The White Star Line
The Britannic was owned by the White Star Line. The early history of White Star Line goes back to 1845 when John Pilkington and Henry Threfall Wilson began a partnership as Liverpool ship brokers. They went into emigrant trade to North America in 1846, and in 1849 bought the 879 tons Iowa and advertised as the White Star Line of Boston Packets for offering passages to Boston, New York, New Orleans and Charleston.But when gold was discovered in Australia in 1850, thousands of prospectors had to be transported there in a rush. Utilizing the advantage, the White Star Line put their ships to cater the sudden need. In 1852 the company’s name was changed to White Star Line Australian Packets. ‘In 1863’, writes Daniel Allen Butler, ‘Pilkington left the Company and his place was taken by James Chambers.
The Bad Days ...
Everything did not go the way as Wilson and Chambers had planned for. Even in spite of joining forces with two other companies, the Black Ball and the Eagle Lines, ‘financial problems plagued the new conglomerate.’ And when efforts were taken to enlarge the fleet, the newly formed company went into heavy debt. In consequence ‘the Company’s assets were taken over by the Royal Bank of Liverpool’ in 1866, and ‘when the bank failed in 1867, White Star was forced into bankruptcy, having an outstanding debt of £527,000. In January 1868 Thomas Henry Ismay, a thirty-one year old shipowner from Liverpool, bought the line for £1000.’
Thomas Ismay’s move had in background his timely guess that, ‘There were far greater profits to be made in the transatlantic passenger service, bringing emigrants from the Old World to the New and shuttling wealthier passengers back and forth between the two.’ Therefore, ‘When the White Star was offered for sale he moved quickly to acquire it, and renamed it to The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. He kept the house flag, a red swallowtail burgee sporting a single large white star, and the company continued to be known to the public as the White Star Line.’ Record says that ‘Almost immediately Isamy set about creating a niche for the White Star by drawing up plans for liners that would be fast, and by the standard of the day, extraordinarily luxurious.’ With such ambition in mind ‘Ismay ordered a pair of new 5000-ton ships from Harland and Wolf in 1874, the Britannic and the Germanic, both capable of reaching 19 knots and crossing the Atlantic in less than seven and half days.’ The White Star Line entered the North Atlantic passenger trade with their first service from Liverpool to New York on 2 March 1871. And their ships became instantly popular for offering high standard of passenger facilities, particularly to the steerage passengers.
The Britannic, as had been seen, was launched in 1874. Her initial name when in the making was Hellenic, which later got changed to Britannic. To gain a better service speed, Britannic had initially been fitted with an adjustable propeller shaft; but without achieving what was aimed at, the shaft was removed in 1876. Interestingly, at the moment of her arrival the Britannic became the largest ship afloat next to the Great Eastern. A narrative about her reads: ‘She had in all three decks, two of which were made of iron, covered with a planking of wood. The hull was divided into eight watertight compartments, or bulkheads, extending from the upper deck to the keel. An iron covering, called a ‘turtle back’ protected the vessel forward and aft. The main saloon was situated amidships together with the first-class state rooms. They were entered from the middle deck-house. The stairs leading down to them and to the promenade deck above was unusually wide and easy. Along the upper decks were iron houses for the officers and the engineers’ cabins, in addition to cooking galleys, icehouses, smoking-rooms, and other conveniences. From the deck to the main saloon she had a handsome and commodious stairway. The upper portion at the entrance formed a large room, like a lobby, which was furnished with sofas and chairs, and abutting on this compartment was the smoking-room, decorated and fitted in a luxurious style. The grand salon was situated on the main deck, extending across the ship with a diameter of 73 feet by 43 feet. The saloon was lighted from above by a large skylight, in addition to the ordinary port lights. Two hundred persons could be seated in the saloon which had five rows of tables. The saloon was heated by a large open fire-place as well as by hot air, and was furnished with a piano and library. Every portion of the vessel was thoroughly ventilated, and hot or cold air could be driven to every stateroom by means of a large fan worked by steam. …The sleeping cabins were situated immediately before and abaft the saloon, and accommodated two passengers each, though a few family rooms were also provided. The sleeping-rooms were fitted with every convenience and were well ventilated and lighted. Under the first-class cabins and communicating with them by an easy staircase, were bathrooms, barber shop, rooms for servants, and steward’s wine cellars and store-rooms, baggage compartments, mailroom, and an iron-room for specie. The promenade-deck for the first-class passengers was 168 feet long by 40 feet wide, and was on top of the middle house. It had in it a deck-house containing a light and spacious saloon for ladies.’
Adversities and End
Almost eight years before the Swami boarded the Britannic, the ship had an accident. A portion of the full page report in the New York Times on 23 May 1887 reads: ‘A collision between the great steamers the Britannic and the Celtic, both of the White Star Line, occurred about 350 miles east of Sandy Hook in a thick fog Thursday [May 19] afternoon about 5:25 o’clock. The Celtic was coming to New York and the Britannic was on the second day of her journey to Liverpool. The Celtic struck the Britannic three times on the side, cutting a big hole in her beneath the water line and inflicting other serious damage to both vessels. … Careful investigation shows that certainly 12 lives, perhaps more, were lost, and that 20 or more persons were injured ’ The report went on to include eye witness accounts and details about loss of human lives and injuries sustained. But whatever might have been their physical damages, both the ships could later resume their transatlantic voyages in July 1887.On her last transatlantic voyage the Britannic left Liverpool on 21 June 1899, and in nine days made it to New York on June 21. She no more ran on that route. Sometime during 1899 the ship was requisitioned as a Boer War transport. In November 1900 she got a white coat for a voyage to represent Great Britain at the inauguration of Australian Commonwealth. No further news is available about her till October 1902, when she was condemned following an examination at Belfast. As per last available information, the Britannic was sold as scrap in 1903 for a sum of £11,500 and towed to Hamburg.
With the Swami on board the Britannic reached New York on 6 December 1895. Two days later he wrote about his concluded voyage and plans of further work: ‘After 10 days of the most disastrous voyage I ever had I arrived in New York. I was so so [sic] sick for days together. After the clean and beautiful cities of Europe, New York appears very dirty and miserable. I am going to begin work next Monday.’ This time the Swami was well set to give a permanent shape to his Vedanta work in America by making New York as his centre. The New York Herald of 19 January 1896 writes: ‘The work of the Hindoo in this country consists at present in giving free lectures and holding free classes, initiating disciples and conducting a large correspondence …’
Vivekananda’s lectures in New York ended on 23 February 1896. On 3rd March he left for Detroit, where he remained for around two weeks, gave three public lectures and took twenty-two classes. His next move was to Boston, he remained there for two weeks during the second half of March. This time he gave seven public lectures in and around Boston, including one on invitation within the Harvard University before leaving Boston on March 30. His sojourn in Boston, just before his first visit to the US came to its end, had proved to be a remarkable feat in his entire career, leaving indelible impact on the contemporary American intellectual luminaries. From Boston he went to Chicago, before finally leaving from New York in the middle of April.
The Ellis Island Experience
In the beginning of his last lecture on 28 March1896 at the Twentieth Century Club of Boston, Vivekananda had said something which gave away his love for America: ‘I have lived three years amongst you. I have travelled over nearly the whole of this country, and as I am going back from here to my own country, it is meet that I should take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude in this Athens of America…. In a few words I would like to sum up all my experiences here. Here alone, in this climate, in this land of America, no question is asked about a man’s peculiarities. If a man is a man, that is all, and they take him into their hearts, and that is one thing I have never seen in any other country in the world.’
Seemingly this utterance had in background, apart from what he felt during his innumerable journeys within the country, his experience aboard the SS Britannic. While aboard the ship he witnessed the hapless European immigrants cramming the steerage class with no hope left except a dream that they gambled for while sailing to America leaving, literally, everything behind. What he said a couple of years later in a lecture to his countrymen deserves to be displayed in the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Museum: ‘I used to stand on the seashore at New York and look at the immigrants coming from different countries — crushed, downtrodden, hopeless, unable to look a man in the face, with a little bundle of clothes as all their possession, and these all in rags; if they saw a policeman they were afraid and tried to get to the other side of the footpath. And, mark you, in six months those very men were walking erect, well clothed, looking everybody in the face; and what made this wonderful difference? Say, this man comes from Armenia or somewhere else where he was crushed down beyond all recognition, where everybody told him he was a born slave and born to remain in a low state all his life, and where at the least move on his part he was trodden upon. There everything told him, as it were, “Slave! you are a slave, remain so. Hopeless you were born, hopeless you must remain.” Even the very air murmured round him, as it were, “There is no hope for you; hopeless and a slave you must remain”, while the strong man crushed the life out of him. And when he landed in the streets of New York, he found a gentleman, well-dressed, shaking him by the hand; it made no difference that the one was in rags and the other well-clad. He went a step further and saw a restaurant, that there were gentlemen dining at a table, and he was asked to take a seat at the corner of the same table. He went about and found a new life, that there was a place where he was a man among men. Perhaps he went to Washington, shook hands with the President of the United States, and perhaps there he saw men coming from distant villages, peasants, and ill-clad, all shaking hands with the President.’
Vivekananda Ends His First Visit to America
Immediately before he left America for England, Vivekananda wrote in a letter on 14 April 1896 from New York: ‘I sail on board the White Star Line Germanic tomorrow at 12 noon. ’
White Star Line Logo
Thomas Henry Ismay
During 1880s. or even may be when the Swami was aboard, Hugh Hamilton Perry was the Captain of SS Britannic.
Old Liverpool Dock
Crockeries of White star Line Ships
Second Class luggage sticker. 'Not Wanted' meant that the luggage during the passage would not be needed by the passenger.
White Star Line Crewmember Pin
(Courtesy the White Star Line Memorial
Books from ships libraries
(Courtesy the White Star Line Memorial
Cigarette Tin from White Star Line Ship
(Courtesy the White Star Line Memorial
Immigrants’ Landing Ellis Island, New York Port
Immigrants at Ellis Island in 1892