Monday, March 19, 2012

Canadian calamities – Part 3

 With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic fast approaching, this might be an opportune time to introduce students to Canada’s biggest maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914.  Into the Mist: the story of the Empress of Ireland by Anne Renaud (910.9163 ReI 2010) tells the story.

The beginning of the book may leave you wondering -- what does the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) have to do with an elegant ocean liner in the early 1900s?

As it happened, a young Canadian government commissioned the CPR to unite the country coast-to-coast to fulfill its promise to link the province of British Columbia with the rest of Canada.  Once accomplished, the ambitious company looked for ways to expand their business.  In addition to transporting European immigrants to farms in the West, they decided to develop a mail service across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, spanning just over 19,000 kilometers from Britain to the Orient (Japan and China) via Canada.

The Empress of Ireland was one ship in a series of ‘Empresses’ built to obtain this government contract.  These were big ships built for speed, with room for 1,550 passengers and luxurious fittings for those travelling first-class. The book includes lots of statistical data (size, weight, quantities of food, etc.) about the ship as well as stories of some of her passengers.  She ferried a number of celebrities such as Rudyard Kipling, John McCrae, Robert Baden-Powell plus actors, politicians and royalty.  There are a number of narratives about less famous people too, immigrants who were travelling to Canada to start new lives.

Unfortunately, this Empress was short-lived, crossing the Atlantic for only eight years (1906 to 1914) before sinking in the St. Lawrence River.  A collision with a coal freighter resulted in the huge ship sinking in just minutes, killing most of her passengers (840) and crew (172).

A recent newspaper article in the Calgary Herald (Sunday, March 4, 2012, p.A6) ran a half-page article about the Empress of Ireland and how few people know her story.  It was suggested that this maritime disaster is Canada’s equivalent to the sinking of the Titanic.  The relative obscurity of this story is the result of people’s preoccupation with the start of the First World War. I’m sure I’m not alone in never having heard this story prior to reading this book. 

One of the more intriguing stories is about a curse that followed Captain Kendall, captain of the Empress of Ireland at the time she sank. There’s nothing like the titillation of a curse to engage students.  Captain Henry Kendall, prior to taking charge of the Empress of Ireland, captained another ship that carried two infamous fugitives running away to Canada.  Disguised as father and son, the two were apprehended due to the eagle eyes of Captain Kendall.  Dr. Crippen cursed the Captain as he and his girlfriend were arrested for the murder of his wife.

The many newspaper clippings and black and white photographs show us the interior of the ship, first-class passengers enjoying the ship, and personal portraits of individuals and families, most often immigrants coming to Canada

Overall, it was an interesting read though I’m unsure whether students would gravitate to this book on their own.  The cover is dark and, in my opinion, not very enticing.  The organization of the book is occasionally problematic with details about passengers interspersed between sections of information. The side boxes which provide relevant information about the time period are occasionally disruptive to the flow of the book. However, if not a great cover-to-cover read, it will be excellent for research.


Jeff Barger said...

Wow, I totally didn't know about this event. This would be a companion to Titanic books. Our music teacher is Canadien and he teaches students about the Edmund Fitzgerald. I'll have to share this with him.

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