For the past week, Halifax has been astir with events commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. People from all over the world have come to visit the city where rescue ships landed the bodies of the sinking’s victims, and where many were buried. Nowhere is the fascination with the ill-fated ship stronger than right here.
At today’s interfaith service, a Catholic priest brought up the question of why Titanic continues to grip people’s imaginations. There was her sheer size, her opulence and the class structure that opulence represented. There was the audacity of the claim that she was unsinkable. There were the stories of heroism and sacrifice, with the band bravely playing on while the ship went down, but for me, Titanic‘s mystique is embodied in one story.
Two of the participants in today’s ceremony were granddaughters of a man who crewed on MacKay Bennett, one of the ships that retrieved bodies of victims. This young man, aged 24 at the time, was the one who pulled the body of Titanic’s famous ‘Unknown Child’ into a boat. Overcome, he cradled the toddler in his arms and promised that he would ‘see him in his proper place’. When the little boy was buried in Halifax without a name, MacKay Bennett’s crew had a brass plaque placed in his coffin, inscribed with the words Our Babe.
In 2001, the grave of the Unknown Child was opened so that DNA technology could be used to try to identify him. All that remained of the body was a few fragments of bone, which had been protected by the brass plaque. Those fragments provided the DNA that led to the child’s identification as Sidney Leslie Goodwin from England. The youngest of a family of eight, little Sidney perished along with his parents and siblings that cold April night, but thanks to the compassion of MacKay Bennett‘s crew – and that one young seaman in particular – he is no longer unknown. It’s this joining of past and present, the bond of caring that extended through time in a way no one could have imagined in 1912, that makes Titanic fascinating to me.