This curt message, all of four words (five including the signature), may well have saved a man’s life and preserved a priceless treasure for posterity. But more on that later.
For the moment, let us consider the context. Today is the 15th of April, A.D. 2012 – the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.
I shan’t dwell much on the disaster itself, the particulars of which are already familiar to anyone who has seen its more-or-less (leaning perhaps towards “less”) accurate portrayal in James Cameron’s 1997 film. In any case, my voice will merely be drowned out in the torrent of news articles, essays, blog posts and whatnot currently flooding the interweb during the centenary. Nevertheless, as someone who has been interested in the Titanic almost since he was in rompers, I couldn’t possibly let this momentous occasion pass without adding my voice – however insignificant – to those commemorating an event that took place far before most of our lifetimes and yet continues to exercise such a tenacious grip on our collective imagination.
Now for the subject line that heads this post. On the 10th of April 1912, an Irish Jesuit named Francis Browne boarded the Titanic with a first-class ticket that had been given him by his uncle. He would not stay on the ship for its entire journey, however, the ticket having been booked only as far as Queenstown (present-day Cobh, Ireland). During the brief voyage, the future Father Browne apparently dined with a wealthy couple who offered to pay for his trip to be extended all the way to New York. As a student of theology (he would be ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1915), Browne would not have been allowed to put aside his schoolwork for very long without permission, so he dutifully despatched a Marconigram to the Jesuit Provincial in Dublin seeking his consent.
The following day, with the Titanic parked in Cork Harbour off Queenstown on her last stop before steaming out into the North Atlantic, his superior’s reply was waiting.
GET OFF THAT SHIP – PROVINCIAL.
Get off he did, taking with him the priceless treasure to which I had earlier referred: some of the last photographs ever taken of the ill-fated ship, including what might be among the best and only images actually snapped on board.
Having only had the one voyage – and an abbreviated one at that – the Titanic would not surprisingly leave a relatively scant photographic record. Many images that have been passed off as coming from the Titanic are actually of her nearly-identical sister ship, the Olympic. But thanks to Father Browne and his photographic hobby – and, of course, his timely act of obedience in disembarking when ordered to do so – we have more genuine images of the maiden voyage today than we would otherwise have been left with had his collection gone down with the vessel.
Manga fans (or, more broadly speaking, graphic novel fans) who are interested in Father Browne’s experience will want to take a look at Get Off That Ship, a work-in-progress by the hand of illustrator Alan Dunne. Chapter 1 is now available to read (for free) on this website. The Browne collection of Titanic images was published in book form in 1997 as The Last Days of the Titanic (I’ve read this and recommend it highly); the new book Father Browne’s Titanic Album appears to be a second edition of this same volume. They can also be viewed online here. For more on Father Browne himself, check out his brief biography on Encyclopedia Titanica.
And whilst you’re there, read up on the only Japanese person known to have sailed on the Titanic.