South Africa and the Titanic


The sensational events surrounding the submarine tragedy and the wreck of the Titanic last week made headlines worldwide – including in South Africa. It is fascinating that the story of Titanic, after more than a century, can still keep people talking. Some people say “Titanic” is one of the three most recognizable words in the world (the other two are apparently “Coca-Cola” and “Mandela”).

In his brilliant book, Down with the old canoe, Steven Biel writes extensively about the curious phenomenon that the Titanic is still so relevant, even after more than a century. He discusses how this tragedy, on 14 April 1912, irrevocably changed the social structures of the Edwardian era (which had actually been unchanged for more than a thousand years). So, why would South African citizens be interested in a British ship full of wealthy Americans, noble Britons and Irish and Italian immigrants that hits an iceberg and sinks in the middle of the North Atlantic? Titanic has a surprising number of South African connections!

1. The most famous of these is probably the Brown family. They were second-class passengers on board and en route from Cape Town, via Southampton and New York, to Seattle. Thomas Brown was the manager of the hotel in Worcester, who accepted an offer to take over a hotel in Seattle. His wife, Elizabeth, came from Moorreesburg and was related on her mother’s side to the Du Toits van Boshoff in the Free State. Their fifteen-year-old daughter, Edith, was on board with them.

Edith and her mother survived the disaster, Thomas did not. During the 1991 expedition to the wreck of the ship, Thomas Brown’s pocket watch was found on the seabed. It stopped at the exact moment he was dragged down with the ship. The watch was returned to Edith, 75 years after she last saw it on her father’s waistcoat. After her death it was returned to the salvage company and today forms part of the Titanic exhibition.

Edith Brown (later Mrs Haisman) died in Southampton on 20 April 1997 in her 100th year of life. She was 98 years old when her memories of the events were published in book form. In that year (1995) she was taken by ship to the place where the Titanic sank and on the night of 14/15 April she threw a white rose into the sea in memory of her father. This scene was the inspiration for the later famous scene of the elderly Rose throwing the diamond necklace into the sea in Cameron’s famous film.

2. Many writers have claimed over the years that Robert Hitchens, the helmsman who handled the helm of the Titanic when it hit the iceberg, in later years became the harbor master of Cape Town. We do know that he died in Aberdeen, Scotland. Definitive evidence for this claim has never been found.

3. Nathan Goldsmith, a shoemaker from Cape Town, was on his way to relatives in Philadelphia. He was a third class passenger and 41 years old. His body was never found.

4. Sidney Sameul Jacobsohn (42) was a lawyer who had his practice at 16 Waal Street, Cape Town. He and his wife, Amy, were second-class passengers en route to Canada. Amy is one of the survivors picked up by the Carpathia. Sydney’s body was never found either.

5. Charles Chapman (52) was an export merchant from Cape Town. He was on his way to Canada, where his wife Cecelia was visiting her family. Chapman was in the second class and his body was recovered from the sea four days after the disaster by the Mckay Bennet, the ship hired to recover the bodies. In his pocket was the Family Bible. Chapman is buried in the Bronx, New York. Some of their descendants farm today in Gobabis’ area.

6. Samuel Beard Risien was an American who lived in Durban for a few months. During his stay here his wife died and he married her sister. Mrs. Risien was a South African citizen and the two were on their way back to Texas. They were third class passengers and both perished. Neither body was found.

7. Henry Forbes Julian was an Irish-born mining engineer from Barberton. He and his wife, Hester, were on their way to America when she fell ill in England. Their passage was booked on another ship, but because of the coal miners’ strike in England, the White Star canceled other sailings and transferred the passengers to the Titanic. In the meantime, Henry left on the Titanic in second class, while Hester stayed behind in England to recover. His body was never found.

8. Argon Rothenaigar (21) was an interesting fellow. He was the only South African crew member on the Titanic. Rothenaigar was a waiter in the second class and one of only five people who were taken out of the sea by the lifeboats and survived. In his later years, Rothenaigar became a tailor in Paarl and ran his small shop in Mernoleon Street.

His house at 371 Main Street still exists today and houses a well-known coffee bar in the town. Argon was a German by birth. Because he was married to a non-white woman, Willemina Cyster, he had to move in the fifties and settled in the old missionary village, Pniel (between Paarl and Stellenbosch), where he died at an advanced age in 1967 and was buried.

9. In his book Riversdal 150 years states Frans van Wyk that a survivor of the Titanic lived on Riversdal for years afterwards. Unfortunately, he does not identify the person.

All good stories have a nice tail too. Three years after the Titanic, the shipwreck follows when the Cunard passenger ship, the Lusitania, is sunk by a German submarine near the coast of Ireland.

This incident on May 7, 1915 eventually led to the American entry into the First World War. The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes with a loss of life of 1,198 people – one of them the half-sister of the Afrikaans poet-writer, C Louis Leipoldt.