What one thing might have saved you on that cold, starry night of April 15, 1912, as the deck of the Titanic tilted beneath your feet? The good sense to get in one of the first (and woefully undersupplied) lifeboats? A warm raccoon coat? The ability to swim? Those might have helped, but what really mattered, old bean, was that you had the ability to keep your head while around you the dusky types were losing theirs: In short, that you were British.
“In some of the other boats, I heard later, there was a lot of weeping, but not in ours. I guess those must have been Continentals,” one of the Titanic’s sailors, Walter Nichols, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle a week after his lifeboat was rescued by the Carpathia. “The women in our boat were mostly English stock, and they’re a braver sort. The kind makes a big difference.”
We’ll never know whether the Titanic’s heroic captain, Edward Smith, went to his Atlantic grave saying, “Be British, boys!” as legend has it. But other survivors left behind their thoughts for posterity: Famously, there was Colonel Archibald Gracie, an American of Scottish descent, who wrote a book called The Truth about the Titanic, in which he gave thanks for his stiff-sinewed genes: “The coolness, courage and sense of duty that I here witnessed made me thankful to God and proud of my Anglo-Saxon race that gave this perfect and superb exhibition of self-control at this hour of severest trial.”
Lawrence Beesley, who had taught science at a top London school, was a second-class passenger on his way to visit his brother in Toronto, and wrote one of the earliest and most memorable books about the disaster, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: “What controlled the situation principally was the quality of obedience and respect for authority which is a dominant characteristic of the Teutonic race.”
In contrast to this fortitude, according to the testimony of British and American survivors, was the pusillanimity of the foreigners, who rushed the lifeboats, shoving aside women and children. (Many of the survivors’ stories are included in the book Titanic: First Accounts.) “I saw a lot of Latin people lined all along the ship’s rails,” said one. “They were glaring more or less like wild beasts, ready to spring.” Another woman spoke of “a crazed Italian” who “jumped from the deck into the lifeboat” and landed on her mother. The picture is clear: It was the hand-flappers versus the sphincter-clenchers. I am of the hand-flapping tribe, so you’ll forgive my hysterical indignation.
The third-class passengers, for the most part, weren’t even told the location of the lifeboats, but hey. It was a different world, written in black and white (and olive skin). The British, at that point, still bestrode the world like cricket-playing colossi, bringing a sense of fair play to the heathen masses and arranging the upper lips of the world’s less fortunate into “accept your lot” grimaces.
Of course, the survivors saw the world through an Edwardian filter, a world of upstairs and downstairs, below decks and above, a view that seems foreign, quaint and utterly alien to us now. Things have changed immeasurably in the past century.
Or it so seemed, until Captain Francesco Schettino bunga-bungled his way onto the world stage. Capt. Schettino’s cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, ran aground off the coast of Italy in January and, as it sank, a host of national stereotypes rose along with it. There was a stoic, retired British police officer who helped passengers to safety; “rich Russians” who allegedly tried to bribe their way into lifeboats; even a shady “Moldovan dancer” who might have been on the bridge at the time of the crash and was not, in all likelihood, giving swing lessons. I wouldn’t have been surprised to read that Germans were making the lifeboats run on time, or that Singaporeans scraped chewing gum off the deck.
Worst of all was Capt. Schettino himself – “Captain Crunch,” as he came to be known. It appeared he had fled ship in the chaos, while his passengers were desperately trying to save themselves. For Italians, it seemed to confirm their worst fears about what the world thought of them. Italy had only just chucked overboard its own incompetent captain, Silvio Berlusconi, and was hoping for clear sailing toward some kind of global redemption.
“In a single nudge of the rudder,” moaned an editorial in La Stampa, “Capt. Schettino has sunk our international reputation, along with his ship.” In The Daily Telegraph, Toby Young’s quill pen scratched: “I like to think that if the Captain of the Costa Concordia had been British he would have behaved with the same distinction as Edward Smith.”
There’s no way of knowing that, in the same way we’d never know if an Italian at the helm of the Titanic could have avoided the iceberg. But if there’s a lesson from the tragedies, it might be – “Warning: Ethnic stereotypes ahead.”