A judge has just put Titanic at serious risk — here’s why you should be really angry about it
U.S. Judge Rebecca Beach Smith has ruled on a historic Titanic case and got it catastrophically wrong
Virginian state Judge Rebecca Beach Smith has agreed that a salvage company steeped in ethical and legal controversy can rip – literally – into the wreck of Titanic to retrieve the Marconi telegraph machine, which tells one of the most poignant stories from that fateful night.
For two long hours, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride sent wireless distress calls from Titanic and communicated with nearby ships.
Constantly switching between the long-established ‘C.Q.D’ and never-before-used ‘S.O.S’, the two operators exhausted every available option, right up until the very last minute.
Their persistence led to rescue ship Carpathia hearing its calls for help and undoubtedly helped save the lives of more than 700 people.
The chilling perseverance from the Marconi operators is embodied in the final message sent at 2:10 am, ten minutes before the ship slipped beneath the surface: ‘C.Q… *silence*’.
But now, a ruling will allow the salvage company R.M.S. Titanic Inc (RMST), which has a long and questionable history, to profit from this story in what is the latest episode of a sinister series that should make you as angry as I am.
Let me put the pieces together.
Titanic plummeted two-and-a-half miles to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Newfoundland on her maiden voyage in 1912, taking more than 1,500 people with her.
She remained undisturbed until an international team led by oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard discovered her on 1st September 1985. Since that day, the most famous shipwreck in history has been at the centre of lengthy, bitter and controversial legal and ethical battles — which rage on to this day.
Despite well-meaning legislation from Congressman Walter B. Jones, Sr. in 1986 and many heartfelt discussions since, the thirst to profit from the disaster has remained unquenchable.
Establishing present-day ownership is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, Titanic’s original owner, White Star Line, eventually folded into Cunard in 1934. Titanic was not part of the merger because she was considered unrecoverable, having sunk more than two decades earlier. Secondly, she lies in international waters.
Two years after the wreck’s discovery, in 1987, a Connecticut-based consortium, Titanic Ventures Inc — later to become R.M.S. Titanic Inc — began the first salvage operation to lift artefacts from the wreck. Titanic survivor Eva Hart condemned it as a ‘looting of a mass sea grave just to make a few thousand pounds’.
What followed was decades of squabbling over decaying children’s shoes, unopened champagne bottles and intimate handwritten notes. For reasons that remain mostly unknown, in 2009, R.M.S. Titanic Inc (RMST), a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions Inc., emerged as the sole legal owner to the salvage rights, operations and artefacts.
Although another U.S. judge ruled that a “free finders-keepers policy is but a short step from active piracy and pillaging”, RMST was allowed to retain and put on display the 5,500 artefacts it had already pulled from the wreck from more 30 dives.
And it did so — in a Las Vegas casino.
The ruling was refuted by many and opposed by the Titanic’s former insurer, the Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association.
But RMST told a court it should be declared the legal owner of the artefacts, valued at over £100m, to help recover its many costly dives to the ship. At the same time, shareholders were pressuring the company to be more aggressive in profiting from the valuable shipwreck.
Premier Exhibitions stocks soared by over 200% in the one year alone.
As part of the ruling, RMST was bound to keep the two largest collections, the ‘American Collection’ and the ‘French Collection, together forever for public benefit and research, and was not permitted to break them up for sale.
Thus, RMST was declared the owner, and its touring Titanic exhibition has since been viewed by more than 35 million people worldwide, including a 9-year old me.
For better or for worse, it seemed the issue had been largely put to bed.
That was until 15th April 2012 when Titanic automatically became protected by UNESCO under international legislation from 2001 which protects cultural, historical, or archaeological objects that have been underwater for 100 years. No longer could the wreck be picked apart for profit.
Perhaps because of this and the immense success of Titanic Belfast — the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience, built next to Titanic’s shipyards — which opened a few years earlier, Premier Exhibitions filed for bankruptcy in 2016.
It wasted no time in declaring war with the courts to overturn its agreement, gain the right to break up the collections and sell off the thousands of artefacts, which included jewellery and clothing, to repay creditors.
A month after a judge denied them this permission, RMST sued the French government who argued that the agreement between Premier and France at the time of the first salvaging required the ‘French Collection’ to be kept together.
Premier successfully claimed that its “unconditional” right to the artefacts permitted it to sell them and announced nearly 6,000 objects would be auctioned off in 2018, with a minimum bid set at £16.5m.
A mammoth effort was launched by the National Geographic Society, Titanic Belfast, The National Maritime Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland and Titanic Foundation Ltd to bring the artefacts back to Belfast.
The push was backed by Academy Award-winning director James Cameron and the man who discovered the wreck, Dr Robert Ballard.
Despite being rightly critical of the bidding process set by the bankruptcy court, together they pledged to raise £14.7m to buy Premier Exhibitions and its Titanic collection so the museums could co-own and preserve the artefacts as a single exhibit in Titanic Belfast.
Sadly, they failed to meet the minimum £16.5m bid set by Premier Exhibitions and were excluded from the auction on 11th October 2018.
The thousands of precious artefacts were sold off to private bidders and haven’t been seen since.
Oh — and RMST survived bankruptcy.
Once again, it felt like the Titanic salvaging row had been somewhat put to rest — until last week.
Having miraculously survived bankruptcy, RMST has now won a court ruling allowing them to overturn protection from two decades ago that prevented any cutting into the wreck or detaching it.
A century of protections, agreements, arguing and rulings cast aside, RMST will seek to retrieve the Marconi telegraph machine used by the two heroic operators for public display (for now at least), and has been permitted to break the ship up in the process.
The debate about whether artefacts should be lifted from the wreck will always be a point of intensely heated discussion. I have always been stuck in two minds about it.
I accept and fully endorse that Titanic’s wreck is a gravesite that should be left well alone, and I was proud to work at Titanic Belfast where that belief was reaffirmed through experiences that included speaking with the families of those who built, sailed and perished on the ship, and meeting Dr Ballard himself.
One thing I am sure of is that RMST has proven itself irresponsible and not the body to do either. Their crass profiteering and lack of sensitivity has been poor at best, but often reckless and disingenuous.
And so it sets a dangerous precedent when a company which has so regularly exercised substandard practice is rewarded in a court ruling like last week’s.
I’m sure Virginian state Judge Rebecca Beach Smith is an honourable public servant. Still, she seems to have overlooked this long legacy of poor judgement and bandit behaviour from RMST entirely.
As a result, she has ruled on a historic case that overturns previous judgements and set a dangerous precedent that could restart the race to the bottom of the ocean.
It is a decision which doesn’t take into account the abusive, frivolous and mercenary way in which RMST has exploited Titanic and her artefacts.
It doesn’t contain any guarantee that new or already-surfaced artefacts will be kept public and accessible, and not sold off to the highest bidder to keep private companies and its directors afloat.
And it does not stop the 2018 bankruptcy-auction sham being repeated. That alone should have played a heavy role in blocking, or at least restricting, RMST.
Can you imagine an American company like Premier Exhibitions being allowed to behave the same way over 9/11 as they have Titanic? I don’t know — maybe — but it’s a fair question that invites some comparison.
A firm and final decision must be made about the future of Titanic and her artefacts, and it must be stuck to. It is a decision that must be in the public interest; preserve the memory of the 1,500 people who died and sensitively recount what happened that night for generations to learn from.
R.M.S. Titanic Inc hasn’t yet had the epiphany its uncanny villainous Hollywood counterpart has at the end of Cameron’s 1997 film.
But the real tragedy of this latest money-grab is that exploiting the true heroism of Phillips and Bride to further their morally reprehensible, and legally questionable, profiteering appears to be lost entirely on them.
Or maybe it’s not, and they simply don’t care.
Thankfully though, Titanic’s immense historical, cultural and societal impact will outlive RMST and its profiteering, but it is her memory and right to rest in peace that we must protect now, more than ever.