Conspiracy Theory Column: Is that really the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean?

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The Titanic in Cobh Harbour. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The R.M.S. Titanic is a well-known ship due to the tragedy surrounding the situation and, of course, because of young Leonardo DiCaprio. But the ship is also known as a vessel for several conspiracy theories in modern popular culture.

The Titanic sank April 14-15, 1912 after hitting an iceberg – a startling revelation, as the public had heard since its creation that it was “unsinkable.” A total of 1,517 passengers and crew members died in the event, meaning that only 42 percent of total people on board survived. This great loss caused a huge change in people’s attitudes regarding lifeboats and preventative measures for sea-travel, as the Titanic only had 20 lifeboats on board – just enough to save half of the passengers. But this great loss also left many with questions about what actually happened.

One of the most well-known conspiracies surrounding the R.M.S. Titanic is that it never actually sank. This is a favorite when it comes to conspiracy theories: the moon landing never happened, 9/11 was a hoax, etc. However this one differs, as people believe that a ship sank, it’s just a question of which one.

Believers testify that the White Star Line, the institution responsible for the Titanic, switched the ship with their other ship, the R.M.S. Olympic. It is said that the Olympic was damaged on a voyage in 1911, and therefore, White Star Line came to a difficult situation, as they allegedly thought that the ship was too damaged to be recovered or to be profited off of. Therefore, the conspiracy is that the company switched the two ships, passing off the Olympic as the Titanic, a seemingly harmless switch at the time, which eventually proved to be deadly.

Proof for this varies from claims that the Titanic could then be deliberately sunk for an insurance payout in order to avoid threats to the company’s financial standing the damage of the Olympic caused, to the idea that not much needed to be done and that the two ships were remarkably similar.

The Titanic cost $7.5 million and was only insured for $5 million, meaning that it was under-insured. Furthermore the White Star Line actually insured their own ships.

“Were there a conspiracy, one would expect that the insurance policy would have been changed to cover the entire value of the ship,” stated historian Mark Chirnside. “As it was, White Star could only expect to recoup two-thirds of the ship’s value.”

With regards to the ships being easy to switch, even changing the names would have been difficult – if not impossible with the time frame. The names were not simply painted on but actually engraved into the plates – a half inch deep. Changing this would have required a total switch of the plates, not to mention the other physical aspects that would have needed to be altered. These claims are based on their similarity when seen at a macro scale, but several things do not add up with this conspiracy theory when looked at more closely.

A photo of the Olympic (left) and Titanic (right). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They also differed in ways that passengers would have been able to note. The Titanic had a large dining room and cafe that was specifically unique to the ship. The ship was actually changed based on feedback from the Olympic and was made to be a better, more luxurious version. Steel plates were also added on to the Olympic’s engine bedplates. In 1911 when the Titanic was under inspection, no such plates were found or reported.

This “switch” theory first came into the spotlight in 1996 when Robert Gardiner and Dan Van Der Vat published “The Riddle of the Titanic.” It quickly became a bestseller in Japan, Germany, Italy and England. With the introduction of the internet into modern culture, the theory has spread and created further discourse. Yet Gardiner himself, while still believing certain aspects of his theory, admits that a full switch was not possible.

Gardiner created an epilogue, “Grave Doubts,” where he recants previous statements and goes into detail about how the ship at the bottom of the Atlantic must be the Titanic. In this testimonial, Gardiner then gives an explanation for why society creates these other realities to believe so strongly in.

“A conspiracy theory arises after a disaster because many people find it impossible to believe such a tragedy could just happen. Indeed for some a conspiracy theory is a psychological necessity, to help them come to terms with a shocking event,” Gardiner wrote.

It’s a difficult thing to believe that so many lives could be lost in such a quick event, especially one where few had any control. With conspiracies such as the “switch” theory, people find solace in knowing that it was the fault of something or someone – not just a “freak accident.”

While questions may arise about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic and what exactly led up to her fateful demise it is a sure thing that it was a tragedy that has been assured to never happen again. We may not be able to determine when a ship hits an iceberg, but we can make sure that safety measures are put into place, and Titanic showed the world the importance of that – whether or not you believe that it was the Titanic that sank.

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