Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The Loss of the "Republic" (1909)

This month, there was the tragic news of the sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, after it ran aground off the Isola del Giglio. Costa Concordia was, to date, the largest ship built on Italian soil and, at the time of writing, the sinking has claimed sixteen confirmed lives, so far.

The Costa Concordia's sinking is one of the first maritime losses of a luxury liner in the twenty-first century. Over the next few days, I'll take a brief look at some of the previous century's most famous disasters at sea.

The sinking of the RMS Republic (1909)
Ironically, given its name, the White Star liner Republic was actually built in Ulster, the most vociferously monarchist of the four provinces of Ireland. At the time, Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyards were the largest and the best in the world; the east Belfast workforce produced ships for companies all over the globe, but their closest working relationship was with the British firm, White Star Line, one of the main British commercial bodies operating the lucrative transatlantic trade. Built in Belfast in 1903, she was originally christened Columbus and sailed under the livery of the Dominion Line, a sister-company of White Star's, before being transferred to the White Star and re-named, after only two voyages. Although Republic was praised in shipbuilding industry journals at the time for the comfort offered onboard, she was originally built with an eye to incorporating all of the latest safety techniques. In 1909, six years into her commercial life, these features were put to the test when Republic departed New York for the British colony at Gibraltar, and other Mediterannean ports. In thick fog, she was hit by the Italian liner Florida. Two of the Republic's passengers were killed on impact, as they slept in their cabins, and three of the Florida's crew men also died. Part of the rescue was carried out by the Florida and the U.S. coastguard's Gresham; the passengers were then transferred back to New York by another White Star steamer, the Baltic. In many ways, the tragedy of the Republic ironically gave the shipping industry, and White Star in particular, a false sense of security. The Republic took a full thirty-nine hours to sink. At nearly 16,000 tons, Republic was the largest ship to be lost to the sea, at that point in history. The slow speed at which she sank, the effectiveness of Marconi in securing multiple rescue ships and the low loss of life all helped persuade many industry insiders, like Captain E.J. Smith, that terrible, swift maritime disasters were a thing of the past - a view which the tragedy of the Titanic would brutally dispel three years later. Today, the Republic is most well-known for the rumour that at the time of her sinking, she was carrying $3 million in coins for the Imperial government of Russia. If that were true, the coins, if still onboard, could be worth nearly $5 billion in 2012. However, if these stories are true, to my mind, it's improbable that they would not have been evacuated along with all of Republic's passengers and crews during the lengthy rescue operation.

1 comment:

  1. Bingo! It took 39 hours to go down. If there were any gold it certainly would have been taken off the doomed vessel.


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