As the Titanic was sinking, her officers were so keen to avoid a panic among the passengers that they underplayed the danger, and allowed many of her lifeboats to leave barely half full. A major reason for that may have been memories of another North Atlantic shipping disaster, just fourteen years earlier.
In July 1898, the French liner La Bourgogne, carrying almost five hundred passengers and over two hundred crew, was crossing from New York to Le Havre. Early one morning, in thick fog off Nova Scotia, she collided at full speed with the sailing ship Cromartyshire. While the Cromartyshire remained afloat, La Bourgogne passed from view, and sank within an hour. At daybreak, a motley assortment of lifeboats and rafts emerged from the fog. A total of 165 survivors from La Bourgogne were helped aboard the Cromartyshire; more than five hundred people had drowned.
What alarmed the crew of the Cromartyshire was that there was only one woman among the survivors. The remainder were very largely crew, along with a few men from steerage. Lurid tales soon circulated that as La Bourgogne went down, her decks had been the scene of a pitched battle. Using knives, boat hooks, oars and whatever else came to hand, her crew had fought with passengers for places in the few lifeboats that survived the collision. They’d ignored all orders from their officers, of whom only three out of eighteen survived, and once the boats were in the water, they’d beaten off and stabbed swimming passengers who had tried to clamber aboard.
The entire incident was hushed up by the French maritime authorities, who refused to hold a proper investigation. That experience helped prompt the US Senate to stage its own inquiry into the Titanic disaster.
During that inquiry, first-class passenger Charles E. Stengel testified that one of the Titanic’s officers had explained to him aboard the Carpathia: “Suppose we had reported the damage that was done to that vessel; there would not be one of you aboard. The stokers would have come up and taken every boat, and no one would have had a chance of getting aboard of those boats.”