Sunday, 4 January 2015

Quebec - The Empress of Ireland

I first read about the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland when I was travelling through Rimouski last October. The RMS Empress of Ireland sank in the early hours of the 29th of May 1914 and last year saw the centenary of this maritime disaster on the St Lawrence River. I was surprised to learn about it, as it's not something I'd ever heard of before, although it was Canada's most serious peace-time shipping accident.

Of course, we're all familiar with the RMS Titanic which sank two years before the Empress of Ireland.  Celine Dion, perhaps Quebec's most famous daughter, famously sang the title song for the 1997 movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett

As I've researched more about these maritime disasters, I've begun to wonder what was it that made the sinking of the Titanic so famous, whereas the sinking of the Empress of Ireland has been more or less forgotten? I've come up with a few possible reasons:


Although both disasters saw the loss of large numbers of lives (over 1,500 for the Titanic and over 1,000 for the Empress of Ireland), the sinking of the Titanic happened first and, in 1912 it was the biggest maritime disaster in living memory. There were quite a few maritime disasters in the early 20th century (e.g. the loss of the Camorta in the Bay of Bengal in 1902 claimed more than 700 lives and the loss of the General Slocum in New York, claimed more than 1,000 lives in 1904), however, the sheer number of people who died in the Titanic sinking shocked the general public and meant that the event really stuck in people's minds.


Whilst both ships sunk during peace-time, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland happened only a few months before the outbreak of World War 1. Although the sinking of this ship was a great tragedy, the loss of life soon paled into insignificance when compared to the many millions who died in Europe and elsewhere during the First World War.  Whilst the sinking of the Titanic had several years to influence public opinion, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was obscured by the outbreak of war.

The unsinkable maiden

Even before the Titanic set sail, her builders and promoters had pronounced her unsinkable.  All the more tragic then, when the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage.  The Empress of Ireland, by contrast, had been plying the North Atlantic since 1906 and had made the trip between Liverpool and Quebec quite a few times before she sank.

Dramatic retelling

Although much of the 1997 movie Titanic may be fabricated or exaggerated, we all enjoyed the re-imagining of the passengers' experience aboard this ship.  More than 700 people survived the sinking of the Titanic and the three hours that it took the ship to sink left some leeway for dramatic retelling of the disaster.  The Empress of Ireland also had survivors, but the ship sank in just 14 minutes which, I guess would be more difficult to build a drama/story around.


Rimouski on the St Lawrence River
As sea-travel was the most important way of getting around in the early 20th century (and indeed the centuries before that), I'd imagine that maritime disasters really captured the public imagination at that time.  Having said that, the location of the disaster would have played an important role in terms of how interested people in Europe and North America were in disasters of this kind.

For example, a Japanese ship, the Kiche Maru sank during a typhoon in the Pacific, just four months after the Titanic disaster, with a loss of more than 1,000 lives, but it was too remote for most Europeans and Americans to relate to. Similarly, The Empress of Ireland sank in a slightly obscure corner of Canada, rather than the more dramatic location of the icebergs in the North Atlantic and this may have influenced the public imagination and re-telling of these stories.


It's interesting to note some similarities in terms of the numbers involved in both disasters. Bizarrely, in both tragedies 68% of passengers lost their lives and 32% of passengers survived.  This is a weird coincidence and I wonder if anyone has ever done a study into average survival rates in shipping disasters?

Less surprising is the fact that, in both cases, the survival rate was much higher amongst first-class passengers (41% on the Empress and 62% on the Titanic) than amongst third-class passengers (18.5% on the Empress and 25% on the Titanic).

Out of the 138 children aboard the Empress of Ireland, only 4 survived.  By comparison, 56 children survived the sinking of the Titanic out of a total number of 109.  All of the children who died in the Titanic disaster were third-class passengers, except one.

The Empress of Ireland story

I'm sure there must be some interesting stories from the Empress of Ireland disaster which have yet to be dramatised.  The St Lawrence River is wide at the point where the Empress sank and you can't really see the far shore, as the river is already opening out to become the sea.

To this date, there is a lot of controversy around the cause of the disaster and I watched a documentary called Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland (available on YouTube) which questions the original verdict that the Empress of Ireland sank because she was rammed by another boat. The documentary calls into question the actions taken by the Empress' captain, Henry Kendall, and hints that there was an element of big business v small business during the original enquiry into the sinking of this ship.

Disasters today

In case you think large-scale maritime disasters are a thing of a past, it's worth noting more recent events like the Le Joola ferry disaster off the coast of Gambia in 2002 (1,864 lives lost) or the Doña Paz ferry disaster in the Philippines in 1987, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever, with the loss of 4,386 lives!

In the past few weeks, we've had our fair share of travel disasters, with the loss of AirAsia flight QZ8501 in Indonesia and the Norman Atlantic ferry fire off the coast of southern Italy. Air and maritime disasters seem to be a constant theme in the 21st century, where our seas and skies are full of boats and planes. Given the large number of ferries and planes that are travelling every day compared to the relatively low number of accidents that happen, I can't help but hope that these bigger disasters will continue to be few and far between.

Image credits:

The image of RMS Empress of Ireland is from the Library and Archives Canada and is in the public domain.

The image of Rimouski was taken by me, feel free to re-use this with the Creative Commons license: Attribution, Share alike, non-commercial.  

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