to attract “unrivaled attention, intrigue and mystery in every port she visits.” However, there is no statement from Palmer that mentions historical accuracy or even a memorial to honor the original.

The cruise’s budget of $500 million contrasts starkly with the original’s $200 million in today’s money. It’s evident that this enterprise is solely based on sensationalizing a tragedy and disregarding the thousands that lost their lives in the waters of the North Atlantic over a century ago.

Sadly, the dismissal of lost lives in favor of pathetic cash grabs happens all too often. Those exploiting the memory of the Titanic far outnumber those that want to educate others about the tragedy.

In recent years, strides have been made to protect the wreck and have it labeled a UNESCO cultural heritage site. But there are questions demanding to be asked in the face of capitalism’s drive to profit from such a notable tragedy. When has it gone too far? Where is the line between morality and the need for access to even the darkest moments of human history so it can be put fully on display — or does one simply not exist anymore?

Regardless of the answer, the wreck itself is expected to be completely deteriorated by the year 2030. Hopefully, until that moment when the Titanic is once again reclaimed by the sea, it can rest peacefully as it’s lulled to sleep by the waves of its watery grave.

Maggie Habermas, University of Texas at San Antonio

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Maggie Habermas

University of Texas at San Antonio

Aspiring to be a professional sad girl that writes about music, movies and books that make me feel.

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