The Californian Controversy

Some have suggested that the Californian did not see the Titanic‘s rockets, but rather flares fired from a fishing boat to alert its longboats to its position. However, there is no contemporary support for that theory; Gibson and Stone testified specifically that they saw white rockets, not flares.

Captain Smith and the Improper Distress Signal?

When one concedes that the ship seen by the Californian could only have been the Titanic – or at least that the rockets seen by Gibson and Stone’s could only have been the Titanics – there is a new argument currently being championed by the Titanic Historical Society.

The Board of Trade regulations of the time defined a proper distress signal as “rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, fired one at a time, at short intervals.” The THS concedes that the Californian saw the Titanic‘s rockets, but points out that the Titanic did not fire its rockets at regular intervals; consequently it was Captain Smith’s fault that the Californian did not understand the meaning of the rockets.

But this defense ignores several important facts. One is that neither Captain Lord, nor Gibson or Stone, ever mentioned that they were confused by the intervals of the rockets. Another is that Captain Lord’s only defense for the rest of his life was that his ship did not see the Titanic, but rather an unidentified small ship that was steaming away. Third, and most importantly, the BOT regulations specified that “if these signals are used in any other place, for any other purpose than stated, they may be signals of distress, and should be answered accordingly by passing ships, and claims sent in for payment of salvage.” In other words, if there is any doubt whatsoever as to the meaning of the signals, investigate.

Captain Lord admitted to Lord Mersey at the Board of Trade disaster inquiry that the rockets “might have been” distress signals; that was tantamount to a confession of gross negligence. Stone also conceded, when Mersey pulled out the aforementioned regulations, that he was looking at a distress signal.

Captain Lord’s strange behavior

There are two possibilities: every member of the U.S. Senate Investigation Board and the British Board of Trade inquiry were involved in a conspiracy to railroad the blameless captain of the Californian, or Captain Lord was guilty of criminal negligence and tried to cover his trail with lies in which he involved his officers. Either way, we will never know exactly what happened aboard the Californian.

Anecdotally, however, we do know that when wireless operator Cyril Evans brought Captain Lord the Titanic‘s last reported position on the morning of April 15, 1912, Lord stared at the paper and said, “This position won’t do. Bring me a better one.” We also know anecdotally that when Chief Officer Stewart told Second Officer Stone that morning that the Titanic has sunk, Stone replied, “Yes, I know, I saw her rockets last night.”

During the trip to Boston, Lord demanded and received affidavits from Stone and Gibson describing what they had seen that night; unusual behavior for a man who was completely innocent and who had yet to be accused of anything. The Californian‘s log, further, made no mention at all of either the ship seen that night or of the rockets, and the scrap log was mysteriously missing.

When the Californian arrived in Boston and rumors began to spread that she had been within visual sight of the Titanic, Captain Lord denied that his ship had ever seen any rockets or signals of any kind. Later, in both the U.S. Senate investigation and the Board of Trade investigation, Lord admitted on the stand to having been told of “one” rocket. In a strange series of questions and answers too convoluted to be repeated here, he changed his story numerous times; granted, he was being mercilessly grilled and must have been under tremendous stress, but one must wonder why a man who was telling the truth would continually change his story.

Questions remain

As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the Titanic‘s sinking, the question of the Californian is far from settled, at least as far as the “Lordites” are concerned. This has by no means been an exhaustive article, nor should it be construed as such. Further, if bias against Captain Lord is detected here, it is only because the facts, when taken together and with no omissions, weigh against him. There is no personal agenda.

However, arguments both for and against Captain Lord are far too numerous to be explored in one article. Suffice it to say, the Californian controversy is one of the most contentious and fascinating aspects of the whole Titanic tragedy, and one which remains a hot button issue nearly a century later.


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