Titanic. The most infamous name in maritime history. Said by some to be the third most recognisable name in the entire English language; beaten only by Jesus Christ and Coca-Cola. Quite a tag team, that one.
But where did the name come from in the first place? Who came up with it, and did it really smack of the hubristic overtones grafted onto it by an armada of latter day ‘experts’? As so often with these things, we will probably never know the whole truth.
David Banks was a former American consul at the court of Siam, the country we now know as Thailand, towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was he that suggested to the White Star Line a pair of names for future steamers it might build. Those names were Olympic and Titanic.
At about that time, the world had just staged the first Olympic Games of the modern era; those held in Athens in 1896. They were a worldwide sensation, offering the biggest and best of everything, and on an unparalleled scale. So it’s not really so difficult to see where Banks came up with the idea for Olympic as a name.
It was current, it had international appeal and, aptly for White Star, it contained the ‘ic’ suffix that had marked out every White Star liner since the first Oceanic of 1871. So no great mysteries there.
But what of Titanic? What was the line of thinking there? Here again, there is a link to ancient Greece.
In Greek mythology, the Titans were a breed of all powerful deities. They were a dozen strong in all, and they were said to be the children of Earth and Sky. These Titans were held to be immortal (shades of unsinkable) and to possess tremendous stamina and strength. In the pantheon of ancient Greek gods, the Titans were platinum chip royalty.
None of which was enough to stop the second generation of Titans from being overthrown and destroyed by a new, younger set of ‘new gods on the block’- the Olympians….
So the transformation of ‘Titan’ into Titanic as a name was, in fact, simple and obvious, as well as symmetrical. With it’s Greek origins and obvious parallels with the Olympic, it made perfect sense for White Star to adopt those two names; Olympic and Titanic.
In the event, the company chose to hang onto both names for a very special occasion.
When White Star introduced the second, revolutionary Oceanic in 1899, it was originally intended to build a twin sister ship for her. In the event, this second ship was never built. Legend has it that this mythical second ship was to have been called the Olympic.
And, when White Star built it’s ‘Big Four’ at the turn of the 20th century, none of the quartet- the world’s largest at the time- were graced with the two names. Instead, they were called Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic.
It was only in 1907, a full decade after David Banks made his suggestion to White Star, that the Greek themed names were finally brought into play for the two new, world beating sisters that would be laid down in Belfast over the following eighteen months. Respectively, they would be newbuild (yard) 400- Olympic-and yard 401. Titanic.
Unlike many modern liners, their names were never secrets from the start. In fact, they were etched into the hull of each ship, in three foot high golden letters. They were also proudly displayed on massive hoardings that stood beneath the bows of each of the twin monsters as they took shape. Because of this, their names were public knowledge a full three years before either took to the seas.
No one can say with one hundred per cent certainty who signed off on the use of the decade old names at that time; but it was almost certainly Joseph Bruce Ismay, the autocratic managing director of White Star at the time. No detail escaped his notice. A decision like that would be unthinkable without his go- ahead.
What is certain is that there was no formal naming ceremony; no champagne shattered over the bow of yard number 401 when she lumbered into the steel grey River Lagan just after noon on May 31st, 1911. No dignified lady in a wide brimmed hat ever uttered the immortal phrase: “I name this ship Titanic. May God bless her, and all who sail in her….”
The White Star Line liked it’s launchings to be understated, business like affairs. It never went in for the pomp and ceremony so beloved of it’s great rival, Cunard.
But this should not be misconstrued as false modesty. White Star simply believed that the Olympic and Titanic were so fabulous that no amount of frippery and celebration could truly do them justice. And, up to a point, they were right.
After the sinking of the Titanic, a whole flotilla of pulpit based experts railed against the White Star Line, arguing that naming such a vast and swaggering ship as the Titanic was just asking to bring down God’s wrath. After all, had not the brave and boastful Titans been brought down in the prime of their vanity by a stronger, more vengeful God?
Few people actually bought this clerical claptrap, but the idea haunted the White Star Line all the same. Soon after the disaster, the name of the third ship in the class- originally intended to be the Gigantic- was quietly changed to Britannic instead. It just did not seem wise to provoke the fates a second time.
Fat lot of good it did her; on November 21st, 1916, while on the outward leg of her sixth round trip as a requisitioned hospital ship, the Britannic struck a mine laid by a German U-Boat. She sank within an hour, but with mercifully few casualties. Twenty-one people lost their lives in the sinking of the Britannic.
She foundered in calm waters. Just eight miles from the Greek island of Kea….
Who knows? Maybe the ancient gods of Greece just had a malign sense of humour at the end of the day.