The sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 pales alongside some other maritime disasters. The loss of the Dona Paz in the Philippines in 1987 killed more than twice as many people. The 1845 disappearance of the Erebus and Terror in the labyrinthine Arctic Archipelago is a far greater mystery. Even the cause of the Titanic's untimely demise – an iceberg – lacks the sudden horror of the 1915 torpedoing of the Lusitania, or 1917's massive explosion in Halifax harbour aboard the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc.
So what is it about the Titanic that has captivated people for a century? Why does this particular loss of ship and life resonate in a way that no other maritime disaster ever has? For Canada alone, the roster of lost ships is long and the death toll high – the Empress of Ireland, La Bourgogne, the Atlantic. The list goes on. So why, then, only the Titanic?
It is in part because the Titanic represented the very pinnacle of maritime technological achievement. The fact that, on her maiden voyage, she could be sent to the ocean floor by a large chunk of ice savagely shook people's faith in progress.
The Titanic was not only the fastest passenger liner built up to that point, and a ship loaded with state-of-the-art technology, but one which was considered unsinkable. It is that technological hubris that went down, too.
The Titanic evoked the sort of horror, on a mass scale, that a bear attack does at the individual level. We control so much of our world, but at some fundamental level, human beings are vulnerable to the forces of nature. The fact that it was not some sinister human plot, but a placid juggernaut, a mere iceberg, that was the chief villain, is central to the dreadfulness of the loss.
Thus, the major Canadian poet E.J. Pratt ended his poem on the disaster with this:
Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods,
The grey shape with the palaeolithic face
Was still the master of the longitudes.
But there is more: As the Titanic slipped into the deep, so too in a sense did the old social order, the class system. Class played a role not only in determining the size of staterooms on the Titanic, and the quality of the menu, but also the odds of survival. Lifeboats were on the first- and second-class promenade. No lifeboats were stored on the third-class areas of the ship. Women and children in third class died in far greater proportion than their first-class counterparts.
Add to that the thought that the Titanic was lost crossing from the Old World to the New, with all its meritocratic ideals.
Of course, the class system did not end that night. It is with us even now, in some respects. You can cross the Atlantic today aboard a great ocean liner, and while there are no locked gates, there remain separations in levels of service, in the same way that you can travel first class or economy class on airlines.
But what the Titanic did was to anticipate the social upheaval caused by the First World War, which really did begin a century-long assault on class attitudes. If you want to see what I mean, just check out the second season of the television series Downton Abbey. There is a direct link, then, between two anniversaries being observed this week by Canadians: the Titanic centenary, and the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.
When we look back at the Titanic, when we watch films and read accounts about it, it is that sweeping grand staircase, the men in white tie, the high society, the ostentation, the servants at beck and call, that haunt us. How could something that beautiful – something so exquisitely crafted, so refined and so solid – be cast down to the depths of the Atlantic? Which is the point. The upper class seemed to be all those things.
When we think of the Titanic, we don't think at first of the basic accommodations of the people crammed below decks. That is not what appeals to us. In our imaginations, we travel not in steerage but in first class.
Yet the James Cameron film turns on the contrast between steerage and first class. There would be little plot – or at least little love interest – without the distance to be overcome between the upper-class Kate Winslet and the below-deck Leonardo DiCaprio. Ahead lay the hope of North American equality on the western shore of the Atlantic, frustrated by death, but triumphant in the viewers' self-congratulatory sense of participation in social mobility.
It was the certainty of the old social order that began to go down on April 14, 1912. Perhaps the actor Kenneth More, in his last line in the film A Night to Remember, put it best: "I don't think I'll ever feel sure again. About anything."