NAMING OCEAN LINERS- NOT JUST A ROYAL PREROGATIVE

Belfast was the scene of many famous launches, including Olympic, Titanic and Canberra

Belfast was the scene of many famous launches, including Olympic, Titanic and Canberra

In British maritime circles, the current buzz is that the new P&O flagship, Britannia, will be named by the Queen at a special ceremony in Southampton on March 10th, though Buckingham Palace has yet to officially confirm this.

As noted in a previous blog, it has been customary ever since the 1930’s for the premier passenger liners and cruise ships of major British companies to have some kind of royal sanction, be that in the form of an actual, physical launch, or the act of some royal patron acting as godmother. We saw it most recently in 2013, when the Duchess of Cambridge acted in that role for Princess Cruises’ new Royal Princess.

So in the UK, monarchy and majesty at sea have always coexisted. But how have other nations with different systems of government handled such hugely ceremonial events in the past? In this context, it is vital to remember that the construction of the great ocean liners- especially in the 1930’s- were huge statements of national intent, destined to glean as much publicity on the world stage as possible. Different lines went about it in different ways.

In May 1912, the Hamburg America line prepared to launch the Imperator, the largest ocean liner in the world. It was just six weeks since the sinking of the Titanic. Festooned with extra lifeboats at the last moment and named for the Emperor, the bellicose, unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II, she was launched by none other than her sponsor himself.

Two years later, when the third and last of the Imperator class- destined to be named Bismarck- was ready for launching, the deed was supposed to be done by Otto Von Bismarck’s grand daughter. Her first swing of the bottle somehow managed to avoid hitting the biggest single steel structure on the planet. The returning bottle was caught by the Kaiser himself, who then managed to smash it against the prow with the same simple minded brutality with which his armies would help smash up much of Europe just six weeks later.

As for the Titanic herself, her launch at Belfast on May 31st, 1911 was the usual, under stated affair that was normal practice for the White Star Line. So there was no famous, titled patron in a huge, plumed hat, No champagne. In the opinion of the owners, the ship was deemed to be so spectacular and magnificent that no amount of pre release frippery and pretension could possibly do her true justice,

But the French, of course, could always be relied upon to do it with great panache, and more than just a little tongue in cheek subterfuge. When the Normandie was launched in front of a crowd of 250,000 people in October of 1932, the ship was first blessed on the slipway by the local bishop. His Eminence was ‘reassured’ by the owners that they had not committed the ‘sin of pride’ in building the most beautiful, blatantly ambitious vessel ever constructed.

With this helpful reassurance, Monsieur le Cardinal happily blessed the ship. Then, Madame Lebrun, wife of the living president, smashed a spectacularly huge bottle of champagne against  the bow. As  the great ship slid down the ways, she called out ‘I baptise three Normandie’  Then madame proceeded to blow a kiss to the Normandie as she lunged into the Loire, throwing up a spectacular tidal wave that left a whole conga line of sodden, top hatted dignitaries glowering at her..

Not exactly something that you could imagine any of the royal family doing, mind you. Plus ca change.

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