‘Women And Children First’ Myth Tied To 1854 Newfoundland Ship Tragedy

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — There were outraged headlines around the world when about 80 women and children were left to die in the freezing North Atlantic off Newfoundland as crew members raced to save themselves.

It was Sept. 27, 1854. The luxury ship Arctic had collided in heavy fog with the steamer Vesta off Cape Race, N.L., killing an estimated 350 people.

Editorial writers and readers were incensed over the blatant violation of what is today considered an increasingly archaic custom — women and children first. Public anger over the Arctic helped shape that almost mythic tradition of nautical gallantry in the face of death, but it was still an inconsistent practice in the decades that followed.

It is now widely seen as anachronistic, a sort of Victorian throwback with no legal weight, said Roger Marsters, curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

“It’s certainly not a rule that has any force in international maritime law,” he said in an interview. “At its best, it’s a custom. But more realistically I think it’s an ideal that’s espoused more often that it is observed.”

Historically, far more men survived shipwrecks than women, and more women survived than children, he said in an interview.

“Titanic’s officers and crew actually enforced women and children first.”

Just over 700 people would be rescued from lifeboats or makeshift rafts after the so-called unsinkable ship went down after striking an iceberg April 15, 1912, about 600 kilometres off Newfoundland’s southeast tip.

More than 1,500 people died. They included almost 80 per cent of male crew whose discipline has been immortalized in plays and movies about the great ship’s sinking.

Overall, the survival rate on Titanic for men was around 20 per cent, compared to about 74 per cent for women and 52 per cent for children.

The cry “women and children first” is initially traced to the wreck of HM Troopship Birkenhead off South Africa after it struck a reef and sank on Feb. 26, 1852. On board were more than 600 military personnel, including members of the Queen’s (Second) Royal Regiment of Foot.

The captain ordered that 25 women and 29 children be launched in a cutter, one of the few lifeboats available. Accounts of that night describe how troops who mustered on listing decks as the vessel began to tilt, her stern rising, obeyed orders not to move until those passengers were safely away.

‘Women, children first’ inspired 1852 poem

Rudyard

Source:: The Huffington Post – Canada Travel

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