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Why taking artefacts from wreck of Titanic is simply graverobbing

Gareth Russell

Belfast historian and author Gareth Russell argues that although no bodies remain in the sunken liner it is still a tomb and a private company should be banned from removing any part of the vessel


The Titanic wreckage

The Titanic wreckage

Historian Gareth Russell

Historian Gareth Russell

The Titanic wreckage

To say that the Titanic evokes strong emotions in people is a point as obvious as stating that the Russian Revolution wasn't much fun for the Romanovs. 108 years after the pride of the White Star Line struck an iceberg on the fourth night of her first commercial voyage, many are still fascinated by the events that led to the collision and the terrible 160 minutes that followed, which resulted in the deaths of 1,496 people in sub-zero Atlantic waters.

Built in Belfast and operated by a British shipping line with an American parent company, the loss of the Titanic horrified the world, particularly Britain and America - the country she had left and the country to which she had been travelling.

In a public message to the American President, King George V captured the spirit of transatlantic mourning when he spoke of "the present terrible occasion when [Britain and America] are both equally sufferers".

I grew up hearing stories of the Titanic on the knee of my great-grandfather. I learned what it means to my home city, but I was unprepared for the strength of feeling which I experienced after my book on it was published last year.

That, too, sounds like an obvious point but to meet people, from all over the world, who feel a connection to the disaster was both unexpected and deeply touching.

I realised that parts of the Titanic story are so deeply felt that pointing out that some of them are, quite simply, not true provoked anger from readers.

A letter from a particularly passionate correspondent seemed, I think, to be accusing me of being a murderer when I pointed out that there is absolutely no evidence, whatsoever, to the horrible legend that the third-class passengers were deliberately locked below during the evacuation.

He also pointed out that he thought I was in the Illuminati. It's always nice to be in people's thoughts.

The Titanic

More seriously and specifically, the physical remains of the Titanic conjure a strong response. Understandably so. Those feelings have been heightened by the recent decision by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to ratify a treaty with the United Kingdom which gives the two governments power to deny permission to any company planning to extract artefacts from the Titanic wreck site.

The British government drafted this in 2003 but, for inexplicable reasons, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations felt called to support it.

Given that the Titanic rests in international waters, the co-operation of the US government is crucial to ensuring its future effectiveness.

Although it has not explicitly been stated, in explaining why the Trump administration decided to ratify the treaty in the last days of 2019 my money would be on one particular announcement, which has riled the British government, worried the Americans, and raised fury among many members of the wider public.

RMS Titanic Inc are a private equity firm that have been diving to the Titanic for years, having brought up numerous artefacts that are now displayed in museums and private collections throughout the world.

Peddling secular relics is a lucrative business and they want more. To understand why their latest move is so controversial we need to appreciate that there are two distinct areas of the wreck.

The first is the ship itself, which split apart during the final plunge. Those two parts came to rest about 2,000 feet apart.

As they shattered, they spewed forth thousands of items which now dot the seafloor.

This is the second part of the wreck - the debris field.

It contains everything from uncorked bottles of champagne to boilers; there are plates still in perfect rows as if they are waiting to serve breakfast in the second-class Dining Saloon. Until today, all Titanic artefacts were retrieved from the debris field; then RMS Titanic Inc announced a plan to "surgically dissect" (rip apart) the wreck itself.

They want to begin with the surviving roof of the officers' quarters to get into the Wireless Room and extract the device from which the Titanic's heroic operators sent out distress calls until the power failed.

If they successfully get this, it is hard to believe they will stop there.

As an historian, part of me can understand why. After all, nobody claimed it was graverobbing when we excavated Tutankhamen's tomb. Many of the things that went down with the Titanic, and are still trapped inside, are of immeasurable historical value.

We know, for instance, that the Countess of Rothes chose to help with the loading of the lifeboats rather than retrieve her jewels from the Purser's Office, which means that somewhere inside that sunken tomb her diamond and ruby rings, her emerald broach, and her amethyst earrings - some of which date from the 16th century - are still slumbering inside a sealed safe.

Why shouldn't we want to recover these pieces for posterity?

But it's the "sunken tomb" part that I come back to. At some point, the pursuit of knowledge, much less of profit, has to yield to some sense of fundamental decency. To get to the Purser's safe, you would have to slice through three decks or bore into the hull itself.

You would have to rip through a ship that houses the dead and played host to unimaginable agony.

There are, I should point out, no human remains at the Titanic.

In a chillingly perfect metaphor for her entire story, the Atlantic currents have preserved chandeliers hanging by the chasm where the Grand Staircase once stood, but those same currents have eroded away every trace of skin and skeleton from the Titanic's victims.

You can see where they came to rest though in their shoes, some with their laces still tied, scattered around the wreck. So, while they are not physically there, the Titanic is an ark of the dead.

For those who believe something should be salvaged for posterity, the debris field has sufficient artefacts to satisfy a hundred museums.

To dissect and carve up the ship itself is vulgar and greedy to the point of immoral. Perhaps it sounds mawkishly sentimental, but I think about Marian Thayer on the rescue ship, looking over her son's shoulder and asking, hopefully, "Where's Daddy?" And her son shaking his head, silently, by way of answer.

Of Rhoda Abbott, who jumped from the ship with her two children; she lost her grip, they drowned, she lived as a heartbroken shell for the rest of her life.

Bodies like these, and 1,100 others, were never recovered. The sunken liner that killed them is, therefore, their grave and it deserves to be respected as such.

The treaty is a welcome step in guarding the dignity of the dead.

Gareth Russell's award-winning account of the Titanic disaster The Darksome Bounds of the Failing World, published by William Collins is available from Amazon, price £16.20 hardcover, £7.19 paperback

Belfast Telegraph