Fatal Politeness: British Mortality and the Titanic

How would you react if you found yourself on a sinking ship with a couple of thousand other people?

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests your behavior—whether you shove your shipmates aside in a mad dash for the lifeboats or selflessly put the safety of others ahead of your own—might depend both on your nationality, and how fast your ship is sinking.

The study compared two maritime disasters, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Both ships were approximately the same size and carried about the same number of passengers (the Titanic had less than 300 more). Allowing for some dispute over exact passenger tallies, the number of survivors was also similar: 705 for the Titanic and 764 for the Lusitania. But the study discovered a large discrepancy in the survival population. On the Titanic, women and children were far more likely to survive, while on the Lusitania they were less so. This might be due to the fact that, compared to the 2 hours and 40 minutes it took the Titanic to go down, the Lusitania sank in a mere 18 minutes—leaving little time to contemplate putting fellow human beings ahead of self.

But how fast a ship sinks is not the only variable in human behavior—and its consequences. Researchers also examined rates of survival by nationality on the Titanic and discovered a startling pattern to who perished and who survived.

When David Savage, a behavioral economist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, set out with his two colleagues to answer the question of who survived the Titanic disaster, his working assumption was that British passengers would have an advantage, as the ship was built in Britain and manned by a British crew. But it turned out that the British had a 10% lower survival rate than any other nationality.

A headline in a Queensland newspaper suggests part of the reason. “Polite Poms had no chance on Titanic.” “Poms” (Prisoners of Mother England, as they are called by their brethren Down Under) had been schooled to stand in line and adhered to the ideals of gentlemanly behavior, which included allowing women and children to go first into the lifeboats. Harold Bride, wireless operator on the ship, recalled the scene in his first interview five days after the catastrophe. “When the first signal was given to lower the boats some of the crew pressed forward. It was then that the rally cry came through the megaphone from the bridge: ‘Be British, my men.’ It was Captain Smith’s voice. Every man obeyed the command and faced death calmly. They knew there was not hope and as the big strong English seamen assisted the women and children into the boats they gave no sign that they realized that Captain Smith’s words ‘Be British’ had sealed their fate.”

By contrast, Americans had a survival rate 12% above other nationalities. Part of the reason was that more Americans were in first class, and the odds of a passenger in first class getting into a lifeboat were 1 in 1.6 (63%). But Savage has also floated the controversial speculation that Americans, reared in a culture that valued individualism and aggressive self-assertion, might not have been as willing as British passengers to wait their turn in the lifeboat line.

Savage is not the first to note the differing survival rates among nationalities. Although there were British passengers and even crew members who scrambled to get on a lifeboat, despite the gallantry and sacrifice exhibited by many, in the weeks after the disaster the British press lionized the heroism of their countrymen, openly contrasting their behavior to that of other passengers, especially the Germans. The outbreak of World War I was a mere sixteen months away, and tensions between Germany and Great Britain were high. Playwright George Bernard Shaw may have had this in mind when he asked “what is the use of all this ghastly, untrue, braggardly lying? What will be the end of it for England?”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fired back at the provocative playwright who had once described the author’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, as “a drug addict without a single amiable trait.” “As for the accusation that the occasion had been used for the glorification of British qualities,” the enraged Doyle countered, “we should indeed be a lost people if we did not honor courage and discipline when we see it in its highest forms.”

Shaw’s warnings against national idolatry went unheeded. Within weeks of the sinking, the music halls and memorial rallies were ringing with the song “ Be British”:

“What a glorious thing it is to know,

that the breed is just the same

as it was when the Anglo-Saxon race

first gained immortal fame.

What a glorious thing it is to know

when dangers hour was nigh;

when the mighty liner sank to her rest,

our men knew how to die.”

Coming Tuesday on Titanic Week: ‘”Women and Children First’ and the Debate Over Women’s Rights”

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