Drowned World: True Stories from the Titanic

Singapore, Singapore

November 23, 2011

Forget Jack and Rose, the fictional characters in James Cameron’s Titanic. The real passengers of RMS Titanic have more compelling stories to tell. Some of these anecdotes have gained legend status; others are little-known factoids about the people who lived through and died in one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. Their stories have not gone down with the ship untold.

Mom and Me – Souvenir Photo from Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Daniel Danielsen Grønnestad, a 32-year-old Norwegian musician, emigrated to the US at the turn of the century with his brother, Bertil. They settled in North Dakota, hundreds of miles from the eastern seaboard. But despite the distance and their modest means, the brothers took regular homecoming trips to Norway, traversing half of the American continent and sailing across “the pond” – the Atlantic Ocean. They were about to make one such trans-Atlantic trip back to America in April 1912. Bertil, however, had an overwhelming sense of foreboding about the trip and decided to put it off. Daniel embarked on the Titanic at Cherbourg, France (a stop from Southampton, England before sailing for New York) without his brother but with other 2,223 souls on her fateful maiden voyage on April 1o, 1912. Close to a hundred years later, I would be clutching a replica of Daniel’s boarding pass at Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.

Boarding Pass of White Star Line’s RMS Titanic

Ticket #8471. Passenger Name: Daniel Danielsen Grønnestad

The touring exhibition made its Southeast Asian debut in Singapore’s ArtScience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands. The museum building is an architectural feat in itself – an innovative marriage of art and science, true to the spirit of Titanic’s ambitious design and engineering. With the blooming lotus flower as peg, the avant-garde structure conveys openness, its ten fingerlike extensions seem poised for a handshake, hence the “welcoming hand of Singapore” tag. Arguably, it also resembles an upturned bunch of bananas from afar. Night had fallen when my family and I got to the museum, dramatically illuminated by spotlights from its base by then.

ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Like a Lotus: Singapore’s ArtScience Museum

At the entrance, each one of us received a boarding pass bearing the name of a particular passenger. So we walked in as the real passengers must have – wowed by the Titanic’s luxurious trappings that conjured up a first-class hotel rather than the usual steamer of its time. The exhibition filled several halls with replicas of her interior design and features: the grand staircase (a hammy photo op stop), spacious first class staterooms outfitted with Victorian furniture and fixtures, cramped third class cabins with mattresses on the bunk beds (other ships that time did not bother providing budget travelers with such creature comforts), and a narrow promenade deck dimly lit to highlight the constellations. It all set us back to the early 20th-century as if we were touring the steamer as she sailed. Daniel was not allowed the same luxury, however. As a third class passenger, he did not have access to many of the ship’s modern amenities. She was designed such that class distinctions were adhered to.

For a touch of the surreal, the exhibition included a wall of ice to allow visitors a close encounter with an iceberg, an endangered object in nature at this time of climate change. We touched the gigantic block of ice to better imagine hypothermia which claimed the lives of those who had leapt from the sinking ship. Her collision with an iceberg happened in the springtime and nighttime cold of the North Atlantic.

Entrance of the Exhibition

More than the faithful recreation of the ship’s interior and the iceberg, it was the collection of artifacts salvaged from the wreckage that detained our interest. The actual items – bits and pieces of reality that may have been lost in this oft-told tragic tale – had been dredged up from the deep, curated and documented. Some of the personal effects of passengers and contents of the ship surprisingly survived decades under 12,ooo feet of water. Pieces of jewelry, toiletries, cracked china with the White Star Line logo, and, gasp, a tattered steward’s jacket have become sobering reminders of people who once owned and used them. Most jaw-dropping were the otherwise fragile items, which I never thought would last a few seconds in water, let alone decades under the sea, such as perfume bottles that still exuded their scent despite their watery burial and some postcards that were largely preserved, save for minimal smudges. The leather satchels that contained them proved to have been impervious to water. One postcard expressed this Hallmark-cheesy sentiment:

If dreams could come true, how happy I’d be. I dreamed I loved you. I dreamed you loved me.

It reminded me of Jack and Rose.

Mom, Sister, and Me: Hamming It Up at the Recreation of the Grand Staircase of RMS Titanic

Ultimately, the stories of the real victims and survivors written on panels on the walls were the most poignant part of the exhibition. My mother and I thoroughly read through each one. These human interest stories gripped our imagination more than the actual disaster. Some of the stories were tabloid-worthy and entertaining, e.g. rumors of young mistresses of tycoons listed under pseudonyms. Mostly though, the initial dismissal of the seriousness of the situation (mostly by the Titanic officers and some of the passengers who truly believed she was “unsinkable”) and the belated clamor for lifeboats (some of which had been released to the water unfilled to capacity) were appalling. Even the accounts of some survivors were not less disheartening. Because of the “women and children first” protocol, many women had to leave their husbands, fiancés, fathers, and sons on the ship to their doom. The guilt, the helplessness, and the dilemma that these women had to experience was utterly heartbreaking. One woman, 31-year-old Charlotte Collyer, famously said in an interview:

“Women and children first,” someone was shouting these last few words over and over again. They meant my own safety but they also meant the greatest loss I’d ever suffered, the life of my husband.

Charlotte reluctantly boarded a lifeboat along with her 8-year-old daughter, leaving her beloved husband she would never see again. Another wife, unencumbered by any dependent, steadfastly stood by her husband despite pleas for her to save her own life. Rosalie Ida Straus, the 63-year-old wife of Isador Straus, co-owner of Macy’s Department Store, refused to get on a lifeboat with this legendary declaration:

I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so we will die together.

The couple was last seen sitting quietly on the deck chairs awaiting their fate. Only Mr. Straus’ body was recovered and identified.

ArtScience Museum

My mother’s boarding pass belonged to Berthe Antonine Mayné. She was a Belgian cabaret singer, known more for her dalliances than her performances, who had fallen in love with a Canadian hockey player, Quigg Baxter. They embarked on a journey aboard the Titanic to start a new life together in Montreal. Billeted in separate first class staterooms, the couple had priority access to lifeboats, unlike Daniel and other third class passengers who were practically left to go down with the ship. Initially, Berthe balked at the idea of being on a lifeboat without Quigg and her jewelry, which she would have gone back for had she not been stopped by other lifeboat occupants.

My mother and I later learned about the fate of our passengers. Daniel could not have gotten on a lifeboat on two counts: he was a male adult and a third class passenger – a deadly combination. His body was never found. Berthe made it to Quebec but eventually went back to her old life in Europe. She never married.

Out of 2,224 people aboard the Titanic, only 710 survived.

The Marina Bay Sands in Singapore

The Titanic tragedy on the night of April 14, 1912 has been largely blamed on two management blunders – cutting down the number of lifeboats to bare minimum in order to create more deck space and disregarding warnings to decelerate in the iceberg-laden swathe of the North Atlantic. Luxury and speed proved to be the downfall of the greatest ship of her time.

RMS Titanic may have found its resting place more than 12,000 feet below sea level a hundred years ago, but its legend remains in the collective imagination of many generations after its sinking. The exhibition put names and faces, true stories and real people to this tragedy by focusing on the human element of the disaster rather than its spectacle. The tragedy of the Titanic, for me, is the collateral damage of the unbridled ambition of the powerful – the untimely end of Daniel’s American dream and of Berthe’s chance for a new life.

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52 thoughts on “Drowned World: True Stories from the Titanic

  1. AWESOME post with such sad world maritime history.Even on screen,i`ve watched it 18 times.From my schooling days till today,the word TITANIC would put my mind in a state of wanting to findout more.Not forgetting the drama of those who lost their lives that fateful day.As for me,TITANIC and its passengers and crew lives the lifes of many.Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Nora! You should hop over to SG then. You’ll know a lot more and see bits and pieces of the Titanic. The exhibit runs till April 29. You still have time! It’s just a train away from KL, right?

    • Creepy exactly…but I didn’t think of it that way then. :) I’m sure you can still catch the exhibit somewhere in the world.

  2. sayang, i dropped by SG two weeks ago. we checked out just the Marina Bay sands area. it’s great cause even at night, you feel really safe in SG!

    missed out on this titanic tour but I guess we had our own version during this side trip here. hehe

    • So true, Soloflighter. I was walking along an almost empty road at midnight and it never felt like someone would pounce and rob me or something.

      Well, this post is for people who missed the exhibit. Pero sayang lang cuz you were there na. It runs till April 29 lang.

  3. Wish they’d hold the exhibit the next time I visit Singapore. I was so young when I watched the Titanic movie, yet it already touched me even as a kid. So I’m sure seeing and experiencing this exhibit will do me good.. :)

    • Too bad, the last day is on Sunday, I think. But I guess the exhibit will just change cities. Dunno where it will be next though.

    • As another commenter said, it’s creepy. But I think it’s an ingenious way to make visitors make a point of connection with the tragedy. It made me very curious about the life and death of the person whose name was in my boarding pass.

  4. Wow. this is cool.I can feel jack and rose romance on the side :) It’s good to know really that amidsr the tragedy, a large percentage survived the titanic mishap :)

    • Not that large, actually. Only a third of all passengers and crew survived. The percentage could’ve been higher had there been more lifeboats (including for third class passengers and crew) and had the evacuation been conducted more efficiently.

  5. Really, really nice! Waaa I’m a fan pa naman of Titanic. Paulit-ulit ko siyang pinapanood dati. Grabe lang kasi yung story niya. I’ve also watched a documentary about it. Grabe talaga mga secrets niya. And Waaaa, forever na ba to sa Singapore?

    • Bery and Renz: Hate to break this to you, but the exhibit ends this Sunday, April 29, I think (check to confirm,hehe).

  6. sobra tragic… pero madami pa stories ganyan… ung iba nga still untold and kept in their hearts forever… may they all rest in peace, pati ung mga tragedy still happening now..

    .. parang sarap itour singapore! lucky you!

  7. i really like a place where one can relive history such as this RMS TItanic at Art Science Museum in SG! Although what happened to Titanic is a bit tragic, the lessons learned and love stories live on. So thanks for sharing it in a well written post AJ. I’ve been to SG many times but I still haven’t been to this museum – so I’m putting it on my itinerary for May 29 since I’ll be in SG for a day before my New Zealand flight and 3 days when I get back but will hop to Indonesia.

    • Eugene and Mheanne: Alas, today is the last day of the exhibition. No matter, the museum itself is worth a visit. I also got to see their audio-visual presentation of the evolution of technology, and it was just jaw-dropping. Oh, since you’re a globetrotter, Mheanne, you might catch the traveling exhibition in another country. :)

  8. Siguro kapag ako ang nandito mapapaiyak talaga ako — emotional kasi ang dating sa akin ng Titanic, lol.

    Learning the life of the survivors after the tragedy is interesting. I never get tired of watching this movie. Ito kasi yung first full-length foreign movie na napanood ko sa betamax pa noon, lol! Kaya may sentimental balyu, haha.

    I love the 3rd to the last photo… Parang yung lumulubog na yung barko, ang kulet lang ha. Sana may ganito rin sa Pilipinas. Really appreaciate the brain behind this exhibit in Singapore. It brings back memories of the time I was watching this with 15 other people in our house.

    Another well-written post. Keep it up :)

  9. Reading your article is far more interesting than the movie starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet hehe The passengers’ stories are both touching and heartbreaking at the same time. Thank you for this post! I truly enjoyed reading true stories behind the Titanic. God bless! :-)

    • Wow, my blog post just topped the highest grossing film in history! :D My sentiment exactly; I do think that any of these true stories has more dramatic impact than that the film’s fictional love story. Thanks Irene!

  10. That’s an awesome experience. I think I’ll do the same thing if I have the chance to see that place. Will take lots of photos and will post a story about Titanic!! :)

    • Ooops sorry I failed to mention in the post: Photography is not allowed inside the museum. The exhibition had their resident photographers for two souvenir shots though (the iconic bow shot and the grand staircase one), which we paid for separately. But we could not take photos of the artifacts and the halls.

  11. Wow, you’ve refreshed the story of Titanic on my mind. As I was reading your article, AJ, I also feel like having a tour in that place. ^_^

    Maybe, it is indeed creepy to be roaming around that place with antique display plus horrible stories, and maybe, very exciting as well as what you’ve experienced.

    • To be honest, I didn’t feel creeped out at all. It was more of a melancholy vibe, knowing about the lives of the people who survived and perished in the tragedy. They were not merely statistics or ill-fated passengers. It became more of a human tragedy than just a spectacular disaster.

  12. A very fascinating story about the Titanic, AJ. You are able to comprehensively depicting the whole situation of the ship, so that your readers could easily visualized what happened in early 1900’s when the ship was about cruising across the Atlantic. Again, it is beautifully written and a good promotion for Singapore, I would agree if Singapore is one of the smartest Asian countries in fishing the visitors interest on historical tourism sector :)

    • Tourism in SG is robust. The country is generally tourist-friendly, although I initially had a lot of apprehensions about their laws and rules. I certainly didn’t want to be “caned” or something. :D

      Oh, and Neneng, this post is far from being comprehensive. I just filled it up with bits and pieces of the exhibition that made an impact on me. There were so much more to it, really. For instance, I forgot to mention the handwritten letter that was also recovered from the shipwreck. And they also displayed actual parts of the ship that had chipped off. Everything was truly fascinating!

    • Not really a big fan of the movie, but the real tragedy has always piqued my interest. So yeah, it was amazing to see bits and pieces of the Titanic for real. I never expected it in my life! :) You’re so sweet, Wandershugah!

  13. Hello! I love ur blog site! it served as my inspiration in creating my own travel blog. I hope you could visit my blogsite too or even add me on your bloglist. thank u so much and good luck on ur future trips!! – Jan Ashlee, breakawayph.blogspot.com

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