Book Review: Voyagers of the Titanic by Richard Davenport-Hines

Prepared by .

It seems appropriate as we remember the 100th anniversary of the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic that I review a book that focuses on its passengers. I have for a long time been interested in the Titanic and those who both served on it and were passengers. What drew me to this book was the focus on telling the story of those who were on Titanic. While it can be easy to focus on first-class passengers since much would be written about them and sources detailing their lives would be plentiful, this book also looks at the second- and third-class passengers as well as those who had a stake in Titanic, crew members, ship owners and builders. This book does not document everyone involved with Titanic but it begins to provide us with a glimpse of a sampling of people, regardless of their wealth or lack thereof.

We know all too well stories of the wealthy such as Margaret Brown (aka the Unsinkable Molly Brown) and John Jacob Astor, but through this book we also hear some of the stories of those not as known such as the second-class passenger and Mennonite missionary Annie Clemmer Funk who was returning from her service in India. She was born in Pennsylvania ad was the first female Mennonite missionary serving the Janfgir-Champa region of India. Annie was just about ready to step into the last lifeboat when a woman behind her pushed her aside and took the last seat. Her voyage on Titanic marked her 38th birthday.

Aside from being a biography of those involved in this tragedy, this book is also a great source for social history of the time. Some of what the author writes about is not only the prevailing attitude towards immigrants but also the treatment of these immigrants on ships during the time of the Titanic. "Conditions were degrading on these steamships that would carry them, as an investigator for the US Immigration Commission, disguised as a Czech peasant had lately discovered." (p. 136-137). That undercover agent found that immigrants slept on straw mattresses with no pillows, their decks were not cleaned and the washrooms had cold salty water with no soap or towels. One of the more heart-wrenching scenes of the James Cameron film "Titanic" is the scene where third-class passengers are locked behind iron gates and are unable to escape to the main decks during the panic that marked the hours that Titanic was sinking. According to "Voyagers" there seems to be some truth to this scenario, and not because the ship owners were "heartless" but because it was mandated by U.S. immigration laws. According to the book, "U.S. immigration laws stipulated that passengers of different classes must be separated on liners by locked metal barriers to limit their supposed power to spread contagion." (pg. 12). This book documents the derogatory names used in the United States for various immigrants (pg. 29*) and even looks at what Americans and even academics thought of immigrants. It is pointed out that immigration was swelling starting at the end of the American Civil War, thus increasing the need of these large ships crossing the Atlantic (p. 35).

While I originally chose to read this book because I wanted to read more about the lives involved in the Titanic tragedy, an unexpected result of my reading was what I learned about the social history of the United States and England during the early 20th century. While I would recommend this book for the purpose it was written, to add to the historical knowledge of Titanic, I would also recommend it as a way to learn more about the social history that would have been a part of your ancestor's life, especially your 20th century immigrant ancestor.

There's no doubt that a lot of little mistakes were made by the ship owners, the crew and others that when compounded led to the horrific disaster of the sinking of the Titanic. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about the people involved. Probably my only comment would be that I would have liked to have read even more of the stories of the people, especially those where were not the first-class passengers.

As a side note, one of the sources used by the author is Encyclopedia Titanica. I also highly recommend this website to learn more about the victims and survivors of Titanic.

*Page numbers given here are from an ebook version of this book. Page numbers most likely will not correspond with the actual printed copy of the book.

Voyagers of the Titanic, by Richard Davenport-Hines. William Morrow, 2012.

<< Genealogy Book Reviews

click to view original photo