RMS Titanic was a passenger liner that struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, and sank on 15 April 1912, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. Several legends and myths surround the ship and the events of the sinking. The official explanation for the sinking (which is not to say that it is widely accepted) is that the ship struck an iceberg, buckling the hull and allowing water to enter the ship’s first five watertight compartments. Alternative theories which have been suggested as the cause of the disaster range from unsafe speed, an insurance scam, an ice-pack rather than an iceberg, and even a curse on the ship by a Mummy!
Firstly, there were several claims of predictions of the disaster, especially during the first years after the tragedy. Some of them became part of folklore, like the story involving first class passenger William Thomas Stead, who according to legend had foreseen his own death on Titanic. This had been suggested in two fictional stories Stead had written decades earlier and tied in with the bizarre urban legend of the Titanic mummy’s curse. After the discovery of the mummified remains of the priestess of Amen-Ra in Egypt in the 1890s, misfortune reputedly followed each subsequent owner of the mummy. For example, it supposedly caused mysterious problems for visitors and staff at the British Museum when it was donated there. The mummy was eventually purchased by journalist Stead, who initially dismissed the claims of a curse but still took the precaution of hiding the remains of the priestess when he boarded Titanic, only informing the other passengers of his grisly cargo after the ship had left port. Unfortunately the complete lack of any evidence rather weakens this otherwise entertaining theory.
In 2003 Captain L M Collins, a former member of the Ice Pilotage Service, published The Sinking of the Titanic: The Mystery Solved, proposing, based upon his own experience of ice navigation and witness statements given at the two post-disaster enquiries, that what the Titanic hit was not an iceberg but low-lying pack ice. A year later, Ohio State University engineer Robert Essenhigh claimed that a coal fire led indirectly to the iceberg collision. But the most famous and controversial of all Titanic conspiracy theories was released with the publication of Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? by Robin Gardiner in 2009.
In his book Gardinar posits the rather wild hypothesis that, as the result of a carefully orchestrated insurance scam, it was not in fact Titanic but its sister ship Olympic which ended its days amidst the icy waters of the North Atlantic on that fateful night. Olympic, launched in October 1910, was built alongside the more famous vessel and her exterior profile was nearly identical to that of Titanic, save for certain small details such as the promenade deck windows. In 1911 the Olympic was seriously damaged in a collision with another ship. When the other ship was cleared of all blame this set in motion the elaborate fraud. White Star Line was allegedly not insured for the cost of fixing the damaged Olympic, which would amount to a serious financial loss for the company and delay Titanic’s completion date. To make sure at least one vessel would be earning money, so Gardiner’s theory goes, Olympic was therefore converted to become the Titanic – a relatively simple task given the two ships’ structural similarity and the fact that few parts of either bore their name.
The most controversial aspect of Gardiner’s theory is his suggestion that, as part of the insurance scam, someone on the ship deliberately sunk it by opening the seacocks once Titanic (or Olympic) was at sea, thereby slowly flooding the ship. Gardiner accepts, in defence of whoever was behind the plan, that they did not anticipate any fatalities since, if numerous ships were stationed nearby to take off the passengers, the shortage of lifeboats would not matter as the ship would sink slowly and the boats could make several trips to the rescuers. For a number of reasons, as history records, this is not what happened ultimately and over 1500 lives were lost. It has to be said that there are numerous holes in this conspiracy theory, not the least of which is the fact that, when parts of the wreck were recovered, the construction number 401 was found on all of them (401 was Titanic’s construction number, the number of Olympic being 400). The sinking of Titanic therefore remains the mother of all maritime mysteries, right up there with the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, with no single satisfactory, or even widely accepted, explanation for its fate.